Matthew Penkala "Tower, Lobby, Floor"
By David Pagel
Two things happened in the 1960s that go a long way in explaining the peculiar magic of Matthew Penkala’s new paintings, which neither wax nostalgic for the supposed simplicity of the good old days nor pretend to completely break away from the past, in some sort of fabulous spasm of unfettered originality and inimitable creativity. Rather than traveling back in time, to recapture the tenor of times long gone by, or fantasizing about a present uncontaminated by the residual influence of yesteryear, Penkala’s laser-sharp pictures of nothing much more than light moving through space re-write history for their own purposes: to reveal that the present is less limited than it is often made out to be, and that a large part of its largely untapped potential resides in knowing what actually happened. From the perspective put forth by the L.A. artist’s accessible yet complex abstractions, what took place nearly fifty years ago is significantly different from how it is accounted for in textbooks, as well as what passes as common knowledge—otherwise known as business-as-usual.
What actually happened back in the 1960s was this: many of the most adventuresome painters, photographers, and filmmakers, not to mention sculptors, installation-, and performance artists, stripped their art back to the basics, eliminating everything inessential so as to get to the raw, naked truth—howsoever contingent, ephemeral, and uncertain an experience it might be. The truth they pursued was experiential: not something abstract, idealized, and above-it-all, but something fleeting, even fugitive—a physical, often sensual string of perceptions that were down-to-earth and quotidian, as imperfect as everyday life and no less extraordinary, or eye-opening, than an epiphany.
The two media most important to Penkala’s current work, abstract painting and avant-garde film, zeroed in, very similarly, on their respective materials, particularly the physical facts of a viewer’s actual experience of paint-on-canvas and a viewer’s actual experience of projected light. Neither experience was possible without time’s passage, although film emphasized temporality more emphatically, just because it took longer. Other similarities strongly linked the two media. Painters turned away from Expressionism, imagery, and language, favoring the impersonal effects of various pigments stained into tautly stretched surfaces that could not be read metaphorically or poetically and thus seemed to keep meaning at arm’s length. The same sort of explorations drove filmmakers, who turned away from drama, theatrics, and narrative all the better to dissect—or deconstruct—the mechanics of an otherwise predominantly illusionistic medium. They used film self-reflexively, to interrogate its own devices, including light, time, and repetition, as well as the celluloid on which it was printed, frame-by-frame, split-second-by-split-second. Exceptionally subtle variations mattered to both painters and filmmakers, who scrutinized the perceptual consequences of materials and substances—that is to say, the phenomenological attributes of the basic stuff that went into their works. Both short-circuited storytelling, slowing things down to a crawl so that patient viewers might notice otherwise incidental details and be attentive to our participation in the ways our eyes and minds made meaning out of various hints and divergent stimuli.
The fundamental similarities between abstract painting and non-narrative film quickly got lost in the evaluations that critics, commentators, and historians brought to them. In the intensely partisan accounts that dominated the day, the painters came to be known as Formalists: specialists who, in putting form before content, were happy to play out inconsequential, academic exercises that were divorced from the tumult of everyday life and closed off from the increasingly gripping contingencies of political reality. The filmmakers, in contrast, came to be known as Structuralists: specialists who, in putting structure ahead of storytelling, bypassed sentimentality to honestly and objectively address the bedrock on which their art was founded. Like many of the countercultural mavericks who played an important part in the radically democratic social movements of the time, they employed the level-headed materialism of their quasi-scientific inquiries to rebel against tradition, to revolt against all forms of authority, and to throw off all manner of unthinking, take-it-on-faith acceptance—otherwise known as business-as-usual.
Over the last half century, much has changed. And much has not. Entrenched in history, and ensconced in the consciousnesses of scholars, students, and initiates, Structuralism has made its way into the hallowed halls of institutional authority, its pedigree an essential part of its now revered power. Formalism, in contrast, is no longer thought of as the artistic kiss of death it was throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. But it still lacks the institutionally sanctioned authority of its counterpart. And it is still regularly dismissed, by people who should know better, for being conservative, uncool, and out-of-touch: an academic exercise in tasteful decoration, with little real impact on its surroundings or the people who populate them.
Penkala’s whip-smart paintings enter the picture by turning the assumptions on which business-as-usual is based upside-down, inside-out, and around on themselves—with such grace, beauty, and verve—that it is no longer possible to accept familiar propositions without wondering what you might be missing. To see even one of his crisp yet atmospheric paintings, it is imperative, once again, to accept nothing except what you can see for yourself, one-on-one, face-to-face, in real time and in real space—not because Penkala has any authority at all (young painters simply don’t), but because the proof is actually in the pudding: once you see one of his deliciously slippery pictures, which seem to illuminate the space between things, you know that Structuralist film and Formalist painting are two sides of the same coin; that aesthetic refinement and functional physics are in no way opposed; and that pleasure and knowledge, body and mind, clarity and mystery all work in concert, doing something exciting and unlike anything else out there. In the presence of Penkala’s subtly intriguing and unsentimentally ravishing paintings, business-as-usual goes out the window—and viewers find themselves in situations in which such familiar entities as light, space, color, and temperature are fascinating, even thrilling: at once ordinary and extraordinary, mundane and magnificent, down-to-earth and out-of-this world.
This is because Penkala invites viewers to mix and match categories, recombining attributes and elements that had, over the decades, diverged, drifted apart, and settled into opposition. Equally important, his glisteningly intangible paintings, which often have the presence of scientific mirages shot-through with squint-inducing glare, blindingly bright flashes of light, and other indescribable glitches in the visual field, compel us to ask ourselves what it might mean to think of abstract painting as Structuralist Abstraction and to conceive of avant-garde cinema as Formalist Film. In Penkala’s mesmerizing canvases, the analytic rigors of Structuralism and the connoisseurial delectations of Formalism commingle, sometimes fusing in mind-blowing hybrids of form and formlessness; at other times jostling against one another, like incompatible allies momentarily united on unlikely missions; and at still others slipping and sliding alongside their counterparts, with sufficient speed and friction to make sparks fly in the mind’s-eye.
The point of all this boundary-blurring interactivity is not simply to switch or reverse the positive and negative connotations that have encrusted each of the two media, and all the associations that go along with film and painting, but to get our minds to operate differently: more freely and fluidly. Both literally and metaphorically, Penkala’s abstract images strip away habits, expectations, and conventions in order to get individuals to see them, as well as the world they are a part of, with fresh eyes, as if for the first time, more clearly and truly and vividly than usual. Back in the ’60s, that was the goal of both abstract painting and experimental film. Penkala picks up on this impulse by inviting viewers to understand the past and the present, and therefore the future, differently: as something unfinished, ever changing, and up-for-grabs; open to interpretation and limited only by the imagination.
All of the physical incidents and visual activities that take place within the atmospheric depths, across the shimmering surfaces, and in front of Penkala’s elusively geometric paintings—somewhere between a viewer’s body and the wall on which the work hangs—bring more than a hint of drama back into the picture, along with an inescapable jolt of illusionism. Both of these elements had been purged from the historical precedents and aesthetic sources Penkala draws on, and their return in his work signals not only a rapprochement between the long-opposed media but an expansion of their operations, domain, format, and impact. Recent developments in digital technology are taken into account by Penkala’s sleek, up-to-the-minute canvases, which do not shy away from the undeniable fact that contemporary viewers see far more images on illuminated screens—hand-held, laptop, and desktop monitors, as well as flat-screen TVs—than we see in print; and far, far more than we see on canvas or panel, in homes, galleries, and museums.
Unlike many painters, who take the widespread technological developments that define the digital phase of the information age to mean that their art’s best chance for survival is to distance itself from everyday reality by carving out a protected place for itself, far apart from the image glut of modern life, Penkala dives right into the frenetic, head-spinning cacophony and wrestles, from its eye-popping visuals, dizzying pace, and dazzling theatrics, some quiet respite. His eccentrically serene paintings make time and space for a type of contemplative intrigue that is solitary and stimulating while being public and soothing. Impersonal yet intimate, and so hot they’re cool, his works engineer experiences that turn the past into something very different from what it has come to be thought of and, in so doing, transform the present into a moment filled with so much possibility that it seems infinite.
Penkala’s brand of business-as-usual is nothing like the regular grind. Finding fascinating complexities in the simplest of things, his gorgeously resolved yet elusively open-ended paintings redeem mundane experience like nobody’s business.