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  • David Richard Gallery

Julian Stanczak "Lineal Pathways"

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Flow and Glow

Wind on a grass field, the flow of water around stones, tongues of fire, a fall of hair, the movement of light across fabric, currents of air, sonar graphs, EKGs, tectonic plates, the iridescence of cloud filigrees catching the last rays of the already set sun . . . . Julian Stanczak knows we are hardwired to draw analogies from the rhythms and color contrasts of the linear patterns in the wide ranging group of paintings he calls Lineal Pathways, which are the subject of his third exhibition at David Richard Gallery. However, when Stanczak talks about his paintings, he sticks closely to what’s happening on the canvas with color and composition. If likenesses in the world are invoked, they serve as analogies to what is happening in a painting, not the other way around. In this, Stanczak is resolutely an abstract painter, and has been since he studied with Josef Albers at Yale, where he received his MFA in 1956. He takes the term “abstract” literally, meaning to simplify and render essential. To acknowledge that his mode of abstraction is experiencing a renaissance (largely by virtue of his own exemplary work of over six decades) is also to acknowledge that much of that time was spent out of the limelight, after a brief time in its glare.

For Stanczak can be said to be the reluctant father of Op Art. “Optical Painting” was the name that the gallerist Martha Jackson gave to his first one-man exhibition at her gallery in 1964. The name stuck as “Op Art” (Donald Judd’s term) and began to be applied to a number of artists whose work with geometric and linear patterns combined with often intense plays of complementary color or high contrast to produce vibrant retinal sensations. A number of these artists were brought together for a show in 1965 at the Museum of Modern Art called “The Responsive Eye.” Besides Stanczak, the show included such notable artists as Albers, Ellsworth Kelly, Bridget Riley, Paul Feeley, Jesus Rafael Soto, Victor Vasarely, and Stanczak’s classmate at Yale, Richard Anuszkiewicz, among many others. Despite the wide range of work and the cult status achieved by the catalog among designers, the affective, illusionistic aspects of Op Art began to be mistrusted by many critics and artists even as it was quickly disseminated and absorbed into commercial fabric and design. It was “too much” for an artworld discourse and aesthetic climate that was beginning to be dominated by Minimalism: the triumphalist endgame of Modernism. Kelly and Stella thrived because they could assert Minimalism in their aesthetic genes, and neither was ever really concerned with the back and forth retinal sensationalism that so many of the rest played with. The ongoing inventiveness of the vibrant pattern and color complexities that Stanczak was generating was going to have to bide its time for a new audience to emerge for whom the Minimalist canon was no longer a restrictive orthodoxy.

But artworld strategies and ideological contrarianism have never been part of Stanczak’s agenda. Instead, he seems to have been gifted with an especially intense sensitivity to the sensations of light (and shadow) in the color of the world, and he was given the expressive and formal means to enact those sensitivities in paintings shorn of symbolic reference. It is painfully ironic that these gifts should emerge against the backdrop of a horrific childhood that reads like something out of The Painted Bird. Stanczak was born in Poland in 1928 and harbored childhood ambitions of becoming a cellist. His family was caught on the Soviet side of Poland when the country was overrun at the beginning of WWII, and they were shipped off to a Siberian labor camp, where Stanczak lost the use of his right arm after a beating. He was right handed and twelve years old. The family escaped and made their way south to Tehran, where he joined the Polish army-in-exile at the age of thirteen. He deserted and eventually wound up in a Polish refugee camp in Uganda. He retrained his left hand and amazingly began to challenge himself with recording the world around him. His early drawings and watercolors of the landscape around the camp are stunning in their precocity. Just as importantly, he found the experience of the natural world, and especially that of light and color, not merely consoling, but thrilling. In circumstances that might have driven a young man with artistic inclinations to despair, Stanczak found himself looking forward to the afternoon and early evening light above the western tree line of his camp with an almost devotional anticipation. After the war, he and his family immigrated from Uganda to London, and the family eventually moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where they had relatives. Stanczak has said that he was “reborn” in Cleveland at the age of 21. He received his Bachelors degree from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1954, and he then went on to Yale.

In Albers’ color exercises at Yale, Stanczak began to find the means to develop his own language of art, which was essentially abstract but through which he could approach and instigate color experiences that would excite him as much as an Ugandan sunset. He purposefully chose abstract art as rejection of description and narration, which might understandably have led to a drowning morbidity. His artistic reputation has since flourished as a painter of intricately hard-edged patterns, interweaving grids and diagonals, often involving dozens of colors, which produce the effects of evanescent forms: cubes dissolving into light, folding planes, and shifting beams of colored light framing diagonal shadows.

The Lineal Pathway paintings are something different. Stanczak regards these paintings as a respite from the strictures of geometry, but even in their apparent flow and simplicity they are rigorous and dazzling. The earliest painting in this exhibition is the “black and white” I Shall Not Be Interrupted (1998), though his use of flowing line patterns in paintings goes back at least to the early 1960s and appears in prescient ink drawings as early as 1954, before he started at Yale. One drawing from this year is actually titled Lineal Pathway. I put “black and white” in quotes because even though Stanczak has made a number of black and white paintings, the black and white in I Shall Not Be Interrupted and in Among the Trees (2011) are modulated by mixed-in color, which helps create the resonant “light” in the paintings.

The “lines” in these paintings are actually thin bands of the ground color that are masked off by flexible tape. The wider intervals, which appear to our eyes as the ground color because of the contrast between wide and thin areas, are painted on top. The lines are unbroken, but in a number of the paintings they appear to meet ruled obstacles, like bolsters under a cover, stones under water, or even kinks in a hose, which crease and bulge their vertical or horizontal undulating flow. Sometimes there are subtle complexities in the overall field, such as the horizontal rows of yellow circles painted on the white ground that, due to the value contrast in Trespass in the Dark, create a blue afterimage (2004). This effect is echoed in subtle blue circles hidden in the companion painting (not a diptych), Trespass in the Light (2004). A similar effect in more eye buzzing chromatics takes place in the diagonal shafts of green and blue seemingly revealed by the otherwise shimmying lines against the red field of Repetitive Sound (1999). Each of these primary wavelengths is being altered in its visual effect through optical mixing into a quite different reading of colors. Always in these paintings, Stanczak appears taken up with an ecstatic dissolving of form into vibrations of light.

While Trespass in the Dark and Trespass in the Light are companion paintings, other paintings are forthrightly diptychs, such as Reversal Pair Blue Plus Green (2006) and Reversal Pair Blue Plus Orange (2006). The titles here pull away from perhaps inadvertent references to flight and safety and seem, instead, to be pretty straightforward in giving us the figure/ground reversal of colors as the “event” in each pair. Because of proportional change, however, the “reversal” provides a totally different reading of the color complexion of each panel. Further, the creases in the vertical flow of the lines in each panel aren’t repeated or mirrored by those in the adjacent panel. Thus a kind of symmetrical logic is both established and broken, leaving matters of composition open ended in what might otherwise be a stifling symmetry.

Stanczak has no problem with hidden repetition in the four pairs that comprise the eight panels of the somewhat ironically titled Reflected (2005). Ironic, because while the colors reverse each other in each vertical pair, the composition is the same but rotated, so there isn’t any mirroring really taking place. Again, Stanczak enjoys raising expectations and then, not defeating them exactly, but leaving the viewer in a less resolved place of perception than he or she might have anticipated. This theme of unstable doubleness is picked up in Two Complimentaries (2009), wherein the creases in the line flow create two concentric parallelograms on intersecting diagonal axes. The color of the lines changes from blue to blue-green to green, thereby turning one red into what looks like three different reds and infusing the surrounding red color with an orange glow.

The three panel painting Sway in Warm Light (1998) consolidates its effects compared to the other multi-part paintings. The linear elements in each panel are of a single hue that shifts from panel to panel, from red to orange to yellow. The blue “field” also changes from panel to panel, keeping its value relationship with the warmer color constant. We seem to experience the left to right movement as a de-intensification of chromatic sensation from stronger complimentary contrast to a pale evanescence consistent with Stanczak’s ardor for dissolving forms in light. The bunching and spreading of the lines is as regular as flower petals or a cartoon schematic of fire, and a sensation of glaring light concentrates where the lines bunch together. Conversely, the illumination of violet over blue in Aquatic (2002) seems to be enveloping and even.

In dreams, space itself is infused with subjectivity and clings to us like some kind of connective tissue. Stanczak’s experience of light is like that, spilling over into synesthesia and reigned back into a still ecstatic order by the discipline of art. His childhood survival was a matter of luck and an unquenchable spirit nourished by what he could extract from the world as beautiful and stimulating. When I think about it, Stanczak’s development as an abstract painter seems like the most natural thing in the world.

Stephen Westfall

New York, NY

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