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Back in 1952, the art critic Harold Rosenberg coined the term “Action Painting” to describe a sea change that was taking place in American art. In his eyes, the most exciting works being made were not polished products executed by artists according to carefully laid out plans, after all the kinks had been ironed out in preparatory sketches and preliminary studies. On the contrary, they were wildly improvised extravaganzas in which anything could happen, the less expected the better. This is how Rosenberg, in “The American Action Painters” put it: “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze, or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” The action—of making the painting—is what mattered. The result of that activity—dried paint on canvas—was only worthy of a viewer’s attention if it captured the urgency and uncertainty with which it was done, conveying, to viewers, the anxiety, engagement, and release that accompanied the struggle in the studio to do something that was not fake or false, but authentic and real. “Apocalyptic Wallpaper” was Rosenberg’s term for Action Painting gone bad: for works in which nothing was discovered because the artist was stuck in a rut, churning out formulaic renditions of his signature style as if the only goal were to cover the walls with tasteful products.
One of the oddest things about Rosenberg’s articulate defense of abstraction was that it marked the moment when artists began to turn away from painting, many going so far as to declare it dead and many more turning to assemblage, installation, performance, video, photography, and all manner of hybrids that eventually gave rise to the polyglot mélange of Postmodernism. Painting, particularly abstraction, was left out of the supposedly anything-goes free-for-all because the objects its actions produced seemed to get in the way of free-wheeling activity: too many viewers felt that that Action Painting had become nothing but Apocalyptic Wallpaper.
Chris Kahler’s new paintings bring these issues to mind because they play fast and loose—and very intelligently—with the opposition between action and apocalypse, as well as between painting and wallpaper, which have been in the background of discussions about art for more than a half-century. Born in 1970, Kahler belongs to a generation of artists for whom abstract painting was not intrinsically off-limits, the kiss-of-death for artists who wanted to be taken seriously by a critical establishment committed to avant-garde experimentation and opposed to anything that seemed conservative, middleclass, unadventuresome. Kahler stands out among this generation of rebellious, try-anything-once painters because his works make their way out of the impasse between authentic action in the studio and finished painting on the gallery wall, which drove many artists and viewers away from painting in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. His works do so by shifting the emphasis away from the artist, his biography, psychology, and inner sentiments, and toward the viewer: his past, present, and point of view, as well as beliefs, dreams, and desires; anxieties, conflicts, and concerns. At the same time that Kahler paints his self out of the picture to make room for viewers—and the unpredictable freedoms art sometimes makes possible—his abstract images of flowing and fusing pigments promiscuously mix terms that were once unlikely bedfellows.
Think of Kahler’s densely packed yet expansively open-ended canvases and panels as Time-Release Action Paintings. Rather than taking viewers back to a series of self-defining discoveries made in the studio, his painstaking, labor-intensive works demand that viewers re-make them in the moment, each and every time that any one of us lays eyes on them. Kahler’s uncanny abstractions are particularly difficult to remember, much less describe. Their superabundance of detail, profusion of unnamable shapes, complexity of organic forms, multilayered compositions, whiplash shifts in scale, and electrifying rainbows of phenomenally nuanced tertiary colors insure that the more one looks, the more one sees, and, moreover, that the path and the pace of one’s trip through any one of Kahler’s works is never the same twice. Surprise and discovery are built into his jam-packed constellations of visual incidents, which aim for amazement and deliver its spine-tingling, mind-blowing pleasures with stunning frequency.
Think, also, of Kahler’s supercharged abstractions as Apocalyptic Wallpaper In The Present Tense. His swirling maelstroms of oil and acrylic are not the lifeless byproducts or evidentiary records of events that have already happened in the studio and are, for all intents and purpose, over and done with. Instead, Kahler’s paintings put the highest priority on events that have not yet transpired and will not take place without the active participation of a viewer, constantly responding to these stimulating works by making seat-of-the-pants decisions based in intuition, hunches, and barely perceived inklings. More dedicated to potential and possibility than past actions and completed activities, Kahler’s present-oriented paintings invite and demand face-to-face engagement: scrutiny that is up close and personal and requires viewers to reveal as much about themselves as the works before us. They are apocalyptic in the sense that if you fail to lose yourself in them—only to find yourself somewhere else: renewed, refreshed, redeemed—you lose out on a valuable opportunity for growth, development, and discovery, at a deep, existential level. Where Rosenberg articulated the terms by which artists could fail (or succeed) in their works, Kahler does the same for viewers, transferring what is at stake in the studio to the ongoing present his invigorating art inhabits. The act of viewing his paintings is essentially creative, with all the risks and responsibilities that implies. Kahler’s paintings are far less egocentric than those that follow old-fashioned models of art-making. They are also more social, contextual, and flexible, not to mention unpredictable, open-ended and moving.
For centuries, artists have sought to stop time, to make works so powerful, momentous, and all-consuming that they seem to occupy their own reality—a world unto themselves, next to which reality pales in comparison. Kahler takes a different tact. His art is engineered on the principle of folding time back on itself, of overlaying various moments not so that the past and the present collapse into an impossibly fulfilling crescendo that dazzles and dominates, but so that the moment in which they are seen expands to include an inconceivable number of moments that preceded it and even more moments that follow. His technique bears this out. Kahler’s paintings are multilayered constellations that allow viewers to catch fleeting glimpses of layers otherwise covered over by opaque and semi-translucent coats of paint. By dripping, splashing, and pouring brush-loads and buckets of acrylic and oil atop one another in a single painting, Kahler sometimes builds upon previous layers that have dried or are still wet, and at others obliterates them completely, or transforms them significantly, not really starting fresh, but starting over, with all the emotional consequences such endeavors imply. His works do not stop time or freeze it in single, razor-thin instants—like photographs or movie stills—but open fleeting moments to various “befores” and “afters,” increasing the mystery by acknowledging and cultivating myriad possibilities.
Kahler’s impressive repertoire of painterly moves is all about making paintings that get viewers to experience them as paintings within paintings within paintings, and so on, and on, and on. Another way to put it is that his art allows us to experience singularities as multiplicities, transforming resolved compositions and autonomous wholes into open-ended journeys with no ends in sight. Some of his works are hallucinatory, while avoiding the narrative sentimentality typical of standard Surrealism. Imagine what the world would look like if the Ben-Day dots of Pop Art were on acid, everything melting and mutating, gorgeous and terrifying, depending on the tenor of the trip. Others embody a potent and corrosive beauty, a sublime combination of breakdown and growth, disintegration and accumulation, creation and destruction. Think software viruses gone organic, or the birth of techno-bacteria. This gives you an idea of the uncategorizable mutations that take place in Kahler’s wild hybrids and rogue mongrels. Sometimes it seems as if he paints pictures of a world of effervescence, in which solid substances dissolve into roiling gases, steamy atmospheres, and gravity-defying liquid clouds. In his work, it is almost impossible to distinguish between the microscopic and the cosmic, and everything is richer for the confusion. Many of Kahler’s paintings appear to give shape to digital ruins or to electronic impulses that have eroded, their crisp clarity fogged over and their streamlined swiftness encrusted with integrity-compromising impurities. As an artist, Kahler makes a virtue of glitches in the ordinarily seamless transmission of digital information, throwing a monkey wrench into the machinery that makes instantaneous communication possible while upsetting expectations of instantaneous gratification. Information overload never looked better, especially in the paintings that appear to be solar systems overcrowded with planets, their orbits impossible because of interplanetary traffic jams.
Despite the worlds-within-worlds-within-worlds density of Kahler’s physically resplendent paintings, they do not diminish according to the logic of infinite regression. Instead, his complex orchestrations of color, shape, and texture maintain focus, clarity, and crispness, their vivid components colliding and colluding with one another as they create jarring, collage-style disjunctions and animated compositional rhythms. The centrifugal and centripetal forces at work in Kahler’s images generate mental conundrums that enliven the mind as a viewer strives to put together the seemingly shattered fragments, to discover, amid the compelling chaos, an improvised cartography or ad hoc archaeology.
The secret ingredient that allows Kahler to shift his paintings into high gear, so that they seem to move at warp speed, is masking fluid, an acrylic medium he applies like paint and then, long after it has dried, peels off, like masking tape. Between the application of the masking fluid and its removal, Kahler applies one or more layers of paint, pouring, dripping, and blending freely. When he tears off the masking material, a previously buried layer of the painting is once again visible. The past, which had vanished, comes back. Kahler repeats this step many times in a single painting, creating a labyrinth in time and space. The colors he uses add to the uncertainty about which part preceded which: brighter tints leap forward, darker ones recede, no matter which step in the sequence they belong to. This further complicates the temporal relationship between and among layers, adding figure-ground ambiguity to the mix. This makes Kahler a stranger in his own painting, which allows him to get out of his comfort zone, to steer clear of facility and virtuosity and the formulaic cranking out of what Rosenberg would call Apocalyptic Wallpaper. Constantly responding to an ongoing accumulation of marks, drips, and spills, Kahler creates largely unanticipated and wonderfully improvised palimpsests that open onto endless possibilities.
Viewing his paintings takes time. It is an activity that cannot be done quickly. All of Kahler’s works have the dazzling, knock-your-socks-off impact of images unafraid to compete with everything out there, willing and able to hold their own in the image glut of modern life, whose capacity for swallowing up subtlety, nuance, and delicacy is well known and relentlessness. This is where Kahler’s art works its magic, bringing the deliciousness of details, the subtlety of sensuality, the mysteriousness of the unknown, and the beauty of ordinarily overlooked incidents to the forefront, where viewers are invited to savor them and to share them, over and over again, and never the same way twice.