Untangling Straight Lines

The Paintings of Paul Pagk

A repeated action is upon its own feet.
We who have spoken there speak here.
The world turns and walks away.
The timing of independent objects
Permits them to live and move and admit their space
And entity and various attitudes of life.
All things are cool in themselves and complete.
— Joan Murray

Paul Pagk, installation view, “Paul Pagk,” 2023, Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York. All images courtesy Miguel Abreu Gallery. Photo: Stephen Faught. © Paul Pagk.

What follows is an account of my thinking through Paul Pagk’s paintings, writing about this work in the way I experience it. That is, variously interrupted, discontinuous, full of truncation and recommencement. These works avoid language, unless you speak only in nouns. They resist simple description, or any simple description would prove misleading. Perhaps it is important to state that Pagk espouses the modernist idea that Paint(ing) is a language, to which I agree.

Andromeda, 2020, oil on linen, 152.4 × 203.2 centimetres.

It was my first morning in NY, I was on the D train heading into Pagk’s 2023 exhibition at Miguel Abreu Gallery in New York when a voice came over the subway loudspeaker: we will be evacuating this train. The train already has a certain energy going on: individual and small groups of people, many tethered to their devices, the myriad mechanics of the MTA, not to mention the teeming conflict of energies swirling around outside of the cars. Passengers were already on edge as the train was over 30 minutes late; we had been delayed at every stop since my getting aboard in Sunset Park. We had just made it over the plein-air section of the Manhattan Bridge when the announcement more than doubled our annoyance. This added a surge of various emotional energies to the mix, confusion and fear putting a new edge on the situation.

Once we started trudging single file, car to car to car, things took on a certain organized rhythm, only to be halted by another announcement. To make a long story short, the train oozed its way into the station. Without warning the doors opened as if nothing had happened, new passengers flooded in through the open doors, I exited through the throng, making my way to the bustle of Grand Street. All the energies trapped in this series of networked tubes and tunnels got me thinking about line as it appears in Pagk’s work. How the circumstances outside one line affect the energies inside the line, and then as the eye zooms out it acknowledges all the energies working upon/throughout the space of the whole network. The interconnection of energy within the space of the image.

Pasiphae, 2020, oil on linen, 165.1 × 162.6 centimetres.

MidNoon 2, 2021, oil on linen, 177.8 × 177.8 centimetres.

There is often a line entering from an edge into a Pagk painting, so I’ll begin there. He provides us a way into these seemingly simple labyrinths. Whether a childhood diversion or mythological labour, these structures invite us to solve their riddles. When we enter these paintings, we must do it as a less reckless Theseus, keeping calm and not tangling our own escape thread.

What do I see when I confront a Pagk painting? Stretched linen, oil primed, the linen may be either smooth or rough. The scale of the chassis is calibrated so that you notice the paint applied to the surface, not the format. Close to square, the larger ones still relate to human scale—Vitruvian man style, i.e., as tall as Paul with his arms outstretched. Paul is tall so let’s say 76 by 74 inches. The drawing of interrelated geometric structures upon the canvas in charcoal or graphite might be the starting point/initial catalyst. Then comes the colour. Dry pigments hand-ground with a mixture of linseed and walnut oil (although he admits to using the odd tube: “I’m not a purist”). I think that the slowness and patience involved in making the paint allow Pagk more time to ponder his decisions, increasing the feeling of deliberateness and self-assurance that the paintings have. The paint is applied primarily with brushes. You don’t see much evidence of trowelling or knife work in the finished paintings; if you do, it is a gesture of removal. There are usually three to five colours in a painting; one of these will most likely be the predominant ground colour. It could also be said that Pagk may turn three colours into five, depending on how he applies the colour. The surface is built up with hundreds (thousands?) of free-hand strokes but rarely to the point of impasto or chunkiness. The paint film can be either matte (but not thirsty-looking) and dry, or have a silky sheen or low lustre, very rarely glossy to the point of reflection—an example, 4 Triangles, 2019.

Untitled, 2022, ink and oil pastel on paper, 38.1 × 27.9 centimetres.

Untitled, 2022, ink and oil pastel on paper, 38.7 × 28.6 centimetres.

At the end of the ’90s Pagk allowed perspectival lines to deepen the painting space. In some images negative and positive space shift and the viewer is called upon to dispel the previous illusion, however momentarily. Once a certain aspect of the picture becomes clear, you have two choices—step backwards and engage with the whole image or continue along a line while still close up, most probably moving your body sideways or twisting your torso and craning your neck. Step up, step back, step aside to the right then left again, look up. Acknowledge which part of the painting sits by your lips and which by your belly. What is the quality of surface—does the colour modulate softly above your head or darken slightly below an imagined intuitively felt horizon? What is eye level, what do I need to stoop down to see? What do I pick up in my peripheral vision? You become in the space and of the space of both the painting and the architecture in which it is located. Nothing is hidden in Pagk’s paintings. If we are willing, we can witness the limitless complexity of the seemingly obvious. “The obvious is not of necessity the normal; fashion rules and deforms; the majority fall tamely into the contemporary shape, and thus attain, in the eyes of the true observer, only a higher power of insignificance; and the danger is lest, in seeking to draw the normal, a man should draw the null, and write the novel of society instead of the romance of man,” Robert Louis Stevenson, A Humble Remonstrance, 1884.

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