Painter of History

Painting has been around for a while, haven’t you heard? So it’s no surprise when a new show can set off a flurry of historical associations and still appear to be of its own time. Jon Pestoni’s exhibition of recent abstract paintings at Shane Campbell gallery does just that.

'Condiments' (2013). Oil on canvas 78h x 60w in (198.12h x 152.4w cm). Courtesy of Shane Campbell Gallery.

Pestoni’s paintings bare a superficial resemblance to work by Gehard Richter. The vertical and horizontal movement of nearly canvas-wide brushstrokes in Pestoni’s work is an unmistakable nod to the German painter. These elements destroy and create with their very presence, much in the way Richter’s marks do. In works such as Condiments (2013), wide swaths of paint bury colorful under-paintings, only to get worked over by additional ribbons of bright color. The layering of paint seems to engage more than one palette; orange and magenta peak out of the bottom of the composition, but are obscured by a haze of cool white that occupies the majority of the image. High chroma red, orange, and yellow, and black are applied over the milky white cloud, setting up a tension between 80s-style neons and less saturated hues.

'Sea Legs' (2013). Oil on canvas 78h x 60w in (198.12h x 152.4w cm). Courtesy of Shane Campbell Gallery.

Unlike Richter’s technique – in which intuitive decisions are obscured by the chance results of dragging giant metal scraping tools across the canvas – Pestoni’s approach is calculated to garner a stratified effect without so much deference to luck. Painted layers appear to be built one on top of the other, combining optically by virtue of their translucency, but without violating the integrity of the next closest stratum. Sea Legs (2013) exemplifies this strategy of layering without mixing, acting as a record of the myriad brushstrokes and paint applications used to construct the image.

Richter’s work is an obvious point of departure, which Pestoni uses to move both forward and backward through history. The paintings look as though they could have been produced by an undiscovered Modernist from the 1950s. Drippy paint, autographic gesture, and color field abstraction are slapped together into an over-determined Greenbergian pastiche. Plumbing (2012) engages all of these elements. A large swath of plum purple paint floats Rothko-style over thin gestural bands of lime green and peachy stains of dripping paint, creating a palimpsest of Modernist strategies.

'Plumbing,' 2012. Oil on canvas 45h x 31w in (114.3h x 78.74w cm). Courtesy of Shane Campbell Gallery.

On the other hand, Pestoni’s commitment to form as subject matter is so utterly complete that it achieves a kind of post-Post-Modern energy, the kind of thing painting vomited up after it ate its own tail several times over. The artificiality of colors that sneak out from behind the more dominant layers of paint – like the hint of electric blue in Sea Legs (2013) or the day-glow orange in Buried Target (2012) – suggest a contemporary type of image that seeks to deconstruct painting through more painting. A similar sensibility can be found in the work of Odili Donald Odita, Amy Sillman, Jaya Howey, Alex Hubbard, Keltie Ferris, and other artists trying to piece together whatever vitality abstract painting still has after nearly a century of triumph and failure and more triumph and failure. The longer it stays around, the more nonobjective painting will have to say to everything that came before. I love history, but it would also be nice to see something new.