A painting is conceived with its initial mark. It can be a dot, squiggle, point, speck, mote — or maybe a laceration. “Sometimes it’s a slash, or a curving line near the corner.” That’s how Richard Polsky begins his paintings. Slowly, with the blessing of intuition, line and color gestate into a new entity. A painting in progress, he writes in an artist statement, is a “growing child.” Once matured, a Polsky painting wanders into the world bright and confident.
You can meet a strong selection of these progeny in Polsky’s eponymous solo exhibit at Jamestown Arts Center, on view through April 16. JAC proudly touts it as the artist’s first show in New England. One wonders what took so long to bring the octogenarian’s work to these woods. The New Yorker seemingly embraces a prewar approach to abstraction, one from the days of cubism and Paul Klee. Accordingly, Polsky’s works eschew titles and their suggestive powers for a bounty of visual stimuli. No explanations are needed for these neatly-yet-cheerfully composed images.
As is usual with JAC, the exhibit is split across two rooms, with several pieces beautifying the staircase area. The presentation is charming. From a distance, every nook and cranny is seemingly filled with squirming shapes and interlocking colors. These works-on-paper are unframed, allowing viewers to examine them without the dastardly interference of glass. Up close, one discovers the density of Polsky’s mark making, a contrast to deceptive simplicity one spies from afar. Many of these pieces are not too big, not too small, but just right, making them approachable for audiences who might normally ignore abstraction. The intense coloration of the work doesn’t hurt either.
Polsky’s tinier talents are on display in the smaller gallery, which holds several lil’ panoramic paintings, mostly measuring at an uncommon size of 4 by 20 inches. In these effective miniatures, Polsky employs palettes not seen in the larger pieces as he plays with pastel hues and, in one piece, a background of stippled black dots. Another piece from December 2009 is almost representational, with one ocular critter seemingly surveying a martian landscape of lavender, salmon red and a diluted cadmium yellow.
Polsky has been working on paper for more than 40 years. “Each sheet is almost too beautiful to deface,” he writes of the high-grade, handmade paper he uses, Dieu Donné. It’s an ideal surface for his aesthetic, as the bright white cotton pulp heartily soaks up color, yielding patches of deep, flat saturation. The line work, meanwhile, pledges little allegiance to linearity, quivering here and there to avoid a straight path. As “spirit and energy” guide his process, Polsky transfers his self from momentary feeling to page. The lines evidence this, appearing at once controlled and carefree.
Polsky’s project recalls a modernist sensibility. You can spot all the necessary ingredients: a commitment to individualistic expression, a primacy of formal elements, a striving for instinct in both making and understanding art. He imagines the paintings questioning him as he works: “Can you see who I’m trying to be?” Polsky coaxes an answer from the page with acrylic paints, pencils, crayons, or even a “sharpened chopstick dipped in India ink.”
He knows that art without personality is dead on arrival, writing, “When a picture is finished it leaves my life, just as most children are destined to leave the family nest. The work is on its own. Its life outside the studio begins.” These painted kin seem to be enjoying their newfound adulthood with a house party at JAC, filling the room with brilliant flashes of color, leaping from hue to hue like a pounding strobe light.
Outside, a more delicate celebration takes place as springtime’s first flowers ascend from the dirt. Polsky’s exhibit seems compatible with this season of renewal. My favorite piece here, created just this January, captures that feeling of seasonal rejuvenation. Little abstract creatures resembling microorganisms float through a void of white, totally separate from one another. A glowing yellow outlines each odd shape. Are they immobile, or frozen in a free fall, like flowers shaken from a bouquet? It’s an instant of excitement, brief and unrepeatable, rendered joyously by Polsky’s hand. A sense of anticipation washes over me, and I bask in the bliss of an unfinished moment.
Published in The Newport Mercury, March 23 – 29
Written by Alexander Castro