Emilio Perez’s paintings have long been awash in allusions to water. In his recent exhibition “Rivers Always Meet the Sea,” the artist (and devoted surfer) demonstrated that this essential liquid continues to offer him esthetic sustenance.

The 15 artworks on display (all 2011 and ranging from 20 by 16 to 72 by 84 inches) comprise dense, undulating compositions of colorful loops, swirls and hatchings, flowing into and out of one another like rushing currents. To fashion his intricate abstractions, Perez employs an unorthodox process. After slathering wooden panels with a single, sometimes mottled color of enamel paint, he coats the glossy surfaces in white latex, the effect akin to old-fashioned gesso. To these virgin grounds, he then applies acrylic paint in a highly gestural manner. While the layers of paint are still pliable, he carefully cuts through them with an X-ACTO knife, peeling away small sections to reveal a panoply of both serpentine and blocky forms. As Perez states in the accompanying catalogue: “I have always been attracted to painting and drawing—the act of painting for its physical quality and expressiveness and drawing for its immediacy. I wanted to combine the two.” With their hard-edged contours countering the painterly strata, the resulting images demand close visual scrutiny and offer a graphic dynamism reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein’s “Brushstroke” canvases. While Perez previously relied on stark contrasts of black and white, these new works offer a rich palette of vibrant burgundies, aquamarines, greens, violets, vermilions and earth tones.

The outsize horizontal formats of certain pieces, including The Way It Goes and Singing Through the Trees, suggest landscapes or seascapes. In creating them, Perez was inspired by Kodak Coloramas, the 18-by-60-foot backlit color transparencies that bedecked the eastern balcony of New York City’s Grand Central Terminal from 1950 to 1990. These advertisements, touted as the world’s largest photographs, featured happy-go-lucky families wielding Kodak cameras and snapping pictures of iconic American panoramas, like Yosemite and Monument Valley, or the Manhattan skyline. More than the subject matter, the mastery of the mechanical process necessary to produce such compelling images captivated Perez. “I’m always thinking about the ways composition is constructed,” he declares in the catalogue.

Whereas Coloramas were staged and unequivocally static, Perez’s paintings are torrents of energy and motion. These whirling eddies of abstract forms echo the Romantic tradition of the sublime, as exemplified by artists like Caspar David Friedrich and J.M.W. Turner.

Photo: Emilio Perez: Singing Through the Trees, 2011, enamel and latex on wood panel, 72 1⁄8 by 84 inches;
at Galerie Lelong.