David Korty first received critical attention in the aughts for portraits and landscapes indebted to artists including Alex Katz, David Hockney and the painters of the Bay Area figurative school. With each proceeding body of work, however, the elements in his compositions have become flatter and more compressed, as if he were illustrating principles of Cubism that Clement Greenberg outlined in his essay “Towards a Newer Laocoön” (1940). “Where the painter still tries to indicate real objects,” Greenberg wrote, “their shapes flatten and spread in the dense, two-dimensional atmosphere. A vibrating tension is set up as the objects struggle to maintain their volume against the tendency of the real picture plane to re-assert its material flatness and crush them to silhouettes.”
Korty’s weariness with figuration, like that of the historical avant-garde, arises from his distrust of the fictions inherent to the illusionistic painted surface, as he told me in a conversation about his exhibition of new works (all 2015) at Night gallery. The central pieces were seven abstract canvases that measure approximately 7 feet tall—slightly larger than the human frame—and feature sections of silkscreen, ink drawings and painted paper seamlessly collaged onto deep indigo backgrounds. Also on view were five paintings related to the canvases but made on panel in a black-and-white palette. Lastly, the show included two tables of ceramic vessels and sculptures, which the artist began in 2005. These pieces—hand-built constructions of geometric, vaguely architectural forms—served to reinforce the physical work that went into the paintings: the kind of labor that illusionistic works are, by definition, meant to conceal.
Korty has completely conceded to the flat surface in the new paintings, where his primary concerns are formal. The structural underpinning of the compositions originated with a mundane experience the artist had at a friend’s house: looking at some sheet music, he noticed a graphic motif of a wind-up marching tin soldier adorning the page. The paintings extrapolate upon this tin soldier. The ones made on panel, titled “Paper Frames,” render snippets of the soldier’s body amid textual fragments and areas of patterned designs. The canvas-based ones, meanwhile, distill the soldier to assorted straight and curved lines, using it as a visual device for formal experimentation; these latter works are titled “Figure Constructions,” the artist implying that the abstractions are somewhat representational.
Angular shapes resembling the letters “K” and “R”—suggesting the lockstep of the tin soldier—govern the composition of each Figure Construction. Other body parts appear here and there. Hands, variously represented in paper cutouts and ink, appear in a central band in Figure Construction #1. Two connected semi-ellipses in Figure Construction #3 imply breasts. A silkscreened image of Isabella Rosselini, whom Korty unabashedly and earnestly admires as a symbol of female strength and womanhood, provides the face for Figure Construction #8, while thickly impastoed brushstrokes in Figure Construction #2 delineate a visage not unlike a lucha libre mask. Pairs of circles that read as Mickey Mouse or teddy bear ears counter the severity and angularity of Korty’s Frankensteinian forms. The cultural references in the various works—whether purposeful or inadvertent—remind us of the limitations of formalism proper, particularly its refusal of symbolic and associative contexts. In the end, Korty’s new work, while largely abandoning illusion, is enriched by allusion.