Ulf Puder and Liliane Tomasko are putting on an excellent two-person show at Marc Straus Gallery, located on the Lower East Side, on the edge of Chinatown. Each has a sizable room, with Puder’s work occupying the ground floor and Tomasko’s paintings placed in the gallery above. Puder is a German artist who is part of the New Leipzig School, which has produced some of the dominant German painters of recent decades, including the celebrated Neo Rauch. He works with architectural structures, seemingly abandoned and occupying a space between abstraction and figuration. The Swiss-born Tomasko, educated in London, now resides in the New York City area, where her practice is based on expressive abstraction, linked to the New York School. Puder is precise in his forms; his buildings are sharply rendered despite their formal disarray, usually painted against a dark, often gray background. In strong contrast, Tomasko offers lyric, sensual compositions marked by stripes that bend and curve, usually painted on top of amorphous, translucent passages of color. Placed together in this show, the two artists do seem very different, stylistically speaking, but they both share a deep feeling for painting, its ability to sustain intellectual and emotional interest in both nonobjective and representational form.
Puder is a painter of both boldness and nuance. He balances a sharp eye for the structures of buildings with an equally sharp insight for their ability to suggest abstract form. The architectural shapes never fully lose their appearance as buildings, but they also present as nonpictorial shapes that can be experienced as geometric abstraction free. As a result, the paintings occupy a middle ground, reminiscent in some ways of the geometrical aesthetic of the Bauhaus even as their inhuman presence—no people are found in the paintings—can also be seen as a judgment of a post-apocalyptic landscape. In Romantische Landschaft (2016), we see two horizontal structures framed by wood, angled precipitously, to the point where they are hard to read as buildings. Next to them, in shadows on the lower left, is a house with a sharply angled roof. A couple of trees stand behind it, with a gray-green background indicating a melancholic mist. The feeling is romantic but desperate; it is hard to construct an idyllic view at this point in time. Kleines Rosa (2016) is made up of a grayish-rose background that takes over at least two-thirds of the painting; the lower quadrant features low-lying buildings nearly unrecognizable as such, with wet gray cement fronting them. Here, as elsewhere, the structures are both formal and thematic—they seem to refer to a time when human existence is questionable, or morally ambiguous.
A very different kind of artist, Tomasko paints elegant abstraction whose vehicle is emotion, primarily joy. The work establishes a congenial link with the history of the New York School, whose presence persists in gifted contemporary artists determined to add to the tradition. Tomasko’s lyricism emerges as expressive exuberance; colors border on the pastel, with diaphanous passages contrasting with well-defined stripes. Sometimes, a reference to the real world is made: in Violent Violets Hanging from Knotted Black (2016), Tomasko paints a violet shape distantly related to the flower, while a skein of black supports it. Despite the title of the painting, the work feels more abstract than figurative—yet one remembers that nature is a forceful originator of nonobjective art. Twilight (2016) is a patchwork of green, orange, red, and blue. The muted intensity of light the hues convey do in fact suggest the time just before the sun goes down; one senses a correspondence with nature that has been quietly initiated. Presence in painting is a difficult concept to describe, but Tomasko clearly is in control of this work’s ambient feeling. Her intuitions are constantly correct.
As exemplars of contemporary painting, Puder and Tomasko deliver two very different views of what art can be. Pluralism has existed since the 1970s, and there has been no school of painting that has come to be dominant at this point in time. But individuals of real significance contribute to an atmosphere that is now deeply in need of creative energy. Puder’s contribution is to find a place where formal sensibility is twofold, being related both to abstraction and figuration—but is also, by quiet implication, a view of a damaged, forsaken world. He haunts his audience through description alone. Tomasko relays the past into something evocative and new. Her admiration for beauty is evident at a time when many artists reject the idea, making her work a brave vision of what is now possible for poetry in painting. In her romantic demonstration of abstract art, Tomasko asserts that an expressionist outlook can remain alive, within a continuing tradition. It feels as if painting is accounted dead or moribund every few years or so, but the two artists in this show demonstrate otherwise, through their tenacity and spirit. Their audience must be relieved to see painting both made new and sustained in the face of casual interest.
Writing by Jonathan Goodman
Photographs provided by the gallery