Kati Vilim is a mid-career artist currently working in Newark. Originally from Hungary, she took an MFA degree at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts in Budapest, and a second MFA in New Jersey at Montclair State University. “Plexity,” the show of paintings now on view at Paul Robeson Galleries documents the results of a six-month stay in a studio provided by Express Newark, a program intended to serve local arts initiatives (it exists under the aegis of Rutgers University). Vilim was the first person to be awarded this residency, and she has made the most of it. The exhibition includes four small abstractions; eight larger works; one large-scale work; and one mixed-media mural, directly painted on the wall, which also includes a laser-cut design scored into a wooden plaque.
Vilim’s style encompasses a highly colorful, geometric abstraction, linked inevitably to constructivist art. Thus, it is inevitable that we see Vilim’s paintings in a historical light, but their accomplishment is such that it is also necessary to read the works as highly contemporary treatments of a great legacy. Vilim, living on the edge of New York City’s art world, has chosen to work within an idiom linked to an art culture evident in recent and current art, as well as a legacy distant and distinct from America. The exchange of influence occurred in both directions: Joseph Albers and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy came from Europe to teach their version of modernism to American students. On the other hand, Ellsworth Kelly spent time developing his esthetic in Paris; additionally, Al Held also studied in Paris for three years—a stay that occasioned his switch from realism to abstraction. So Vilim’s work draws on both European and American traditions.
Abstraction continues to be practiced, although it is no longer the dominant idiom in painting. Still, individuals like Vilim continue in their efforts to proceed in a language that reached its high point generations ago but is large enough to permit ongoing innovation. Vilim stands out as a highly gifted practitioner of the genre; her final paintings derive from small sketches that she then works out color schemes for on the computer (the artist prefers using primary colors: magenta cyan, yellow, blue, red, and green). Her art is mostly hard-edge abstraction, although there are one or two pieces that display softer, more ribbon-like outlines. It is not easy to place the show within a current painterly practice, but then nothing is! Given the eclecticism practiced today, contextualization within a particular school doesn’t work. We can only interpret Vilim’s art as an individualized undertaking, in which her affiliations are the expression of a singularized interest, rather than the presentation of a current, generally shared style. Vilim’s work embodies a lively revision of a vernacular with esteemed historical roots; her art discharges compositional energies that present a well-balanced design, as well as a structural metamorphosis and freedom that make the paintings feel contemporary and new. This is far from easy to do, given the accumulated weight of the art that preceded her.
In Definitely Unknown (2017), Vilim offers a lyrically intricate, colorful series of masses that overlap and also fit into each like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Here the forms are more organic than they are geometric; one has the sense that the colored masses, which border on geometry but do not closely follow straight lines, randomly collide and cohere. Light to dark blue areas create a cave-like structure at the top; beneath the implied opening is a broad band of yellow, orange, and red segments that cross the middle plane of the painting. Below the vibrantly hued central bar is an under space that consists of irregular parallelograms that include purple and mauve forms with straight edges describing offbeat geometric shapes. The overall impression of the painting is one of a busy conglomeration of forms crowding upon each other. There may be room to breathe, but the painting space is entirely filled.
In another piece, entitled Monday Morning Architecture (2017), a massive, rock-like form is built from a series of differently colored, sharply contrasting bands of blue, green, shades of magenta, gray, and black. The bands are unevenly shaped, with the weight of the single form causing it to nearly fall off to the right. The colors range across a broad spectrum, with the result that the differently hued forms that make up the composition become interesting in their own right, beyond their role in establishing a presentable gestalt.
I have saved the two most important pieces for last: a complex mural, entitled Probabilities in Dilemma Zones (2017), a complex painting completed directly on the wall, which also contains a wooden plaque etched by a laser-cutter; and a wall-size painting called As We Think about Something Else (2017). Probabilities offers, on the left, a dark-gray square painted directly on the wall; on the upper left of the squared form, we find a square wooden plaque, brown in color, with areas that have been cut by laser. It contains a bright, nearly white tract that looks like a floor plan, given its angular outline. Thin, matchstick pieces of wood embellish and divide the darker and lighter parts of the façade. Running along the bottom of the wall and then rising upward to the right and across the corner where the two walls meet is a gray band with an arrow-like shape moving obliquely upward, from the vertically aligned band of gray. Shadows are established by black paint placed right next to the gray forms.
If there is anything to criticize Vilim’s art about, it is her use of abstract language for titles; this doesn’t help the viewer much, and indeed sometimes obscures the artist’s intention. At the same time, abstract paintings tend to support abstract titles. Vilim herself has commented in conversation that the titles deliberately evade description, in the hope that her audience will be able to experience the paintings free of any bias. Additionally, As We Think about Something Else lends itself nicely to the insight that the physical space of the gallery shapes our impression of the works. In the gallery space, with its high ceilings and windowed wall opening onto a corridor through which students pass, Vilim’s art takes part in an active part of an educational environment. Hopefully, the students will stop to see the show.
Finally, the largest painting in the exhibition, called As We Think About Something Else (2017), we find a very big painting made up of interlocking, curved spars painted various colors: hot pink, a dull pink, royal blue, yellow—all against a gray-blue background. The individual components of the painting bend and curve around each other, although they have roughly flattened sides. The spars demonstrate flattened planes that follow the overall contour of each component. The interlocking elements remind us Vilim’s audience of a particularly arduous game of pick-up sticks, while the painting’s intricacies animate a composition that remains resolutely abstract—Vilim’s strength, of course. The artist is remarkably gifted in the sophistication of her art, but the work also begs the question whether painting of this sort is now more a footnote than a formal advance. One might easily answer with another question: Why can’t it be both? All good art looks back to what proceeded it—and ahead to where it might go. None of us in art escape historical awareness, nor can we avoid the task of making something new. Art never fully transcends its precedents, which are just as necessary for a creative outlook as an innovative point of view. Vilim manages to understand both requirements in this marvelous show.
Photographs provided by the gallery and the artist