The Buffalo News

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The Buffalo News
October 3, 2002
At the Nina Freudenheim Gallery,
Another Side of Ellen Kozak
Richard Huntington

Mark Twain said that Wagner’s music was a lot better than it sounds. It might also be that Ellen Kozak’s paintings are a lot better than they look.

At a glance, these small oil-on-panel paintings seem to be flirting dangerously with cheap effects. The colors tend toward the saccharine or gaudy. Pasty pinks are accented by flecks of dye-bright violet; blazing fields of yellow-green are set in optical torment by blobs of red-orange. Kozak’s paint-handling looks a little too much like a gooey impressionist; her highly varnished surfaces have an old-master-on-the-cheap sheen.

It isn’t even clear that the artist wants to do abstractions or that she prefers Monet-like impressions of light dancing on rippling water. A painting like “Yellow Shimmer” can look very abstract indeed — a kind of vibrating Clyfford Still — while “Shore and Shadow” can be a reasonable depiction of shadowy reflections jostling the shore of a body of water.

But as I said, these somewhat peculiar paintings are better than they look. As I read them, these are paintings purposely poised between two opposing poles of painting. The paintings are a kind of set-up to force the viewer to rethink the standard relationship of abstract and so-called nature painting. Kozak calls one painting “Both Ways.” That title may be the key: She wants her paintings to equally function as an observed moment in nature (the painter often works directly from her subject) and an artificial construction of color and paint.

The paintings back up this view. In “Both Ways” the loose depiction of light glimmering over rippling water splits the painting right down the middle. The split — helped out by thick strokes of paint that cling tenaciously to the surface of the board — makes it function like an abstraction. And yet there is enough verisimilitude to convey fully the sense of the natural action of light on water.

After you get over the shock of it, “Limbo,” a painting of a blazing re-pink sunset, somehow manages to be both gaudy and gorgeous at once. It conveys the feeling that nature is sometimes overwhelming in its beauty to the point where it is debilitating to the senses. The painting is there to counter this debilitation. Impossibly, it combines a fragile Hudson River School kind of light with the deep, frontal glow of a Rothko abstraction. (Interestingly, Kozak’s Hudson River studio happens to be across from the fabulous manor of Hudson River School great Frederick Church.)

Sometimes Kozak even attempts to physically merge this duality of abstraction and naturalism. The surface of “Green Glow,” for example, actually ripples three-dimensionally, like water-warped plywood. The warp follows along in rhythm with the painted imitation of rippling water. Painted in a blaring yellow-green, it is a wildly synthetic work that holds an emblem-like cluster of shapes that just manage to capture the essence of a sun or moon’s reflection as it tries to keep its wholeness on the surface of moving water.

This is an uneven show. Kozak sometimes gets caught up in a kin of flip-flop between natural effects of light and air and the hard reality of paint and unyielding panel (the last, she emphasizes by leaving the supporting wide wood exposed so that we can see where the painting globs up along the edges).

But you can’t show beauty at the same time you attempt to undermine it without expecting failures. Kozak — quite heroically, if I understand the work correctly — is attempting to demonstrate that what a painting looks like is not always in correspondence with what it “is.” She’s saying that the “look” of a painting can be pretty, lyrical, anemic — even ugly — and still reveal important second-level meanings of another kind altogether.

In the end, she is asking for deeper scrutiny of what makes a painting both and object and an illusion. Pleasing as they may seem to some, these are not paintings for casual looking.