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Marc Katano @ Stephen Wirtz

Angel's Share, 2014, ink and acrylic on paper, 62 x 43"

Marc Katano’s large-scale paintings on paper fuse bodily gestures with calligraphic mark making.  Bold and resolutely physical, his loose, triangular forms, executed with fast, decisive strokes, run up to and sometimes off the edges, bringing to mind gnarled limbs pushing out against enclosures.  

That these monochromatic works feel expansive rather than claustrophobic has to do with Katano’s media and method.  He applies ink and paint to handmade Nepalese paper, which, when wet, “is as delicate as tissue” the artist informs.  Dry, it’s “as tough as elephant hide,” with a topography to match.  Valleys hold ink puddles that resemble charcoal deposits, while flatter areas, where the ink and paint thin, show fluid stains of varying opacity.  The character of the marks, as a result, ranges from muscular to ethereal, a quality that, in part, comes from each broad stroke being accompanied by a complementary shadow form, achieved with thin washes of acrylic paint that situate the shadow shapes at indeterminate depths.  The effect is like a faint echo: of notes being sounded from inside a cipher.
Calligraphic improvisation of this sort has a history in abstract painting.  Pollock, de Kooning, Franz Kline and Pierre Soulages exercised it in various ways, as did Brice Marden whose streaming lines are, perhaps, the closest contemporary analog to what Katano does.  What gives Katano’s work authority and authenticity is his personal history. 
Fortunate Son, 2014, acrylic on Nepalese paper

The son of an American serviceman and a Japanese mother, Katano, 61, spent his early years in Japan, schooled in English but unable to read or write Japanese, the language spoken by his mother at home. When his family moved to the U.S., Katano’s most persistent memories were of street signs written in Kanji, the Chinese characters used in Japanese writing.  Those memories set him on a 40-year quest to express the unknowable.  It’s the same impulse that gave rise to “nonobjective” painting at its inception.  

The question begged is whether Katano’s work spills beyond its historical references to take us someplace new.  It  doesn’t.  Yet the place it does occupy is so rarified it hardly seems to matter.  Beauty, when it sidesteps the pitfalls of decoration and nostalgia, can only be applauded, especially when it doesn’t smack of a specific artist or style.  Wresting it from simple compositions, as Katano does so masterfully, is one of the toughest things a painter can attempt.  In the minds of most viewers, his virtuosity in that regard will probably free him from judgments in which rupturing or revising the past is seen as a mandate. 
Marc Katano: “Angels’ Share” @ Stephen Wirtz Gallery through July 17, 2014. 

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