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Emil Lukas @ Hosfelt

Cold Slope, 2014, painting and ink on canvas over wood panel, 52 x 64x 1 3/4"
As Emil Lukas tells it, a significant portion of his current show began with the swatting of a fly – a pregnant fly.  It landed in a puddle of paint.  When the artist woke the next morning, he discovered that larvae had hatched, creating a drawing. Out of that incident comes one of the more memorable examples of an artist collaborating with nature.  Evidence is on view through May 9 in Ringing of Distant Events, a mesmerizing exhibition showcasing several processes the Pennsylvania artist has used to create natural patterns independent of those arising from the human hand. 
Rather than ask what something might look like, Lukas asks what might happen?  What might happen if paint is allowed to dry in layered puddles?  What might happen when hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of colored threads are stretched across a rectangular frame?  Or, what might happen when an artist intervenes in the life cycle of a fly?  
The Ring of Distant Events, 2015, thread over painted wood frame with nails, 64 x52x 3 1/2"

In the latter, Lukas doesn’t just implant larva on painted canvases and allow the pupae to slither into the wondrous linear entanglements we see here.  He also, to some extent, guides the process.  Heat, light, movement, moisture and color density, he discovered, affect how the pupa behave, and with that knowledge he physically intervenes, adjusting the variables to gently guide the way nature takes its course.  Yet to the casual observer, the linear permutations of two-large scale paintings and nine mixed media drawings on view appear to be products of pure chance.  Over time, the insects’ erratic wriggling to maturity creates webs and thickets of roiling line suggestive of branches, rivers, and vascular systems. 

Cold Slope and Going On, which measure about 4 x 5 feet, are ethereal spectacles of nervous jottings and uncoiling gestures.  Suspended in a sea of atmospheric blue, they encapsulate biological time, forming a petrified map of flies birthing.  The more arresting aspect of these works, however, is what happens when you view them from the side.  They become three-dimensional; the lines appear to jut out from the canvas like gnarled limbs of an old oak tree, an optical effect I am at a loss to explain.
In seven small (13 x 10”) mixed-media works, Lukas allows the emerging insects to make their
marks with ink.  Their trails are isolated and not nearly as comingled, yet their impact somehow seems magnified, easily holding their own against those seen in the large paintings. 
The Puddle and the Bubble Wrap paintings reveal other aspects of Lukas’ fascination with transformation and relinquishing control.  In the first, Lukas uses thread to pull portions of the canvas back toward the stretcher bars – a fact that casual viewers wouldn’t glean unless told or shown.  This creates concave indentations that allow paint to collect, puddle and dry in hypnotic, spinning ovals, a painterly simulation of geologic sedimentation.  Between Stars, a constellation of six such ovals rotating in a splattered, celestial haze, evokes Lee Bontecou’s ominous orbs.  In the Bubble Wrap paintings, Tri condition and Interval, Lukas uses the plastic

Between Stars, 2015, paint on canvas with wood and thread, 64 x 52 x 2 1/2"

to mold plaster, which, when affixed to wood panels and seen at a distance, appear as honeycombs of radiant, pointillist color. Up close we see them for what they are: tiny cups of dried pigment. This equal and dispassionate focus on all parts of the picture plane emphasizes the repeated, mechanical nature of their construction, a programmatic, arduous aspect offset by the dappled, pixelated sheen coming off the surfaces. 

The two large-scale thread works, The Ring of Distant Events and Temperate Hum, represent the pinnacle of Lukas’ devotion to material metamorphosis. In these he tautly stretches threads across painted wood frames, transforming the simple into the sublime.  Monuments to painstaking involvement and belief, they yield transcendent veils of light, doing with thread what Rothko did with paint; they open up a void.  Hiding nothing, they are resplendent objects.  
Here, it’s worth noting that object, from the Latin objectum, means something thrown down, i.e. an obstacle that would force you to change course to get where you’re going.  Lukas upends that proposition.  Instead of altering his path, he treats the objects in his path — his materials — as if they were vehicles.  He climbs aboard and asks, “Where to?” 
Emil Lukas: Ringing of Distant Events @ Hosfelt Gallery through May 9, 2015.
About the Author:
Julia Couzens is a Sacramento-based artist and writer whose work has been widely shown, most recently at the di Rosa Preserve.  Her drawings and hybrid objects are in museum and public collections throughout the U.S.  These include the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts; Berkeley Art Museum; Oakland Museum; Weatherspoon Art Gallery, University of North Carolina; and Yale University.  She lives and works on Merritt Island in the Sacramento River delta.

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