by David M. Roth
The most exquisite painting exhibit currently on view in San Francisco belongs to Marc Katano. His Abstract Expressionist paintings on paper have long been a Bay Area fixture, most notably at the much-missed Stephen Wirtz Gallery, where, between 1979 and 2014, the artist had 12 solo shows – 13 if you count the exhibition Wirtz organized in 2018 at Minnesota Street Project after the gallery closed.
The 11 works in Manner of Speaking, Katano’s current show at Jack Fischer, made between 2009 and 2021, reveal the same modus operandi he’s employed throughout most of his 48-year career. For some, that might indicate a lack of imagination or innovation. But for those who revere Katano’s unerring compositional instincts – seen in truncated calligraphic forms that push hard the against edges of the paper — it signals a continuity of vision that remains riveting and, at times, electrifying.
To the Well, to the Well (2011), a 78 x 78-inch painting that greets visitors at the gallery entrance, is a perfect example of the latter quality. It consists of two winged “vertebrae” set against a mottled brown background. A proponent of nonobjectivity, Katano maintains that such forms reference nothing but themselves, but that assertion is belied, in part, by how the two elements interact. Laid over what looks like stained concrete, the stark white shapes, drawn with a stick, appear frozen in space and time – like cave paintings. They proffer an existential vision as powerful as any rendered by Giacometti; only instead of emaciated figures cast in bronze, we get skittery lines that, despite their inert character, give off crackling energy. Similar shapes appear in a small-scale (30 x 20-inch) piece from 2010 called Women 3, so named for the strings of pendulous “breasts” that hang off wispy “skeletons” drawn in India ink. They read like fertility figures made by a surrealist, Klee or Miró, perhaps. Such references are about as close as Katano gets to painting anything you can put a name to; everything else in the show operates (relatively speaking) within the realm of pure abstraction.
Like Jackson Pollock, the artist executes his paintings on the floor, leaning (or kneeling) over thick sheets of Nepalese paper and applying watery acrylic pigment in a variety of ways, the most prevalent being bold, bodily gestures made with mop-like brushes that, depending on which picture you’re looking at, alternate between geometric slabs (a la Franz Kline) or serpentine calligraphic shapes. These the artist executes with quick, sweeping strokes laid down in layers, each separated by thin washes of varying
opacities that lend the paintings the feel of photographic prints made from multiple negatives. Of latter, the most compelling are Book Match and Swallow (both 2017). Consisting of intersecting heart shapes flecked with paint specs that signal the direction and velocity of the artist’s movements, they exemplify the original goal of nonobjective painting, which was to address the spirit by circumventing the intellect. That, of course, meant avoiding external referents, something few artists (including Katano) fully achieve. Rather, like ballet or figure skating, Katano’s paintings succeed by focusing attention on physical acts whose consummate grace and undeniable beauty demonstrate a hard-won mastery of his chosen form.
Born in Japan to an American serviceman and a Japanese mother, he attended English-speaking schools. At home, he learned to speak the native tongue without ever learning to read and write it. Thus, Kanji, the script that surrounded him during his youth, has remained an enduring – and compelling – mystery that Katano has spent a lifetime probing by making marks that portend to have meaning without ever conveying anything specific.
His current works, from 2018 to 2021, seem to be moving in a slightly different direction, placing greater emphasis on layering, liquidity and color, with oblique references to geological forms and processes. You can see them in Tundra and Braid (2021), watery blue pictures that allude to stalactites or stalagmites. What reproductions can’t communicate are the textures of these pictures, which, owing to the paper’s absorption of water, assume a topographical character, seen in wavy
surfaces and barnacle-like nooks and crannies that collect and hold paint in tiny puddles of supersaturated color. (The black “clouds” that float across the center of Braid, for example, exude a piercing intensity, akin to that achieved by multiple runs through a printing press.) Accordingly, the experience of looking at the show unfolds on two levels: in shapes that are the ostensible subjects and in the incidental but no less significant surface artifacts that arise from the artist’s process. Both command sustained attention.
# # #
Marc Katano: “A Manner of Speaking: A Selection of Paintings on Paper” @ Jack Fischer Gallery through May 28, 2022.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.