Review: "Jon Pestoni: Some Years"

Jon Pestoni paintings at Transformer Station: A tasty modernist mash-up without gut emotion

JPE 12-022


Steve Litt - Cleveland Plain Dealer

CLEVELAND, Ohio – You can't tell time by looking at the lush, colorful, visually engaging paintings of Jon Pestoni, now on view at the Transformer Station galleryin Ohio City in an exhibition presented by the Cleveland Museum of Art.

By telling time, I don't mean figuring out the hour of the day, but identifying a particular cultural moment by how an artwork fits into a chronological and historical sequence.

Born in 1969 and based in Los Angeles, Pestoni makes paintings that incorporate numerous stylistic qualities of 20th century abstraction from Cubism and Abstract Expressionism to Color Field painting and beyond.

Pestoni's work is a mash-up of ideas derived from the works of Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Morris Louis, Mark Rothko and any number of modern artists that exists outside the decade-by-decade unfolding of modernism.

Atemporality

It's also an example of what Laura Hoptman, curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York defined as "atemporal" art in the catalogue of the 2015 survey exhibition she organized, which was called "The Forever Now."

In Hoptman's description, atemporal art embodies a "super-charged art historicism [that] is neither critical nor ironic; it's not even nostalgic. It is closest to a connoisseurship of boundless information, a picking and choosing of elements of the past to resolve a problem or a task at hand."

Organized by Beau Rutland, the Cleveland museum's assistant curator of contemporary art, the Transformer Station show includes 22 paintings made by the artist over the past five years.

Pestoni work wasn't part of the MOMA show, but it could have been. His work perfectly fits Hoptman's definition of atemporality.
'Unfinished' by design

In Pestoni's case, the problem or task at hand is that of his unwillingness to present his paintings as fully resolved or completely finished.
Pestoni's method involves layering improvisational abstract images or gestures one atop the other in opaque or semi-transparent veils of paint.
And then, right when it would seem logical to stop, Pestoni keeps going and adds top layers of contrasting colors and gestures that partially cancel out everything underneath.

The result is a richly layered experience in which completeness and cohesion are at once offered and withdrawn, leaving a viewer in a tantalizing limbo that requires deciphering and detective work as you peer down through the layers of paint.

Pestoni's paintings are in a sense examples of the idea of a palimpsest, a fancy literary term for texts that have been partially erased and written over, creating layers of meaning.

Exquisite palette

Pestoni brings to his task an exquisite sense of color and surface texture. He paints with broad brushes that leave eloquent filament trails of pigment through which underlying layers are visible. And at times, he texturizes his painting with kitty litter, a contemporary analogue to Picasso's use of sand to add grit to his Cubist paintings.

Pestoni's palette is packed with pleasing pastel harmonies that have a vegetal and at times astringent quality. His favorite hues are mauve, eggplant, avocado, salmon pinks, turquoises, and citron yellows. Black often appears as a foil against all this lightness, but Pestoni also veils his paintings in layers of soft white or dove gray.

Amid all these satisfactions, however, there is a sense of emotional distance in Pestoni's work. His art brims with professionalism and high technical mastery. But there's less of a sense that the visual games in which he engages are connected to some deep inner gut need.

There's no raw hunger, no deep emotion. His work encapsulates the outer forms of Cubism without the exhilarating sense of discovery, and it echoes the outer forms of Abstract Expressionist sturm and drang without the fire. The paintings seem to say, we're beyond all that.

CMA buys a good example

At their best, as in "Replica," a 2013 paintings purchased by the Cleveland Museum of Art, Pestoni's art expresses a view of art as a highly entertaining and intellectual form of play.

The image incorporates multiple layers in which wiggly and sharply defined biomorphic shapes in pink, white and green are "canceled out" by a top layer of thin, blue-violet smears laid on so quickly that the under-layers are still highly visible.

At their worst, however, as in "Cold Shower," an abstraction painted in layers of blue and turquoise, Pestoni's work is flabby and merely pretty.
Organized by Beau Rutland, the Cleveland museum's assistant curator of contemporary art, the Pestoni show is part of the museum's relatively recent embrace of new art. It is also said to be Pestoni's first big institutional survey show.

As such, the show suits the museum's desire to depart from its long record of conservatism and aloofness to 20th- and 21st century art. And it certainly is a feather in Pestoni's cap.

The question is whether such shows are part of a larger, comprehensive perspective the museum wishes to communicate about 21st century art. The museum is expressing energy and commitment to new art, but a bigger picture and a focused viewpoint have yet to emerge.

The situation is filled with a kind of suspense, almost like the paintings of Jon Pestoni.