Surface Tension

Stephen Pentak’s new work reveals a poetic sensibility coupled with an authoritative restraint that is available only to those who have painted long and thought deeply about art, life, and their connectedness. While these paintings may appear effortless, they are in fact, the result of arduous investigation and passionate commitment.

Pentak melds so many interests in this work and does it so artfully that the uninitiated might mistake these works for landscape paintings. Pentak’s formative years as a painter were concerned with Systemic Abstraction, in which systems of interval and paint application determined image. These concerns remain, as tree, reed and rock measure off intervals of time and space. Pentak has taken lessons from abstraction, minimalism and conceptual art and has made them central to figurative painting. Pentak’s development as a painter is not unlike that of Giorgio Morandi. The young Morandi learned much from modern abstract painting and was an important figure of the Metaphysical painting movement, but in later years he returned to a more traditional though nonetheless visionary body of work, one that is revered for its intelligence, spirituality, and humility. Pentak too has quite deliberately returned to origins. He celebrates earth, sky, and water; proclaims the power of abstract shape, rhythm, and color interval; and revels in the elemental notion of paint as paint.

Most importantly, these paintings speak of that which exists below the surface. It is dark beneath the surface of the river, a rainbow trout rises, something flashes, a leaf floats down to the murky bottom. An entire universe exists below – an iridescent cloud of tiny eggs drifts by, a frog’s leg dangles from a turtle’s mouth. Below the surface of the painting there also exists a universe. Below the surface lives the soul of painting. Pentak knows that art must transcend materiality. As Albers has said “Art is not an object, it is an experience.” Concerned with the relationship between paint, form, and image, Pentak makes landscape paintings that are full of contemporary complexities – rich, deep, and beautiful – Zen koans with surface tension.

Surface Tension

August 2003

By Richard Roth

For Exhibition at Kathryn Markel Fine Arts, New York