Kati Vilim: There Are Colors in Her Painting

by Zi Lin

October 5, 2018

Left: Kati Vilim, Conditional Probability, 2015, oil on canvas, 100x100cm. Right: Kati Vilim, Temporary Case, 2017, oil on canvas, 100x100cm. Courtesy of the artist and Pen + Brush, NY.

In English, the word object can indicate a thing when it serves as a noun. It can also carry a suggestion of refusal when it acts as a verb. Because an object’s objectiveness is a barrier between you and the rest of the world, it also stands there as an obstruction. The paintings of the Hungarian-born, New York-based artist Kati Vilim both illustrate and challenge this idea. Vilim’s work in the exhibition “Process and Color: Renee Phillips & Kati Vilim,” on view over the summer at Pen + Brush in New York, presented a collection of non-obstructive objects within two of her sculpture-based installations. In the case of her paintings, she approached the subtle boundaries of objecthood by dissolving their sense of space, undoing the structures of shapes painted on canvases by removing or altering crucial lines that would have otherwise created depth.

Vilim’s installation Flexion (2018), for example, filled the gallery’s basement space. Three assemblages of colored, transparent Plexiglas hung before three digital projectors, which were suspended from the center of the ceiling. The ever-changing breeze from a central air conditioner and viewers’ movements in the room touched each assemblage, resulting in subtle, continuous motion. Light cast from each projector traveled through the space and penetrated the Plexiglas, producing a blended effect on the wall composed of the digital images from the projectors, a series of changing histograms, and the colored reflections of the assemblages. This penetration was meaningful in the sense that it turned an obstructive object into a reflective, image-making medium. The light sources transmitted the objects’ colors and contours, as well as an element of randomness caused by various factors in the exhibition space. The images, produced by digital algorithms, conspired to create the projections on the wall with the reflections of physical objects.

Kati Vilim, Flexion, 2018. Installation image. Courtesy of the author.

In addition to Flexion, seven of Vilim’s’s oil paintings—hard-edged geometric shapes minus the lines that would have marked their boundaries—lined the walls of the exhibition, including a thousand square feet gallery space with high walls of industrial scale. The absence of outlines in Vilim’s compositions leaves her canvases with chunks of color so precisely painted that one cannot detect even a trace of her brushstrokes or unevenness in her colors. Such features trick the eye into believing that these paintings are made by mechanical devices or printing techniques, but in reality, the artist simply uses a ruler and a pencil to draw directly onto her canvases, and the later, tape and brushes to paint. Her choice of oils allows Vilim to produce surfaces with both a sense of thickness and delicate details while also producing a texture that resists any form of reflection from the exhibiting environment. Vilim favors standard color combinations—red, green, and blue; cyan, magenta, and yellow—to create high contrasts. Her rigorous color selection produces a rich texture with a seemingly creamy surface and deep saturation, evoking personal responses from viewers. In Conditional Probability(2015), for example, Vilim’s red paint reminded me of the color I see behind my eyelids when I close my eyes and face the sun on a bright day. Anyone will associate warm and cold colors with emotion and temperature.  

In Conditional Probability (2015), an illusion of depth was simultaneously constructed by the cooperation between darker and lighter geometric shapes and deconstructed by the omission of lines that would have given the composition a sense of spatial depth. Specifically, the orange strips in the painting seem to indicate the depth of two major ‘N’ shapes, but the seamless connection between these two forms is so perfectly conjugated that it creates a logic wholly other than geometric. The logic formed by the same or similar colors counteracts the logic formed by shapes, which is the illusion of depth. The connecting line, in this context, becomes the most intriguing one because it is at the same time there and not there.

The complex structure of Vilim’s abstracted, geometric shapes locates her paintings somewhere in between the influences of Malevich and Kandinsky. Similar to Malevich, she believes there is deep, subconscious information within shapes, and therefore they can act as a medium of communication across cultural and linguistic boundaries. “My compositions are about abstraction itself, instead of referring to anything from the visible world. Abstraction is the basic subject of my work because whether we are aware of it or not, our brain is built to work with abstract systems and we live and function through abstract thinking,” she says.

Renee Phillips, Fragmented Reality, 2017 (detail). Courtesy of the author.

Process and Color” paired Vilim’s work with the paintings of Renee Phillips, which were distinctive for her rigorous control of dried and solidified pigment on canvas. Phillips’s works appeared, in contrast to Vilim’s, complicated, material-rich, and expressive. In Fragmented Reality (2017), for example, a mass of colloidal material seems to gradually flow down from a central position to freeze on the bottom edge of the canvas. A thin layer of pigment floats on top of this liquid form, creating an organic pattern in the moment of solidification. Though the work seems to contain the language of chance, texture, and materiality, it is, in fact, the result of a rigid scientific process. After repeatedly testing her methods under varied circumstances, Phillips knew exactly how her materials would behave under different conditions of humidity, temperature, and air flow.

There is a school of thought in American painting that emphasizes materiality, randomness, and a sense of visual flatness. The characteristics of Phillips’s work align her with this school. Vilim, on the other hand, in her choice of abstract language, tends toward a more European school of thought, accentuating the artist’s control over shapes or colors in the process of making. If overly expressive American abstract art is heading into an abyss of hyper-conceptualism and nihilism, then artists in a more European tradition such as Vilim are proposing alternatives, and a necessary escape from repetition.

“Process and Color” was on view July 19 through August 22 at Pen + Brush, 29 East 22nd Street, New York

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