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Bill Pangburn: “A River Apart”


Bill Pangburn is a Tribeca-based artist who keeps a studio at P.S. 122. A printmaker, painter, and installation artist, he has most recently produced a series of woodcuts (and two linocuts) that are now showing in an exhibition called “Reality Check,” occurring from September 9th through October 9th, 2021, in Dafni, Athens, Greece, a country he regularly travels to and exhibits in; four of the group will be on exhibit at the Academy of Arts and Letters in November in New York City. Pangburn has also shown extensively in Korea. Earlier, as a young student, he spent four years studying art in Germany, so he has explored quite a bit--his experience has added to the sophistication of the work. The prints themselves, in black and white, are an excellent combination of the New York School’s expressionist style and the influence of Asian imagery, often related to water (Pangburn has said in conversation that Japanese wood-block prints have made a great impression on him; additionally, his home is close to the Hudson River). The suite of imagery discussed in this article is striking for its vertical alignment and flowing line. Part of a series the artist calls “A River Apart,” the prints are notable for their closeness of imagery from one work to the next, as well as their disciplined complexity. They serve as a bridge between lyric abstraction and natural figuration. What first, and mainly, strikes the viewer is the works’ energy, which can be easily aligned with the force of a Pollock or a Kline. At the same time, though, one sees Pangburn transforming this nonobjective energy into something modified by his appreciation of water, as the title of the sequence indicates. And his experience of Asian art, its closeness to nature, plays an important role in the work.


“A River Apart” thus takes its impetus from a series of opposites: culture/nature, East/West, abstraction/figuration. The differences in style and outlook are not so much opposed as they are merged, resulting in a group of efforts that ratify our recognition that in the year 2021, art’s eclecticism and broad approach to genre are no longer experimental but part of the mainstream. If this is true, it means that Pangburn’s esthetic fits well into a globalized appreciation of culture. Certainly, artists from the Far East are taking advantage of Western art education--young Chinese students often come to America to study--and also our innovative thinking, but it is also true that Western interest in an Asian sensibility has been active for some time, especially in New York City, where internationalism prevails--think of the Asia Society and the Japan Society as leading sites for both traditional and contemporary art. The point is that Pangburn is not alone in his interests; we have only to recall the calligraphic imagery, writ large, which we find in the work of Kline. But Pangburn’s use of an Asian outlook is clear even as he pays close attention to his ab-ex predecessors.


Given the nature of the imagery, the way it is made, we also need to consider the medium of the woodblock print itself. The technique results in an indirect image, in which paper is pressed onto inked areas, whose contours are determined by Pangburn’s decision to cut away areas of the block. Does the process result in a distancing between its image and the more direct act of painting? At first glance, on looking at the body of work, it is hard to tell if we are regarding a print or a painting. But the effects of the printing are more evident as we move closer toward an individual work. As a printmaker’s medium, woodcuts are simple: the artist cuts into the wood to create the image and then applies a material that will be imprinted on paper by applying pressure onto the block. This gives the image its slight aura of distance, and occasions discussion not about brushwork but about the overall scheme of the image. As a result, even though textures can be easily brought into play--indeed, the very grain of the wood can at times be seen in the composition--we tend to value the overall impression, although it is also true that detail can be exquisitely developed. What is interesting in Pangburn’s output is that both detail and overall pattern are treated equally, so that it is not so easy to separate the part from the whole.


Having looked at the technical aspect of Pangburn’s medium, we need to understand the effects of his interest in other cultures. There is a new complexity in the handling of outside influence, in the sense that, today, any appropriation of any sort by someone outside the culture he or she is borrowing from will tend to be challenged. This is especially true if the person comes from a colonizing culture. But it is also the case that fine art in the West has made use of supposedly “exotic” culture for more than a century, evident in the early Tahitian travels of Gauguin of 1891, where, even so long ago, he found much more Westernization evident than he had hoped for. Still, distance from home maintains a certain romanticism, and Pangburn shares many artists’ hope that the visual concerns of cultures from far away might be brought into discussion in a respectful manner. There is also the odd but true existence of moments when styles from very different cultures seem to mimic each other. If, for example, we isolate small passages of Chinese landscape painting, even from a thousand years ago, we can see elements in it that suggest abstraction--even should it be part of a flourish meant to depict a mountain, rock, or tree. Contemporary Western artists can keep romanticism’s allure alive by borrowing (not copying) the stylistic effects of art history other than their own. The Zeitgeist may judge this action, but in a climate in which the Internet can provide any image from any time or place in moments, the prospect of negotiating a style like one’s background, but from far away or long ago, seems like an inevitable consequence of instantaneous information.


It seems, then, that the question lies as much with motive as with the choice of a style. The eclecticism we are seeing so much of is not without its ethical complexities--appropriation can be aggressive in nature, or respectfully attentive, if seen as something done out of admiration. The real key to a work’s integrity is its originality, and this is something Pangburn has in abundance. The melding of a style so well-established, so dominant, as New York City’s abstract expressionism with embellishments that owe a lot to an Asian esthetic is an ambitious task. We can agree that such a combination demonstrates genuine innovation and independence if the work is strong enough. In Pangburn’s case, the energies generated by his alliance attract the viewer by means of undulating lines and the sharp contrast between black and white. We must comment, too, that Pangburn’s expressiveness manages to present novelty in a manner that owes much to the past. Both abstraction and figuration have been heavily explored, to the point where a viewer might be wearied by the historical repetition in both. It is also true that, today, we expect novelty; every artist faces the task of making it new, an attribute that has been demanded of the visual since Ezra Pound’s dictum announced in 1934.


Looking at the works, we find Pangburn at ease with his medium, as well as being intellectually aware of what faces him in the early part of the 21st century. In “A Fifth Reflection” (all the works were made this year), the black mottles and splotches, always organic and irregular in their form, vie with the white of the paper the imagery has been printed on; as regularly happens with the artist’s prints, the white sections, whose form is determined by the black spots, are as important to the experience of the print as the black areas, and in form are equivalent to the black shapes. One sees a good amount of abstract-expressionist art history in “A Fifth Reflection”, as is evident throughout the body of work. The swirling pattern is evident in both the small detail and the large design. In “A Second Reflection”, much the same occurs, with larger black passages occurring in the upper half of the composition. The contrast between dark and light areas is central to our experience of the print, whose argument is intuitive rather than analytic. Yet it must be noted that the image coheres, structurally speaking. This work and the others are of an allover kind. The idea of a series of closely related visual efforts has become a commonplace in modernist and contemporary art, and Pangburn makes use of this tradition to bring about an experience larger than the sum of its parts.


In “A Third Reflection”, the black components are thinner, more line-like, while slanted lines give the impression of rain. When an abstract work suggests a figurative element, we find ourselves in a quandary: Is it possible to accurately describe any kind of realism to work as nonobjective as this?  The viewer may first wish to evade an affirmation, but he is hard put not to connect the abstraction to something actual in the world. One thinks of Mark Rothko’s series, in which the pure rectangles of color might also be landscapes or portions of the sky. In Pangburn’s case, we determine that his art is resolutely abstract but also, as the title of the series indicates, related truly to nature. His long stay in New York--the artist was born and raised in Texas--has enabled him to internalize the flowing lyricism of the abstract style here. But we cannot rule out the notion that these prints enact the motion of water, indeed represent the liquid flow of water. In “A Fourth Reflection”, the overall pattern on top of the layered imagery is quite like a work by Pollock, but there is a pattern of horizontal striations that give texture to the spaces underneath the organic black shapes. More than anything, in keeping with his medium’s capacities, Pangburn is an artist of texture, whose sense of detail makes it possible for his audience to enjoy both the particular and then, in a larger context, a greater sense of design. One’s overall impression of the work is its lyricism and high energy. Pangburn proceeds by means of contrarieties that eventually align within a unified whole.


There are three layers in the print titled “A Sixth Reflection”: the topmost stratum consists of skeins of black that curl and connect with each other; underneath is a group of separate masses, looking vaguely like continents, whose interiors are filled with small black marks. And then, beneath that layer, is the paper itself, occupied with small dark spots. The densities of darkness are not as strong in this piece, which attracts interest for the differing solidities of texture and how they are handled in relation to each other. Because abstraction usually refers to little more than itself, its overall design becomes important--this characteristic is something Pangburn does extremely well. His drive toward a poetic view, in which the high points of the earlier New York School are reprised in ways that reflect nature and Asian lyricism, feels necessary in a time when the computer has taken over our thinking and even our way of considering art. While Pangburn may risk repetition of visual effect in his decision to regularly work with a curving, irregular, mostly black abstraction, it is also true that he uses history to his advantage--not only is expressionist abstraction a large enough genre to support ongoing and future efforts, it is also a venerable, large-spirited tradition, one Pangburn can use without worrying if he is taking too much from the past. An expansive, affirmative person, Pangburn reminds us that art is not only a demonstration of formal decisions, it is also a reflection of personality, surely important to the style and content of “A River Apart.” Thus, he merges the abstract gesture with his love of nature, in a manner that incorporates art from the past while staying new.


Jonathan Goodman, September 8, 2021

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