The paintings of David Ostrowski present us with a world almost entirely drained of colour, figuration and matter – and yet they are utterly beguiling. There is something about the stark minimalism and ambiguity of these paintings which we would rather deny but simply cannot resist.
The press release for this exhibition takes the form of a question and answer session between Ostrowski and Harmony Korine. Although seeming to provide precious little information about the work, it sets the scene perfectly: Ostrowski responds to apparently banal questions with confident, witty, obscure and sometimes haunting answers, presenting himself as an enigmatic, self-deprecating failure of a painter. When asked how he got into painting, Ostwoski answers, ‘My nana always played a game with me – “who can paint better”. I always won because my nana loved me so much. When I got older, I just kept playing the game, but my opponents didn’t love me any more’. Ostrowski’s is an art of striving and constantly brushing up against the immanent possibility of failure.
The amazing and captivating thing about Ostrowski’s painting is the dazzling illusion of simplicity. A piece like F (A thing is a thing in a whole which it’s not) (2013) is a plain, brilliant white surface with a blue border all around the edge; there is almost nothing there but a void, a frame where a painting either used to be or might one day emerge. It looks as if the painting was made in an instantaneous flash of apathy, with little nor no effort, but that appearance conceals a complex process.
Ostrowski plays down the time he spends in the studio, saying he mostly just listens to music and reads, but this belies the crux of his creative process: these paintings spring forth from long periods of contemplation, suddenly – although carefully – realised in moments of inspiration. They are driven, in part, by the emotional quality of the music he listens to, and also by a skilful hand which steadily applies acrylic and lacquer to the canvas in such a way to make the marks appear gestural and immediate. Consequently, F (Gee Vaucher) (2013), for example, looks effortless, minimal, cool, but conceals a profound striving.
The complexity of these paintings is also found in the way that Ostrowski exploits errors as opportunities, taking the smallest out-of-place mark on the canvas and considering how it may be added to or subtracted from in order to undermine the very notion of composition. The works are replete with these complexities, which gradually emerge as you look more closely, since you also begin to see the possibilities of more or less that Ostrowski has created, accepted and denied. There could always be more or less – in terms of colour and composition – on these canvases, and it is that tussle of the creative process on which Ostrowski is playing. The exhibition title, Yes or Let’s Say No, sets the scene for this uncertainty, which is majestically weaved in to the fabric of these seemingly bold gestures of anti-painting.
(All images: David Ostrowski,YES OR LET‘S SAY NO, 2013, Installation views; Courtesy of the artist and Simon Lee Gallery.)