Arts December 16, 2015

Unraveling the Signified from the Signifier

The Art of Gary Komarin

Painting, for Gary Komarin, is like playing a jazz riff or swinging a tennis racquet; it’s about being in a “relaxed state of attention.” He begins all his canvases on the floor of his studio in Roxbury, Connecticut, moving around them as Jackson Pollock did back in the early 1950s; a process that allows Komarin to “get lost in the painting, to lose sight of up and down, east and west, north and south.” This, he says, is a good thing; “too much intention can ruin a painting.” 

The improvisation and intuitive choice at the root of Komarin’s process explains the large colorful expanses, swaths of color and intrusions of shapes, at once strange and familiar, that fill his canvases. He works with buckets of creamy paint that he says is the consistency of “melted ice cream,” and paints with long-handled brushes that encourage a certain amount of freedom. The brush, he says, is “allowed to ‘play’ and create unexpected results on the canvas.” 

​Komarin grew up in New York City in the early 1950s, where he was exposed to art at a young age via frequent trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He had the good fortune of growing up knowing he wanted to be an artist and has pursued it all his life. After studying at Albany State University, he went on to get a Master of Fine Arts degree at Boston University where he studied with Philip Guston, the Abstract Expressionist painter. Guston famously once said, “The trouble with recognizable art is that it excludes too much.” Guston was an important influence on Komarin. To this day he is still inspired by Guston’s directive to “paint what you don’t know, rather than what you do know.”

While Komarin was clearly influenced by Abstract Expressionists like Guston, his work is formally considered “post-painterly abstraction,” a term coined by art critic Clement Greenberg in 1964, referring generally to painters who reacted to Abstract Expressionists by creating open compositions of washes and poured areas of color. Komarin is interesting in that where the Abstract Expressionists were really trying to reduce painting down to its essential elements—paint on canvas, without reference to the outside world—Komarin is letting references to the outside world come back into his work.

It is unclear, however, whether these references to the outside world come from the intention of the artist or from the viewer’s own unconscious, personal experiences, and even culture, and enable the viewer to pull meaning out of form. The small objects that fill the colorful expanse of Komarin’s canvases are simultaneously legible and not. It’s almost as if the artist seeks to blur the connection between form and concept and, as a result, the only way to extract meaning is through the active process of interpretation.

Komarin’s mastery is revealed in this ability to unravel the signified from the signifier and push the burden of meaning making onto the viewer. This is precisely what is so appealing about a Komarin painting—we are given the freedom to invest these forms with our own meaning. 

“Rue Madame in Red #40,” Mixed media on canvas, 73.5” x 61.25,” Gail Severn Gallery

In his series of paintings of cake, for example, we see large images of what appear to be a cake crudely outlined on paper or canvas or paper bags joined from the back. The colors of the cakes vary, as do the exact shapes. Komarin has said elsewhere that he “doesn’t know as each cake painting is begun exactly how it will land.” And yet upon viewing the series, not only is it hard to see anything other than a cake, but the images conjure all the things a cake might represent: ceremony, happiness, celebration, taste, smell, domesticity, childhood, and perhaps more. We inevitably relate these forms to familiar systems of convention, imbuing these abstract forms with cultural and social meaning.  

Similarly, with his “A Suite of Blue Sea” series, the large blue swath of color (or purple, depending on the painting) juxtaposed against a band of orange or tan, feel like water lapping against a shoreline, with shapes that may or may not be sailboats, figures (or are they lounge chairs?) that dot the sand. But on second glance, maybe this isn’t an ocean at all. When viewing Komarin’s paintings, the mind makes associative links between the forms, allowing scenes and stories to emerge that feel specific to our own life experience.

Even the artist himself is not immune. Komarin’s father was an architect and his mother a writer from Vienna. When speaking of his “Cake” paintings he explained, perhaps facetiously, that they are “a marriage of sorts between the domestic and the architectural. My mother was from Vienna and, while she wrote in her spare time, she also baked a lot of cakes.” Komarin says his influences function more on the unconscious than the conscious level, and they “can come from everywhere, they can come from nowhere.” This appears to be true for the viewer of a Komarin painting as well. 

It’s no surprise that Komarin’s work has received much acclaim. His simple yet beautiful paintings are relatable to people of all ages and places. His work has been exhibited throughout the Unites States, Europe and Asia. In 1996, Komarin had the honor of showing his work with the paintings of his mentor Philip Guston, as well as with the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Bill Traylor. And his work continues to be shown extensively today, including in the Wood River Valley at the Gail Severn Gallery. If you have the opportunity to check out his painting, keep in mind that what you are seeing may be influenced by where you grew up, what you ate for breakfast, the film you saw last night; or it may be influenced by nothing at all. 

See Komarin's work at the Gail Severn Gallery, showing December 18th, 2015 – February 5th, 2016. A Gallery Walk will be held on Tuesday, December 29th, 5-8pm.

This article appears in the Winter 2016 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.