Drummer Elvin Jones is an American treasure. The Blue Note regular and John Coltrane titan remains one of the few living holdovers from jazz's tumultuous 1960s. He's not only vital for his playing, which delicately mixes modernism's smoothness with innovative panache, but also for being one of the voices that can recount days gone by. When NPR's Terry Gross interviewed him for "Fresh Air" in January 1998, he recounted a matinee gig he played with Coltrane's immortal quartet in the early 1960s. A few measures into the opening number, a valve on Coltrane's sax busted, and he began emitting a skronk more obstreperous even than the sheets of sound he was exploring at the time. Jones remembered that he expected Coltrane to finish the chorus and reach for a replacement. Didn't happen. Coltrane started fiddling around, finding different scales and textures that this broken instrument could cascade and kept going. And going. And going. Two hours later, this matinee--and its lone number--was over.
Making so-called mistakes work has always been part of the creative process. So has intentionally doing things in a traditionally improper manner. New ideas come from asking different sets of questions of the available technology and status quo. Reinventing the wheel may seem like a redundant endeavor, but it's the very ground on which American culture is sown.
Enter John Pomara. In the early 1990s, the Dallas-based painter and University of Texas at Dallas assistant professor started playing with paint drips, gloopy splotches and tiny spills that landed on the newspaper covering his studio floor, which he pulled over a photocopy machine. This produced smudges of actions that look like poorly focused photographs, but in lesser hands, they would have remained only dalliances.
For the latest installment of the Dallas Museum of Art's commendable Concentrations series, Pomara displays what a restless mind can do when it finds something it likes. The 15 large works on view are Pomara's most recent stage in an evolution that started with those photocopied seedlings. Thin, red streaks run in interrupted lines over a disintegrating red ellipse in "Software No. 5." Another red ellipse seems to ingest a white ellipse in "Deadline No. 3." A static cluster of whites and reds is either drifting onto or off the right side of "Network No. 4." Throughout, the white and red on black coloring is honed to a fine gloss that exudes a dynamic, often daunting brilliance. Imagery this nebulous and abstract shouldn't look this alive and throbbing with a pulse of electrical energy.
That you can't--or maybe are simply unwilling to--separate the natural from the artificial in Pomara's paintings is part of the point, though it may take you a moment to get there. A first encounter may lead you to believe that they're as hard and impenetrable as the aluminum on which they're painted, but there is a madness in this method that's quite daft. Originally, Pomara took his "incorrect" images--the blurred blots that resulted when he used a photocopy machine to distort an image, rather than using it to produce a second generation that is as identical as possible to the original--and further compounded their identities. These forms became a series of large-scale, black-on-white paintings that translated the tonality of a photocopy into oil on a surface.
To capture the suggestion of motion inherent in the photocopies, he devised various apparatuses to score the oil enamel after he'd applied it. Plexiglas rods were pulled over the work, leaving various streaks and marks depending on how much pressure he applied and how quickly he did so. For other works, he scanned these photocopied drippings into a computer and using desktop graphics programs, magnified sections of them in a series of increasingly distorting scales such that the final image bore no resemblance to its source. Consequentially, new ripples of colors and forms ensued, which were eventually printed out with a printer that really wasn't intended for graphics. This stage tweaked the image again, as the printing mechanism wasn't able to deal with the continuous lines of the computer image, yielding a streaked version of what was onscreen.
These works especially--seen at the DMA as the large-scale "Network" series of lambda digital prints on aluminum--articulate Pomara's concerns most distinctly. These works speak to a contemporary life lived in which information overload collides with the realization that a real, tangible product isn't a perfect representation of something seen onscreen. What that screen is--the dream world of movies and television, the hypnotic illusions of a computer monitor, the world "out there" on the other side of a window--is more metaphorical than literal, and here it's implied by the physical dimensions of the work. Yes, you're looking at something that started with paint and ended with a digital byproduct. But what is it? And better still, why does it make me feel so twitchy?
The paintings elicit a similar response, but there's something infinitely more personal about their vocabulary, and their surfaces are far more luscious. Pomara comes from a generation of painters schooled from the mid-1970s into the dawn of the 1980s, artists weaned on a steady diet of pop and expressionism, when the gesture competed with the concept. As the 1980s art explosion unfolded, mixed media became the order of the day, and painters were forced to question their medium. Representation had been monopolized by photography. Film/video was the poetry of everyday life. Brush and pigment felt as obsolete as the Edsel. What's painting's role in an age of mass reproduction?
We're not talking about facile understandings of French post-structuralism here. What the above question asks goes beyond intellectual onanism or art-world navel-gazing. What is at stake is where humans fit into a culture that is increasingly, and often enthusiastically, dehumanized.
Pomara's works address that issue succinctly, if obliquely. He bases his process in the tactile world of manual manipulation to create a vocabulary that appears as processed as a multimillion-dollar Hollywood blockbuster. And like a movie, you have to get below the surface of how things seem to grasp what's going on. Our televisual world--print and billboard advertisements, television's faux reality realism, popular cinema's mercantile grasp on mass consciousness and pop cult's media saturation--creates fissures in the folds of each and every crenellated cerebellum it contacts. Everything seems to be pieces rather than a whole. Pop music is a meatloaf of beats fractured into a prism of clicks and cuts. Cinematic mise-en-scène is a blitzkrieg of five-second shots. A political platform boils down to news clips and advertising slogans. And doctors spend more time looking at computer-mediated visions of a patient's body than the patient himself. Not only is the medium the message, but its meaning is entirely dictated by the instant of its utterance. When a young, white girl says "I am Tiger Woods" in a Nike commercial, at that very moment, she is.
Pomara's paintings are a journey to understand that moment. Of course, there can be a slightly intimidating, impersonal element to an elucidation so personal and precise. And like a satellite coming back to earth, if you come at Pomara's works head on, you run the risk of bouncing off them and hurtling into space. But if you can find your own entry passage, you'll encounter a world of discovery in his hues and heuristics. You may be intrigued by imagery that takes the cultural ephemera of its time and shoves it back at you with all its disenfranchised beauty intact. And you may start to feel like Neal Cassady finger-snapping his praise to some late-night saxophonist preaching wordless wisdom. Blow, man, blow.
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