Back from the Hike at Kathryn Markel Fine Arts. June 22 - July 28, 2023

Kathryn Markel Fine Arts is pleased to announce an upcoming group exhibition curated by Stephen Pentak. The show will feature work by Pentak, Royce Howes, and Richard Roth.

“Everything is mystery, ourselves, and all things both simple and humble.” -Girogio Morandi

Back From the Hike is a celebration of the work of three painters who met in the Tyler School of Art graduate painting program in the late 1970s, and a tribute to their enduring relationship. Though having stylistically divergent practices, and living in different cities, they have remained close intellectually and spiritually, being each other’s critic and devotee, for forty-seven years. They are now exhibiting together for the first time.

The title of the exhibition derives from a camping trip the three artists embarked on as students. In honor of the three friends, their professor, David Pease*, titled one of his artworks, “Back from the Hike,” a tip-of-the-hat to Ellsworth Kelly, but also an acknowledgement of the return of Royce, Stephen, and Richard from the hike they took together to Old Rag Mountain in 1976.

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time.
  • T. S. Elliot, from “Little Gidding.” Four Quartets

These paintings that might first appear unrelated, connect below the surface in profound ways. Royce, Richard, and Stephen share an abiding interest in visual form, whether representational or not, that underpins perception. All three believe paintings have an uncanny ability to transcend their own objecthood.

Royce, Richard, and Stephen are also bound by their engagement with the history of painting and the legacy of Modernism. All three embrace the limitations of a chosen form as a path to deeper investigations.

A famous sonnet by William Wordsworth begins, 'Nuns fret not their convent's narrow room, / and hermits are contented with their cells; / and students with their pensive citadels.' Wordsworth's point is that what nuns, hermits, and students do is facilitated rather than hindered by the confines of the formal structures they inhabit; because those structures constrain freedom (they remove, says Wordsworth, 'the weight of too much liberty'), they enable movements in a defined space....That is why Wordsworth reports himself happy 'to be bound / Within the Sonnet's scanty plot of ground.' It is a scanty plot because it is bounded, and because it is bounded, it can be the generator of boundless meanings.
- Stanley Fish, from How to Write a Sentence

*Artist and educator David Pease was Dean at The Tyler School of Art and later at Yale University. David was a painter who melded his life and career into diaristic but abstract compositions celebrating both high and low cultural sources. David Pease was a mentor to Royce Howes, Stephen Pentak and Richard Roth.

Surface Tension

August 2003

By Richard Roth

For Exhibition at Kathryn Markel Fine Arts, New York

Surface Tension

Stephen Pentak’s new work reveals a poetic sensibility coupled with an authoritative restraint that is available only to those who have painted long and thought deeply about art, life, and their connectedness. While these paintings may appear effortless, they are in fact, the result of arduous investigation and passionate commitment.

Pentak melds so many interests in this work and does it so artfully that the uninitiated might mistake these works for landscape paintings. Pentak’s formative years as a painter were concerned with Systemic Abstraction, in which systems of interval and paint application determined image. These concerns remain, as tree, reed and rock measure off intervals of time and space. Pentak has taken lessons from abstraction, minimalism and conceptual art and has made them central to figurative painting. Pentak’s development as a painter is not unlike that of Giorgio Morandi. The young Morandi learned much from modern abstract painting and was an important figure of the Metaphysical painting movement, but in later years he returned to a more traditional though nonetheless visionary body of work, one that is revered for its intelligence, spirituality, and humility. Pentak too has quite deliberately returned to origins. He celebrates earth, sky, and water; proclaims the power of abstract shape, rhythm, and color interval; and revels in the elemental notion of paint as paint.

Most importantly, these paintings speak of that which exists below the surface. It is dark beneath the surface of the river, a rainbow trout rises, something flashes, a leaf floats down to the murky bottom. An entire universe exists below – an iridescent cloud of tiny eggs drifts by, a frog’s leg dangles from a turtle’s mouth. Below the surface of the painting there also exists a universe. Below the surface lives the soul of painting. Pentak knows that art must transcend materiality. As Albers has said “Art is not an object, it is an experience.” Concerned with the relationship between paint, form, and image, Pentak makes landscape paintings that are full of contemporary complexities – rich, deep, and beautiful – Zen koans with surface tension.

Natural Talent

Painter’s distinctive, minimalist techniques create landscapes that evoke peacefulness

Sunday, April 22, 2012

By Melissa Starker


Natural Talent

Painter’s distinctive, minimalist techniques create landscapes that evoke peacefulness.

In a statement for the new exhibition “Persistent Image” at Keny Galleries, painter Stephen Pentak discusses artists such as Josef Albers and Roman Opalka, who each devoted years to series focused on one subject.

“These painters had differing reasons for their persistence, but, in each case, something happens that would not have, were the series shorter,” Pentak writes.

Where as Opalka sought to fill canvases with a count of every number through infinity, and Albers explored the visual possibilities within the shape of a square, Pentak has lent to natural landscapes a similar devotion to subject and purpose.

Through the years, Pentak has honed his distinctive technique for mark making and experimenting with light and composition, aiming for “the balance between representation and invention.”

Although his process continues to evolve, his latest works exude a Zen-like calm and proficiency. The paintings put one in a peaceful mindset — the best vantage for considering the nuances of image, paint application and texture.

His approach is rigorously consistent. Starting with a base layer of golden yellow, Pentak builds densely forested landscapes by dragging palette knives and large brushes across a wood- panel surface. He digs down to the yellow base to form a hard horizon between land and the still, reflective bodies of water that take up much of his compositions. The backgrounds are panoramic, while the foregrounds are dotted by sparse collections of trees — often birches, with their white bark formed by the delicate lines of individual bristles.

His overall aesthetic is clean and minimal but also light and gestural, as seen in the way daintily daubed leaves hover around the foreground trees without the benefit of being attached by branches. The choice to add elements in close proximity against a distant horizon helps to bridge whatever psychic distance might be created by the austere nature of his style.

One is also drawn by the vivid, subtly blended coloring and simple, elegant beauty found in each piece.

The works I.VII and I.XI focus on the “magic hour” just before sunset, resulting in a sky washed by warm, seductive yellows and pinks. In II.IV, the colors of a fall sunset work into the trunks of the trees in the foreground.

With the new paintings, Pentak also expands on his textural experiments with an exertive reduction process that manifests most strongly around the edges of the panels. In these instances, the base yellow rises up through abraded layers of other hues, encroaching on the landscape compositions and further defining the line between the inventions of the artist and the natural world that inspired them.

Stephen Pentak: Persistent Image at Bonfoey

Fall, 2012

By Dana Oldfather

For CAN Journal

Mixed mediums

Works of painter, sculptor pair naturally

Sunday, December 4, 2016

By Peter Tonguette