Imagine if a little kid walked into a museum and painted a scene of a house with trees -- on top of a Jackson Pollock, leaving a smidgeon of the Pollock exposed in the lower left corner. That's just one of the many original and aggressive ideas you'll find in Paul Kostabi's paintings.
Best known for his angst-ridden, ferocious, expressionistic self-portraits, Paul Kostabi has also accumulated an impressive body of landscapes, still lifes, pure abstractions and several comically rapacious appropriations of various contemporary artists including Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Giles Lyon. The psychically ravaged self-portrait is his most constant theme, but any time Paul feels like it, he'll bust out a mocking commentary of the pretentious scale and overblown egos of certain adored art stars, or he might sincerely explore the magical color possibilities of an otherworldly vase of flowers on a table. Paul Kostabi's work is fraught with careless care. He obviously loves painting, but is just as content to paint on low quality pre-gessoed student grade canvas as he is on the finest Belgium linen. He's like a Mozart who won't stop moving his fingers on any piano keys he sees -- you can pick up his body while his fingers keep moving and put him in front of a Hamburg Steinway or a broken toy piano and he will happily just keep on playing. Likewise, Paul will paint with equal passion for Mars Bar or MoMA, on torn cardboard or the best Arches watercolor paper. His only guide is the art spirit -- and even that he'll subvert if he feels like it.
Recently, strange large words have appeared in his extremely layered work, like: "DARCO JOE ENA" and "CARE BAIP." The meanings are ambiguous and seem personal. The use of words are yet another graphic device Paul has lifted from the Modernist painting tradition, first explored by Picasso and later by Stuart Davis, Ed Ruscha, Mimmo Rotella, Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Paul's use of color has become increasingly more decisive and subtle. In the early 1980s, when Paul first exhibited in New York's Lower East Side, in galleries such as Casa Nada on Rivington Street, Paul's colors were frequently more primary, acidic and seemingly reckless in the East Village spirit. Now, without losing any energy, his colors often have an almost romantic, autumnal harmony. And the complex layering of painterly stokes at times recalls the recent paintings of Terry Winters or the poster lacerations of Mimmo Rotella. With all these sophisticated art historical underpinnings, one senses that many more discoveries are yet to be made. However, the present collection of diverse painterly achievements, which comprise Paul's first one-person show in Italy, is already more than satisfying.
In recent years, the New York art world has witnessed a new obsession for ultra-slick, technically "perfect" work. This extreme "neatness” attitude of many young New York artists and dealers make California finish-fetish work from the 1960s seem like raw hobo art. Paul Kostabi's work is the antithesis of this Neo-analism. He prefers to drive a Rambler with a few scratches on it -- not a squeaky clean Lexus.
Mark Kostabi, April 2002