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The works in Agony / Serendipity, the two-person exhibition currently on view at Smart Objects, at once represent a dark, brooding, unwieldy force that’s wound up to an extreme, and a playful, effervescent haziness that begins like a strong gust of wind and disperses into abstraction. Despite the exhibition’s title, which can be read as pitting agony against serendipity, the paintings by L.A.-based artists Nicholas Campbell and Zoe Koke effectively evade such definition, instead creating an immersive, ineffable mood through their fluid similarities and stark differences.
Ambitious in both scale and quantity—the works range from as small as 13 to as large as 94 inches long—both artists’ paintings are spaced around the large, multi-room gallery in a way that, while not even, feels equitable. There isn’t an immediate distinction between the two artists’ works. Scale varies evenly, and all the paintings incorporate muddy, yet distinct coloration and abstract, brushstroke-heavy imagery, making the presentation at first feel easily dismissible as a homogenous grouping—that is, until the different temperaments of the works begin to soak through.
The show’s title offers a tempting blueprint for distinguishing between the two artists: Campbell’s work is arguably more agonizing while Koke’s is more serendipitous. Such framing can help anchor the viewing experience, but neither artist completely fits into either category. Campbell’s paintings are darker in value and endlessly layered with murky, refuse-like colors reminiscent of bodily fluid, spray paint, spilled oil, or decaying food. The artist’s superfine, gestural dry brushing harmonizes the chaos. These delicate, almost imperceptible movements form tense swirls and symbols that vibrate like the later works of Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner, which depicted the swift industrialization of England. This violent tension in Campbell’s paintings is vivid, and in backing away from certain works, such as Rote (2023) or Face (2022), uncanny grimaces appear to emerge from within the swampy depths of paint. These sparing moments are the only hints of figuration in the exhibition.
In contrast, Koke’s contributions are more diverse in their palette and composition, and thus harder to pin down. The thick, painterly gestures of the artist’s hand are fragrant, a word writer and curator Marie Heilich uses in a published conversation with the artists that functions as the show’s press release.1 While Campbell’s gestures vibrate with a weightedness, Koke’s movements seem to exist in a metaphysical landscape in which fleshy pinks and yellows, which allude to flower petals, merge with herbaceous greens and blues. The environment that Koke creates seems free of the constraints of physics. The sensorial thickness of her brushstrokes is offset by the buoyancy of the conditions set within the canvas, like in The Thaw (2022), where the greens and yellows of foliage are offset by a dark, cloud-like mass that floats over the other colors like ink on water. The instability of Koke’s almost-landscapes winks to the notion of death and rebirth, equally devastating and generative.
Throughout Agony / Serendipity, paint bleeds, builds, floats, and weighs heavy across Campbell and Koke’s canvases. The pairing of these two artists is presented as a contrast, but the exhibition ultimately spins the viewer through a journey of beautiful confusion as the gestures and compositions move in and out of affinity with each other. The result offers a somatic viewing experience that perhaps feels best left without imposed categorization.
Agony / Serendipity runs from February 17–April 8, 2023 at Smart Objects (1828 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90026).