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Jon Pestoni’s recent abstract pictures embody, if not explicitly portray the art-historical conundrum of millennial painting: How does one proceed with an ostensibly exhausted medium? Painting with oil on canvas—occasionally augmented with mixed media—Pestoni develops each work by hazarding a series of emphatic statements. He starts by painting an unpremeditated composition, and next makes another nearly all-over composition over it, and then several others, in turn, over that. A finished work, for instance, may include multi-colored vertical dashes over horizontal brushwork of a single tertiary hue, superimposed over what appear to be the cartoonish outlines of a figure, above a loose grid of block forms, all topping another dozen such layers. Each layer cancels out those below with varying degrees of opacity and breadth, while building the total picture. Each painting resolves as a singular presence within which figure-ground relationships are variable and dynamic.

Several paintings display surfaces resplendent not only with layers of painted marks but also patches of material relief. This material, perhaps surprisingly, is cat litter. In these works, Pestoni glues swaths of cat litter to primed canvas to create loose compositional structures upon which he builds a picture. Providing a counterpoint to the fad, circa New York 2001, of adding glitter to paintings as a decorative finish and object-like embellishment, Pestoni began making watercolor drawings using cat litter adhered to paper. Beyond this joke—“glitter” to unglamorous “litter”—cat litter provides an extremely absorbent substrate for painting. It is also made of ceramic granules, keeping Pestoni’s mixed-media work within a language of primary art media.

This mixed-media approach provokes further perceptual interplay between figure and ground. The cat litter patches appear as figures, standing as dimensional marks in contrast to the rest of the flat painted surface. They also serve as a ground, providing one of the initial, and still visible material layers of the painting. Furthermore, the recesses between granules capture and shelter early layers of paint, in effect preserving this chromatic background as conspicuous, seemingly foreground marks. Pestoni’s cat litter additions function—similar to the index-like margins of all his paintings—as windows onto the history of each work. Optically, the cat litter sections at once come forward and recede, with the rest of the painting peaking or ebbing in reply.

Pestoni’s paintings push and pull not only visually, but also conceptually and psychologically. The diverse vocabulary of styles, marks, and gestures he employs simultaneously suggest, contradict, and counterbalance formalist, expressive, and representational interpretations. But again, the sum of his painterly negation is positive. Pestoni’s seemingly impersonal condensation of motifs divulges a personal narrative of the daily act of painting. His compositions also confront the viewer with a particular pictorial drama. Within each work, painted forms interrupt, cover, and occlude, forcing one to look over, under, and through. Coupled with the anthropomorphic scale of the pictures, these spatial dynamics further evoke metaphors for physical relationships.