Archive for the ‘Review’ Category
Depending on what art world you inhabit and where you spend your time, reactions to Wade Guyton’s work run the gamut from young sensation to collector’s trophy to critical whipping boy to hollow symbol of political inequality. His work is polarizing in a way that recalls the bygone era of the shocking avante garde; it seems some view Guyton and his work with the same suspicion the British public did Carl Andre’s stack of bricks. And just as the cost of Andre’s manipulation of a pedestrian object became a focus of the outrage (and misunderstanding) surrounding his work, so too do critiques of Guyton simply devolve into economic complaint. In a sense art only now has to deal with the implications of mechanization that other laborers dealt with a century ago. In an arena where individual vision sets every artist up as John Henry, Guyton has taken the side of the steam hammer.
I must admit that I missed Guyton’s first exhibitions and came to his work late. I first noticed them only in tiny, glossy reproductions in art magazines; not knowing how they were made, I assumed they were paintings and was struck by the combination of typography (either as a bold, central form or as a group used to articulate a field across the canvas) combined with a disjointed, abject surface. Despite the hard edges, they weren’t perfect geometric renderings; the entire surface was activated with skittering marks and impositions on the form. Of course it turned out that they weren’t paintings, except that of course they are. Rauschenberg, Warhol, and Wool (among many others) had already dispensed with brushes for mechanical processes, and as those processes went digital it should not come as any surprise that artists followed suit. Shifting to making paintings with only an Epson printer should not be seen as a radical step; that it is so blindingly obvious in retrospect may account for some of the animosity directed his way. So to must the apparent ease with which he can turn out a show, just as earlier layout designers recognized hours of work now accomplished with a few clicks, Guyton has turned mural-scale painting into an afternoon project. Back when young artists talked matter of factly about process, the labor involved in moving and manipulating stuff was self-evident. Being an artist was work, and many espoused a political affinity with strains of Marxism, or at least a blue collar pragmatism that could be read as such. But to capitalism the point of digital technologies has been to reduce or remove the need for skilled labor wherever possible, and Guyton clearly buys into that when he talks about avoiding the need to work to make his paintings. This isn’t necessarily a problem, except that to then talk about the disregard with which he drags and kicks his canvases around the studio floor seems too ingratiating, too much an appeal to the labor of process that he ultimately undermines. Indecision breeds contempt just as easily as familiarity (and by now pretty much everyone is acquainted with Photoshop and Microsoft Word).
Coming out of his Whitney retrospective, the most interesting question was what would he do next? The works on paper were scattered across bright colored flooring in vitrines, as if the artist didn’t trust them to be out on their own. Likewise his sculpture seemed beside the point: a bent metal tube that was previously a chair by Marcel Breuer has a certain frission in the Whitney Museum, but otherwise relies on the name recognition of the artist for aesthetic important. His fabricated “U” sculptures are shiny steel simulacra of the ideas referenced by his painting, available in an assortment of sizes, and are almost nakedly commercial for that variation. The exhibition showed the printed paintings as his one good idea; he had established the utility of his approach, but seemed to be at the boundary of what he could make with his single tool without simply repeating himself and making new versions of the old work ad infinitum. This is complicated by the sense that all of his paintings function as wry comments on their own making, existing both as paintings and “paintings”; the level of quotation and reserve would seem to preclude Guyton from risking failure on the messy and labor intensive investigation that might lead to a new body of work, a new approach, or a new idea.
Instead, Guyton has chosen to focus on the quotation marks, using the paintings as a lens to focus in on the environment and act of looking at the paintings. His new paintings at Petzel further leverage Post-minimalist compositional strategies. Cinemascope swaths of white linen hold striated rectangles that trail off into the remnant tracks and traces of being pulled through the printer’s mechanisms, almost like waste paper run through to clean it out. The stretchers measure the full span of the gallery wall, or separate paintings meet in the corner. These compositional strategies draw parallels to Richard Serra’s use of steel plates as a way to measure and change the gallery space via mass. The surface similarities of steel and printed linen are superficially similar, and while Guyton’s use of black and white achieves a level of austerity that Serra might envy, he doesn’t affect the space in the same way. The inherent presence of a Serra makes one consider one’s path around the room and approaching the plate something to be cautiously planned. On the other hand Guyton’s paintings are thin and without any sensation of mass, and the viewer is pulled right up to them to examine the staccato tracks of the printer. Guyton’s paintings lack Serra’s attention to inherent tension, the black rectangles’ measures are arbitrary and don’t push back against the viewer or the space. Just as the final two paintings at the Whitney measured the walls between Breuer’s iconic window without doing much else, these chart a space that is primarily notable for its blankness. These are a sort of reversal from the paintings he installed at the Carnegie International. There he stripped the coat room as far down as it could go, exposing old paint and layers of carpet adhesive hidden by the removed racks. His paintings were handsome example of minimal intervention, mostly white with a few smudged forms to articulate the space. Installed in a space not typically devoted to art he created a lounge more akin to unfinished basement; the same materials that an earlier generation of artists mined and hefted into the gallery shows up here as history left on the floor and wall, left to reflect back at the paintings. But at the end of the day the paintings will still go home to presumably stately environments, devoid of any extra window dressing; these plays on installation are a veneer layered on top of the situation the work inhabits, rather than something that is ingrained in the paintings. With Guyton all we get is the surface.
For all his Warholian slipperiness about content and belief, Guyton’s achievement of his printed paintings is to totally remove the artist’s hand, to make the aura of the artwork indistinguishable from the glow of a screen, and still wind up making paintings that are utterly individual, as unique as a fingerprint. But he’s wound up at the point where the novelty has worn off and the audience doesn’t just want to see pictures of where we’ve been. It’s come time for Guyton to get rid of the quotation marks, to roll up his sleeves, and get to work.
Wade Guyton continues at Petzel Gallery in New York City through February 22nd.
 Which are an issue affecting all artists, but become a lens that distorts via magnification as the artist in question becomes more successful; the gravity of money around an artist winds up shaping the discourse like light bending around a dense star.
 Or as late as one can come to an artist who’s retrospective spans little more than a decade.
 This is not necessarily to say that Guyton got there first either, but he is certainly the standard bearer of “printed paintings” and if we were to rediscover a different pioneer she or he would need to answer the same aesthetic questions as Guyton. The only difference would be that this hypothetical artist would not be held accountable for the sins of the market associated with Guyton.
 Starting with the abstract expressionists use of paint as an index of decisions of process and continuing to the post-minimalist extension of that action out into space.
 Depending on your feelings about Warhol anyway.
 Although, to be fair, this criticism applies to huge swaths of the art made today.
 And if it is not clear, I think it is a damn good idea.
 And it is safe to say that given his means of production he could easily print on demand enough to more than satisfy (overwhelm) the market.
 Of course it’s possible that Guyton really doesn’t care about doing anything new, but since he has not just flooded the market with reprints of his greatest hits and has continued to push at the context his paintings are seen in, I think it is safe to give him the benefit of the doubt.
 Which are simply a rescaled and reprinted version of the digital file he used to create his black monochromes that were shown at Petzel in 2007.
 All reproductions of Serra’s work are in black and white, no matter the handsome patina of rust or the oily sheen the marred surface the plate holds. I assume this is to emphasize mass and volume, but it nonetheless stage handles the work in an odd fashion.
Walking into Cheim and Read feels like visiting a gathering of old friends. Raphael Rubinstein has laid out a thesis for an alternate narrative of painting in the 1980’s that is not unknown, but is still not as recognized as it could (or should) be.[i] The artists he has pulled together all sought a way forward for the medium once the project of modernism collapsed into the late Sixties singularity of Minimalism and Conceptualism and threatened to obliterate it.[ii] The primary historical narrative has painting starting to find its way back with the new image painters, but only managing to reclaim the stage with the emergence of the bad boy neo-expressionists, who seemed to get by on brash youth and an injection of wall street capital that also (not coincidentally) supercharged the market.[iii] But to a man[iv] they were ultimately much less influential to the practice of painters going forward; if there is a hopeful lesson to be found here, it may point to the superficiality of immediate market success, so frustrating to watch from the outside, may ultimately be very limited in its long term historical affect. By contrast the painters of Reinventing Abstraction have had a much deeper and far reaching influence. They were known as painters’ painters[v] even as they were emerging, and as Postmodernism became less of novelty and was assimilated into historical perspective they had more influence as younger artists who found the personal language they employed provided a much more expansive arena in which to operate and find their own way forward.[vi] A certain part of this may lie in the versatility and depth of abstraction as a new[vii] visual idiom, or it may be as simple as the right group of artists intersecting in the right time and place and they just happened to embrace the currents of recent practice. That critical discourse or the market did not immediately embrace them should not disguise the breadth of their accomplishments.
Rubenstein sees a precedent for Reinventing Abstraction and its careful (re)examination of history in the Whitney Museum’s exhibition High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967 — 1975. A show for which David Reed served as an advisor[viii], it showed the breadth of painting practice that flourished in the lofts of lower Manhattan in the wake of minimalism and the ascendance of conceptual art. The artists in lower Manhattan continued to paint and explore ideas opened up by the color field and minimalist painters that were their neighbors, spraying the paint or starting to take its material supports apart to explore the underlying sense of shape. What was conspicuously absent from High Times, Hard Times was an integration drawing as method of creating a subjective psychological space within the painted field. Where the artists of High Times, Hard Times experimented with the possibilities inherent in the varied syntax of the painting as an object[ix], the artists of Reinventing Abstraction let individual facture of the hand reintroduce drawing into their work.[x] Any two marks set beside each other begin to create space and therefore a degree of illusionism and reference; from there it is a short step to the reintroduction of personal forms and subjective symbolism within painting, and the complete rejection of the purity that seemed to be the endgame of modernism. Stuff was back in advanced abstract painting in a way it hadn’t been since the heydays of de Kooning and Guston.
The entire first, smaller room at Cheim and Read brings the reliance on drawing inherent within each work into sharp focus. The works of Terry Winters, Carroll Dunham and Bill Jensen of the time all made use of biomorphic and natural forms[xi] that emerged from a seeming collision scientific imagery with a rediscovery of the pleasures of paint. The combination of painterly process and forms derived from a subtle examination of nature became something of a trend itself within the early Eighties; these three works form a starting point to trends that branch out and carry through the exhibition as a whole.
Winters’ project has always relied very heavily on drawing, and the composition of Point is recognizable as a single piece of paper that fits multiple studies writ large. The scale of his paintings sometimes disguise the affinities they share with the scientist’s notebook.[xii] Leonardo left codices filled with similar drawings that mapped his thought process across the paper, and a number of more recent examples of such studies are currently on view in the WMAA’s show of Edward Hopper’s drawings. The primary forms are not rendered so much as built out of strokes of paint. In some areas Winters employs a heavy black line that reads almost as charcoal drawn over the paint; other areas are scrubbed and washed away in a veil of pale color; it is a testament to his technical understanding of the complexities of his material that the picture is in such immaculate condition after more than 30 years, with little cracking or unintended surface incident that usually comes with pushing the limits of paint to such extremes. Winters’ building up of his forms echoes Stanley Whitney’s gestural brush marks of paint weaving into shapes that oscillate across the surface. It is tempting to see these loose knit forms as being slowly subjected to increasing gravity and further coalescing and refining themselves into the careful grids of colored blocks he is now known for.
Dunham’s composition is roughly determined by his plywood support. The disparate elements are connected and reconciled through a sort of doodling exquisite corpse; tubers and root forms extend from knots and shift in volumetric space as they cross flat bands of color dictated by the veneer grain. The flat demarcations of color carry through in the next room in David Reed’s transparent overlays across enlargements of swirling gesture. The precision of design via demarcation carries through in Jonathon Lasker’s deadpan arrangement of shapes and Jack Whitten’s inscribed geometry and flat rectangles of color.
In The Tempest Jensen’s spore like form floats in a similar space to Winters’ but he takes the primacy of his material further, troweling his paint onto the canvas and unifying the surface under a heavy impasto. Where Winters’ orchestration of surface variation plays to an analytic construction of the image’s components and mostly respects the distinction between figure and ground, the directness of Jensen’s masonry approach reveals a greater emotional subjectivity. Drawing from earlier symbolist artists such as Ryder, Hartley, and Dove, Jensen builds a space that not only holds the form, but shifts around it and seemingly moves through it; figure and ground oscillate according to shifting perceptions with only the drawing of the erstwhile subject to keep the delineation in check.
This tension between material process and drawn subject continues through Reinventing Abstraction: Joan Snyder both renders a landscape and builds it out of furrows of paint. In Beanfield with Music the landscape imagery reinforces the physical sensation conveyed by material presence. Whitten juxtaposes a painterly field of tar-thick acrylic combed through to expose underlying areas of electric hue.[xiii] His frenetic scribbling, scratching marks stand in sharp contrast to the precision of his geometric constructs. The emotional resonance of his subject grows out of the tension between the opposing aesthetic modes in his employ. Louise Fishman’s calligraphic swirl is as concrete as anything in the exhibition; her glyph-like form loops around and against the limits of her canvas, positive and negative space laboring against mutual gravity. Where Fishman concentrates her material into a small tightly controlled space, Pat Steir thins and spreads hers in liquid loops of expansive gesture across the largest canvas in the exhibition. Her color is tough and solid, reminiscent of stone and rust, but her thinned pigment sprays from her brush in layers according to the force and direction of her whole body. In all of these works the artist’s gesture is yoked to description of a form or shape that sits within a specific space.
When Rubinstein investigates abstraction, it is inevitable that the discussion will turn to the current trend he named as Provisional Painting, but this is not an exhibition dedicated to genealogy. Despite the reach of his idea, either to young artists working today, or much further back through historical precedent, the artists in this show would almost unilaterally disavow that their work aimed to be anything less than a complete, coherent statement.[xiv] In parsing abstraction’s contribution to painting one finds the roots of Provisionalism run deep, but that depends on how much mark making and material, brush stroke and painterly gesture read as specifically “provisional” rather than inherent elements of the medium that a particular painter may choose to employ. Does the exposed support or thin materiality of color field painting (or before that Rothko and Newman) mark their work as provisional?[xv] Likewise de Kooning’s avoidance of resolution?[xvi]
Gary Stephan’s painting employs one of his signature template forms, but sets it hovering in a nocturnal, sfumato atmosphere. The template itself is built out of thickly glazed layers of paint, and merges with a deep space rendered in transparent washes. The surface eschews excessive brush strokes in favor of a straightforward approach that is nothing if not traditionally finished. Nozokowski’s forms are reminiscent of Stephan’s (so much so that I was momentarily confused that this might be Stephan’s contribution), but again the forms have crisp edges and the layers of shape and color attest to a complete and contained pictorial logic. David Reed takes the limiting of facture even further; his painting evidences the meticulous and labor intensive process his work is known for, with layers of paint repeatedly sanded smooth as the image of a gestural Rococo brushstroke is transformed and reinterpreted in a manner such that the artist’s hand is turned into a method of mechanical reproduction. The surface of the painting is a tromp l’oeil simulacrum of its source material; the subject of the act of painting is set at a reserved original distance.
Elizabeth Murray and Lasker both provide paintings that might appear provisional, but require a greater amount of planning than such a label suggests. Both work from a plan and preparatory drawings rather than just recklessly diving into a painting. Despite the cartoonish simplicity of Murray’s composition in Sentimental Education, her shaped supports require precise and labor intensive construction. With the foundation of her picture being so specific idiosyncratic shape it is a testament to her skill as a painter that the work appears so fresh; the scumbled surface, hazy light, high-key colors and jigsaw shapes could easily come off as the mere scaled up production of smaller statement, but instead read as an improvisation of the highest order. On the other hand, that Lasker’s Double Play looks like a production diagram executed deadpan is precisely the point. Every element is as carefully orchestrated as politician’s speech, with even the thick, expressively painted shape coming off as rehearsed instead of spontaneous. His practice casts a critical eye on the work of his peers, but such assessment indicates careful consideration, not any sort of “lack of finish,” “self-defeating strategies,” or “dandyish nonchalance.”[xvii]
On the other hand Stephen Mueller and Mary Heilmann both engaged with concerns we now call “provisional.” In Delphic Hymn Mueller arrays each element casually across the canvas; where Lasker follows a strict design, Mueller gives the impression of arranging things he just happened to stumble across. Drips, overspray and tossed off daubs commingle with areas of hard edge geometry. However his work continued to evolve, and Delphic Hymn now looks like a transitional painting to his mature work. It points to how he would continue to approach the organization his compositions, but doesn’t give away how his forms would tighten into striated symmetry and his paint would combine hard edges and electric atmosphere. Heilmann’s Rio Nido certainly seems more provisional than the other fourteen paintings in the show, yet the label is hardly a slight. There is a playful simplicity in the painting that is emblematic of her mature practice. Blocks of bright, brushy color are overlaid with a dynamic black shape that is “punched” through with holes so that the original colors shine through. Whatever polemic it might subsequently be tied to does not alter its status as a strong statement by individual artist pursuing her own concerns first and foremost. The same can ultimately be said for each painting on view.
The exhibition itself strains at the limits of a single work per artist and the confines of the gallery. There is enough depth to the subject for a deeper museum survey, but that would require a different venue; as one moves through the spacious hanging in the front galleries, the large paintings by Whitney, Whitten, and Snyder feel constricted in the rear spaces. It is hard not to see the art world’s hierarchies coming into play, with the bigger names associated with prestigious retrospectives accorded more breathing room. At the same time I wouldn’t want to see a single painting cut, and the pairings and unexpected sightlines of the hanging serve to reveal unexpected relations between works. These are paintings that I’ve (and I suspect many others) have spent years looking at, and if they don’t all quite fit quietly and seamlessly together, that only makes the party that much warmer and more inviting.
[i] As stated in the catalog essay The Lure of the Impure.
[ii] But not really; artists never stopped painting so the various recurrences of “the death of painting” are always more a matter of critical or theoretical contrivance than artistic practice. This is certainly held up by the perverse practice on the part of artists to find any small corner of art history that has been debased or ignored and start gleefully playing around with supposed retrograde concepts.
[iii] Rubenstein’s historical discourse includes some frank discussion on the influence of the market in shaping critical reception.
[iv] And they do seem to be entirely men. Their seems to be much more diversity among groups of artists and movements not awash in money.
[v] I don’t think anyone every looked to Schnable or Salle for virtuoso performances in pigment, and the critical discourse that surrounded their work seemed to focus on pastiche and theory rather than formal analysis (the deficiencies of which needed to be explained away more than anything).
[vi] My experience was that as I became committed to abstraction, painters like Winters and Jensen provided touchstones that applied to my own sensibility and interests where people interested in employing figuration found deeper sources from which to work. The repercussions of such influence is that it spawns legions of pale imitations, and I certainly made my own fair share of watered-down Terry Winters paintings. Artists can’t be blamed for this aspect of success, but the hope must be that eventually that influence grows farther from the source to become its own thing, a different practice. The lessons of the Neo-Expressionists don’t run nearly as deep, and little wears thin more quickly than an art school enfant terrible.
[vii] At least relatively speaking when compared to the vast history of representation in western art.
[viii] The cross-pollination between High Times, Hard Times and Reinventing Abstraction is extensive; aside from Reed, Fishman, Heilman, Murray, Snyder, Whitten, and Steir were included in Katy Siegel’s exhibition. This is probably another point of evidence to just how much smaller the art world in New York was three decades ago. My own suspicion is that the amount of money circulating through art world helps determine its size, and before the wall street boom of the 1980s resources were much more scant.
[ix] Robert Ryman turned such experiments into the subject of his entire practice, but the artists focused on in High Times, Hard Times were not nearly so programmatic.
[x] Walking through the exhibition, I kept thinking back to Bernice Rose’s group exhibitions that focused on drawing, Drawing Now and Allegories of Modernism. I was very surprised to learn that only Winters and Steir were included in the later show; it goes to show that no matter how obvious Rubinstein’s thesis may seem now, the attention paid these artists has changed substantially in the intervening decades.
[xi] The introduction of this subject matter brought “nature” back into the discourse of painting without succumbing to either the saccharine conventions of Sunday plein air painting or any need to resort to ironic reserve in order to be taken seriously. It continued the trend where serious art needed to evidence a “rigor” of approach while opening up the possibilities of what might be deemed “appropriate” subject matter by maintaining a universal scope of subject.
[xii] These similarities are more evident in his drawings and prints, which are much closer in scale to such sources.
[xiii] These subtleties are difficult to capture up in reproduction; they barely register in the catalog illustration where they read as the white of the canvas priming. That photographs only provide close approximations of a painting’s surface reality is a problem that afflicts many of the works in Reinventing Abstraction. I am beginning to suspect that this is a trait shared by most of the more interesting paintings that are made where the medium is so important to the formation of the image and the varied possibilities of paint are fully exploited.
[xiv] Rubinstein admits as much, declaring that the stated (and decidedly non-provisional) intentions of the artists shaped his approach to the exhibition.
[xv] One could see the potential for a division between the otherwise very similar art of East Coast abstractionists and the “Finish Fetish” artists of the West Coast.
[xvi] He famously struggled with any resolution to a picture, and the spaces his women inhabit after the late ‘40s are largely indeterminate vehicles for painterly gesture as much as descriptions of place.
[xvii] As described in The Lure of the Impure.
My essay on Wendy White’s exhibition Pix Vää at Leo Koenig is up now at Idiom. Click here to read it.
My essay on the retrospective of Richard Serra’s drawings that has hung at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Menil Collection is up now at Idiom: http://idiommag.com/2012/06/on-site-serra-at-the-met-and-the-menil/
My review of the mini-retrospective “Fred Sandback: Decades” at David Zwirner Gallery is up on Idiom.com. The link is http://idiommag.com/2012/04/playing-out-the-string/.
My review of Bill Jensen’s exhibition at Cheim and Read is up now at Idiom: http://idiommag.com/2012/02/a-painters-painters-paintings-bill-jensen-at-cheim-and-read/
My review of Byron Kim’s exhibition Night at James Cohan Gallery is up now at Idiom.
It is unfair to judge an entire genre, movement, technique, or medium in art by the weakest examples (or what has annoyed you in the past). The confluence of assemblage in sculpture (and to a lesser extent painting) seems to have become a defacto house style, especially among young and emerging artists and the galleries that show them. It has always annoyed me, perhaps for its seeming ubiquity and the lack of (or dare I say utter contempt for) craft that sometimes seems inherent to such work. It is as if the permissions opened up by Rauschenberg and fully realized in the work of Richard Tuttle had spawned a contemporary equivalent to the legions of academic painters who buried their canvases with earth tones following the lead of Rembrandt and others.
We all have our own value systems and personal biases, but they should not prevent us from wondering enough to be drawn in for a closer look at something that has previously only been an irritant. I ventured into Peter Blum’s 29th Street space unfamiliar with John Beech’s work (although intrigued by images of Make that I had seen in various press announcements) and left considering what made this exhibition, this work, different from similar constructions and assemblage that I have dismissed in the past. I was excited to discover new work that spoke to my own personal interests while at the same time forcing to me reconsider so much of what I’ve seen and responded to in the past.
Upon reflection the draw of reference and subject matter is the key. Upon moving to New York I was struck by just how neat, clean, and taped off much of the art that was being shown was, despite being exhibited only a few feet from gritty sidewalks and made in lofts and factories re-purposed from a different era. I wanted the art I was seeing to reflect the environment of the city that I was growing to love. Mr. Beech’s sculptures and drawings are inspired by the wear and detritus of an industrial urban infrastructure. He takes the quasi-minimalist forms of dumpsters and shipping containers, functional objects that are as ubiquitous as they are either ignored (at best) or scorned as a nuisance (at worst), and draws out a more complex formal language. His sculptures, like their sources, are as marked as the sidewalks and streets we all walk, portraits of a system and environment that functions not in spite of the grime, but because of it.
Not all of the works are uniformly successful, but they do point to the artist tracking the tests, sketches, and prototypes that are a personal R&D lab. The front gallery offers a sculpture of five industrial sized bottles of glue turned up to get every last ounce of usable material out, a trick familiar to almost any builder writ large. The large Composite Drawing push pins a mural sized accumulation of small sketches to the wall. Individually they do not provide much beyond a measure of the artist’s abstract penmanship. Similarly the small wall vitrines (Here to Alang and works from the artist’s Blagen series) in the side gallery only set up the recycling of studio debris and previous ideas (such as Mr. Beech’s larger previous encasement sculptures) as smaller works.
The side gallery also includes three Coated Drawings, which are some of the most successful works in the show. They relate to the collages of metallic tape on near billboard sized photographic prints, but the grain and scale of the photographic base is perfectly matched to the tone, touch, and viscosity of the enamel paint that modifies and erases that image; it becomes almost impossible to tell if the artist has printed a degraded negative. In the large two dimensional works the web of metallic tape struggles to find an equal footing with the scale of the photos. The two Reutlingen Factory Yard works use more tape (# 2 disrupting the surface with an all over network that mirrors the background, # 1 relying on a contained flat mass), but Stagg Street, Brooklyn works better in this regard for combining two photographs in the first place. The strips of foiled adhesive are able to function as drawn line and shape that both function independently by describing new related shapes while also unifying the underlying images, rather than just disrupting the illusionistic rendering in the photo.
Moving to the rear gallery his ideas are more fully realized through the objects presented. Make takes the tape drawing from the large collages and expands it into three dimensions. It is made of re-purposed hollow aluminum troughs bolted together to form a barricade like structure. Uniformly placed screw holes on the ends of each bar hinting at earlier function, while red duct tape is a direct application of color in lieu of a painted gesture, the ridges of folded tape are a union impasto. The sculptures Rolling Platform and Silver Container simultaneously reference painting and the minimal object while also foregrounding the lowly containers that are abused in the process of moving everyday cargo and freight form place to place. His containers would be hard pressed to function; the platform is sealed off, the container is oversized and open; but their construction as sculpture and everyday monument is persuasive.
While it is possible that the turn to assemblage was a response by younger artists to the same hermeticism I disdained, there is a noticeable difference with the craft of Mr. Beech’s sculpture; it seems solidly constructed rather than slapped together, and engages the methods of fabrication through a personal studio practice that is direct and unfussy. Finish may not be necessary, but is considered and never ignored. In this way his exploration of construction and assemblage also constitutes a formal investigation of these processes that is often missing from other works of superficially similar construction. His pragmatism towards his materials is both subject and operation, the contractor’s equivalent of medium as message. Where other assemblage invariably falls flat for me is not when the construction is shoddy, but when it is ill-considered, or only just what is necessary to get it out of the studio. By avoiding this trap Mr. Beech is producing complete statements as opposed to exhibiting his sketches.
John Beech The State of Things at Peter Blum Chelsea 526 West 29th Street, New York City through March 19, 2011.
Tara Donovan’s new exhibition at Pace empties out the arena in which she normally works, eschewing a single piece that overruns the gallery in favor of discretely framed wall reliefs. In their own way they present the same beguiling alchemy of material that she is known for in her large scale sculptural installations. From across the gallery the subtle shift between the accumulations of floating pin-heads and the white board grounds transforms the material; they could pass for massive graphite drawings, the pins becoming flickering marks built up on paper. Of course upon closer inspection the material plainness becomes apparent and as they aggregate in shallow space their material density becomes dazzling.
But the show as a whole only hits one note, and the individual works feel interchangeable, be they gradient, dispersion, or puddle. The group as a whole feels like it has been produced to be easily digested by collectors. The varying sizes provide price points of entry into a brand experience that is more manageable than a hangar sized installation and easier to display, but there is no internal logic between the size of the works and the image. I think this weakness actually runs counter to what is usually considered one of Ms. Donovan’s strengths. Here the total amount of work and material presented diffuses out across the gallery walls rather than concentrating at a center of gravity. While I suspect that these works will wind up looking better alone, or in relation to other works, that only goes to their status as commodity.
I do not begrudge Ms. Donovan (or any other artist) a variety of output, or making works that may aim for marketability. The realities of making art, especially large scale sculpture, require the same capital investment that other projects on the scale of architecture must contend with. Sculptors have long funded projects with the sale of drawings, and Ms. Donvan winks towards the sibling hierarchy of media by entitling the individual works as Drawing (Pins). Similarly, the catalog essay by the Drawing Center’s Jonathan T.D. Neil addresses the unique perspective an artist who primarily works in three dimensions brings to a flat surface, but for me the interest has always lay in the dichotomy between schematic layout and direct mark making. These drawings provide neither, but instead point to what they may allow the artist to do next.
Tara Donovan: Drawings (Pins) at Pace Gallery 510 West 25th Street through March 19th.
Julie Mehretu, ‘Grey Area’
Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York City. May 14- October 6
That Julie Mehretu’s first show in New York in more than five years is in the Guggenheim is fitting. Since post-Renaissance specialization split Art and Architecture the two disciplines have had an uneasy coexistence. Few contemporary artists address the subject and methods of architecture as directly as does Mehretu; in ‘Grey Area’ she grapples with her own artistic progression inside Frank Lloyd Wright’s uncompromising space.
Or inside an addendum to that space, which is perhaps appropriate, as one of her core subjects has always been the representation of the baroque topologies that constitute the contemporary city and how they evolve and change. If her recently completed Mural for the Goldman Sachs headquarters in downtown New York represents a culmination of her use of layering and riotous fragments of color, then she has used the quieter surroundings of the Guggenheim to address criticisms that her work has been static, and has not undergone a similar change to the urban environments she sources. These paintings are, if not a new animal, a different breed, offering a space of impressionist atmosphere to stand in contrast to the diagrammatic. The artist has said that after the attacks of September 11th she stopped painting explosions; residents of New York will remember the earnestness and solemnity that pervaded the city in the following days as a grey cloud hung over lower Manhattan. Restraint had become the standard, with exuberant displays suddenly out of place.
But a reading that views these new works as symbolizing a rejection of the excesses of the last few years is too simple. Just as an architect’s office may have multiple projects in various stages of completion, these paintings were produced concurrently with the Goldman Sachs commission. Mehretu’s studio is openly organized along such professional lines and she employs a team of assistants and specialists to fabricate her paintings from her sketches and computer models. Though clearly the result of a handmade process, it is equally clear that the specific hand in question is not of particular importance. Architects are pragmatically free from discussions of the “authentic gesture” that have queered the reception of painter’s productions, and the marks that populate these paintings are fairly anonymous. Whether made by Mehretu or an assistant, they read the same and there is no question of authorship. Closer to drawings than paintings, they are blueprints writ large. Though they describe ruins rather than stadiums or urban maps, the structures are built up with the mechanical lines of technical pen and straight edge. Erasures are prevalent, wiping the drawing to the ground (literally and figuratively) and frustrating connections. The surfaces are unified by flicks and wisps of ink that evoke hanging clouds. Even as the paintings are more ethereal, with mists of yellow and pink floating through paintings like Atlantic Wall, the overall palette in the gallery is what one would expect from an exhibition entitled ‘Grey Area.’
The moral compass of the show (if works of art can profess morality) also aligns well with the exhibition title. Mehretu’s draws inspiration from zones where political power has broken down and is in question. She references not only Ground Zero, but war torn cities the world over. It is not a coincidence that attacks on power are simultaneously attacks on architecture. Its logistics require the capital that power accrues, but it also makes for a visible target. Visually these territories refute Dostoevsky’s dictum of the uniqueness inherent in unhappiness; in their vacancy they all seem alike. Mehretu’s paintings have the remove of photojournalism, their horror is shown in grisaille and removed neutrality.
That the paintings were made in Berlin should not be ignored. It is a city that has had to be rebuilt after the devastation of World War II and further reconfigured after the removal of the wall. It is a first world city that has mimicked the urban change of the third world. The painting that stands apart from the others, Berliner Plätze, repeats the façades of Berlin landmarks Escher-like across different axes of the picture plane. It speaks simultaneously to the preservation of history and the inevitability of reconstruction. Large and calm, the painting intones that we are witnessing events that cycle through history. We do take comfort in their recurrence, but perhaps we can find some small solace in architects and artists being at the ready to rebuild.