Curator / Writer / Critic
Minimally Speaking @ Bentley Gallery.
Artists in the Show: Stephanie Blake, John Luebtow, Matt Magee, Peter Millett, Mark Pomilio, and Denise Yaghmourian,
On view from March 5th to March 31st.
Minimally Speaking, installation shot. Image courtesy of Bentley Gallery.
ON SPEAKING IN THE NAME OF MINIMALISM:
A Survey of Propositions, Commitments and New Departures. By Grant Vetter
A group show of Minimalist inspired works opened at Bentley gallery this past week entitled "Minimally Speaking", which prompts the question, what does it mean to speak in the language of Minimalism today? Of course, Minimalism was originally a response to the expressive pathos of Abstract Expressionism and Clement Greenberg's defense of flatness as the teleological thrust of modern art. Minimalism traded on countering the organic unity of Ab-Ex painting with systems thinking, repeated geometries and what Michel Fried called 'a theatrical use of space' which sought to engage the viewer on multiple levels of experience. In other words, Minimalism often abandoned the gallery walls in order to be situated alongside the art going public, where interaction and seeing objects in the round involved a more varied, and perhaps, more cerebral engagement on the part of the viewer. By contrast with New York Minimalism, which was austere and often relied on primary colors and forms, California Minimalism was decidedly slicker, more opulent and not as suspicious of pleasure or a mixed pallet. So what does this mean for how we think about the works in "Minimally Speaking", which are situated somewhere between these two schools of thought, both geographically and aesthetically.
Of course, the first thing we notice is that the works in "Minimally Speaking" have a dryer consistency with regard to the mediums employed, be they charcoal, wood, metal, etched glass, clay, fabric or felt. The second thematic tie-in is that the pieces chosen for this exhibition tend to favor, or seamlessly integrate, curvilinear forms with the rectilinear geometries of Minimalism's past. A third, and perhaps more pronounced element, is that the works in this group show don't shy away from using a punch of color or a dramatic jump in value to highlight the sculptural qualities of both surface and substrate. Lastly, the kinds of art practices that are on display in "Minimally Speaking" manage to walk a line that is irreducible to pure geometry or spontaneous improvisations. Taken together, we can say that the works in "Minimally Speaking" are very much about primary forms, but with a material, and often, a conceptual twist of sorts, that sets them well beyond the boundaries of the first few generations of Minimalist artists.
But why exactly is this case, and how can we think about it in terms of being a regional problematic, a cultural dialogue and a question about concerns in contemporary art practice? In order to show how these disparate fields of inquiry are of any special import with regard to art criticism, it is not only necessary to examine the ethos that ties an exhibition of works together formally, but also, to delve into the motivations which drive and define each artist's project in particular. Which is to say, a comparative analysis of works only takes on its full meaning in light of providing a closer reading of each individual contribution. Thus, we must attempt to better understand where each piece in the show sits with regard to the formal and cultural associations that allow any given work to find a 'voice', or a way of 'speaking', within the bounds of a historically condition iconography and its attending expectations. In this case, we are obviously talking about the idiom of Minimalism, whether adopted as a working language, or as language transformed, transmuted and sometimes, simply muted, in order to whisper to us through softer tones and gentler affects. But just how is this achieved in each artists oeuvre, and how can we characterize the nature of their varied contributions toward speaking Minimally?
Matt Magee, Dotted Line (detail), felt balls, twine, 204 by 2.5 by 2.5 inches. Image courtesy of Bentley Galley.
Mark Pomilio, Early Catastrophe III, charcoal on paper, mounted to curved wood, 43 by 42.5 by 5 inches, 2015. Image courtesy of Bentley Gallery.
Starting with Mark Pomilio's curved and collaged canvasses, which are composed with charcoal and incised with sharp geometric cuts, we find ourselves presented with a unique embrace of multiple strategies of making. Bold and stark, his paintings reveal a deft touch when approached for a more intimate viewing. But the feeling of raw charcoal dust mixed with motifs that are reminiscent of California Hard Edge painting, Art Concrete and certain moments from the history of the Pattern and Design movement, make for a uniquely hybrid aesthetic. Crisp, intellectual, and even a bit ominous at moments, Pomilio's works hold their own against the best pieces of Minimalism's past, and certainly represent a high watermark for Arizona Minimalism today.
By contrast, the wall sculptures of Peter Millett are rather inviting, warm and colorful, even though they are made of weighty materials like rough-hewn wood and industrial grade steel. Painted over with warm browns, cool whites, and rich blues set off against the pentimenti of petrified and oxidized supports, one cannot help but think about a rust aesthetic that echoes the dusty touch of some of Pomilio's pieces. In this way, we can say that there is a strong current of regionalism underlying both projects, but which is carried forward into the contemporary moment by so many subtle interventions. For instance, Millett is as apt to choose a formal name to describe his pieces, such as "S" or "Doublepoint", as he is to offset these programmatic descriptions with anthropomorphic titles like "Walking Women" or counter-culture identifications like "Hipster". There is, quite undoubtedly, a nod and wink in such gestures that doesn't miss the irony of how quickly Minimalism went from being a critical school of art production to a design aesthetic that was embraced by the general public in a shorter period of time than any other art movement in the twentieth century. In this way, we can say that Millett's works remind us that it is hip to be Minimal even while continuing to challenge our expectations about just what that means.
Peter Millett, Doublepoint, steel, 16.25 by 10.5 by 4.25 inches, 2005. Image courtesy of Bentley Gallery.
John Luebtow, Linear Form Wall Series-LF-W10-99/9, 3/4 inch clear kiln formed glass, polished stainless steel brackets, 40 by 9 by 7.5 inches, 2010. Image courtesy of Bentley Gallery.
Equally notable as a regional aesthetic of sorts are the works of John G. Luebtow. Luebtow's "Linear Series" is composed of cool, smooth, sleek, glass sculptures, which immediately call to mind the idea of falling water in a state that is beset with similar motifs. What is especially impressive about Luebtow's works however is their sheer virtuosity, which comes from making a hard material, like glass, into a sensual series of forms whose haptic qualities are held in balance by an active dance of optical pleasures. Folded over, flopping and undulating movements, staged to perfection in their proportion and technique, Luebtow's pieces are sure to draw you in through the gentle play of light, shadow and transparency. His collaged works, like "Linear Form Wall Series-Lf-W4-91/9", are no less impressive for mixing together a myriad of materials and cultural allusions without losing any of the impact that his smaller works have in spades.
Matt Magee, Dotted Line, felt balls, twine, 204 by 2.5 by 2.5 inches. Image courtesy of Bentley Gallery.
Following on the dust, rust and water motifs proffered by Pomilio, Millet and Luebtow, respectively, we move into the expanded field of Minimalist interventions with the installation works of Matt Magee. Laid on the floor and suspended in the air, "From Here to There" and "Dotted Line", are clearly works that pay homage to the impetus behind New York style Minimalism. Only with these pieces, we are treated to the use of more 'consumer friendly' materials, such as felt, twine and shredded inner-tube plastics. Of course, it goes without saying, that such materials have a regional tie-in too, and that much like the projects of other artists in the show, Magee also manages to transform his chosen materials in a way that defies being reducible to a local or minor vernacular. Instead, Magee's works perform a kind of artistic alchemy that allows them to become part of a bigger discourse about space, time, and meter. This elevation of both materials and intent is most decidedly on display in Magee's larger installation works which run in a line, which court symmetry and which play with an open-ended sense of systemicity. These qualities are only further underscored by Magee's restrained use of color, which consists of staying to a pallet of cool blacks and warm grays. It is only in Magee's "Hanger Number 7" that we find a playful departure in color and form that is no less reserved in its commitment to repurposing found materials and the motifs of modern art, albeit, with a touch of light hearted candor and frivolity.
Stephanie Blake, Displacement, bisque fired porcelain, 11 by 7 by 8 inches. Image courtesy of Bentley Gallery.
Following Magee's pieces, we encounter the works of Stephanie Blake, which don't seem to be a part of a readily identifiable regionalist discourse, or even Minimalism with a capital M, but which are no less powerful for embracing an intuitive and largely spontaneous program of execution. Certainly, Blake's pieces are in the show for their restrained pallet, their elegant qualities, and their stunning delicacy. One gets the feeling that these comfortably scaled sculptures - which are composed of either polished steel or fired porcelain - could work at any size. This is because they are complete in their intention and refined in their aesthetic disposition. The soft qualities of fleshiness mixing with bent geometries, delicately folded into one another, is a fair characterization of Blake's modus operandi. At a purely technical level, her nuanced handling of form is a rare find in an age of industrially produced sculpture. Taken as allegories about the status of Minimalist aesthetics, her contribution is perhaps that much more incisive for opening up new avenues of exploration within a vernacular of reserve, making minimal gestures speak in a wholly other octave than what the Minimalist project has heretofore admitted.
Denise Yaghmourian, Red Cube, red cube with silver eyelets and black thread, 7.25 by 7.25 by 7.25 inches, 2015. Image courtesy of Bentley Gallery.
Finally, we come to the sculptural works of Denise Yaghmourian whose pieces bring a distinct air of internationalism and even feminist critique to their take on the Minimalist aesthetic. By combining geometric forms with found materials, Yaghmourian's works point to what is decidedly outside the hermetic concerns of twentieth century Minimalism. Not afraid of using color, the brilliant shock of her glowing red pallet and the types of interventions in form and content that drive her work are sure to grab the attention of viewers straight away. The play of recognition and misrecognition in her pieces presents us with a series of dichotomies that is textual, historical, and phenomenological. In short, her pieces are a rich experience for both the eyes and the mind. Evidenced in works like "Red Cube", which is a suspended square composed of silver eyelets, black thread and red fabric stretched over a wood box, we encounter a deceptive simplicity that proves to be as much about the play of constraint and the rhetoric of display as it is about the critique of aesthetic conventions. One might even say that Yaghmourian's piece is the Minimalist version of Pandora’s box, mixing domestic labor materials with industrial bra fasteners and sinewy synthetic fabrics, all of which invite you in for a closer look while dressing up geometries in an attire that refuses to 'bare all'. Of course, this is a classical inversion of the Neo-Platonic attitude that defined Minimalism as a series of ontological commitments. As such, it appears that Yaghmourian's pandoric gesture is to have let loose 'the evils of the world' on an idiom that was formerly based on purity in line and form. Like many of the artists in the show, we find Yaghmourian making Minimalism speak in tongues, or even in tongue twisters, if not by rethinking the ideality attributed to 'primary forms', than at least by making us confront the question of 'primary motivations'.
While "Red Cube" alone is worth the drive to see the exhibition, the show itself provides an incisive commentary on what it means to "Speak Minimally" in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. In fact, we might say these works want to talk to us about art history, place and space, but with as little small talk as possible. They get right to the point in speaking with poignant gestures and eremitic designs, which are the hallmark of the Minimalist program. But it is also important to understand that they point to a multitude of other concerns as well, be they regional, theoretical or theatrical. This small group show, which is really more of a survey in brief, is richly rewarding for being both innovative and provocative. But most importantly, it is worth the trip to come investigate in person, as the works are mostly in the round, and only reveal themselves through the extended time of viewing.
Minimally Speaking is on view at Bentley Gallery from March 5th through the 31st. Works are viewable Tuesday through Saturday from 9:30am to 5:30pm and by appointment. Bentley gallery is located at 215 East Grant Street, Phoenix, Az, 85004. Call (480) 946-6060 or visit their website at http://bentleygallery.com/ for more information.
Grant Vetter is the Program Director of Fine Art Complex 1101 in Tempe, a board member of the Foundation for Fine Art Resources (FAR) and the author of The Architecture of Control, from Zero Books.
Clarita Lulić: the Good Hurt
April 30th - May 4th
Opening: May 1st, 5:00 to 8:00pm
Clarita Lulić and Inter-Relational Aesthetics: Intimacy, Inquiry and the Interpersonal Refrain.
"The purpose here is not to celebrate a certain notion of incoherence, but only to point out that our 'incoherence' establishes the way in which we are constituted in relationality: implicated, beholden, derived, sustained by a social world that is beyond us and before us."
Following the 'relational turn' in art practice, we find that the works of Clarita Lulić confront us with a rather timely question, which is whether or not we can conceive of a more conflicted tradition of performative works that might be thought of as an 'inter-relational aesthetics'. While the handful of projects that have been grouped under the moniker of relational aesthetics was supposed to present us with a radical alternative to the image of the modern artist as an isolated genius - or what Nicolas Bourriaud calls an alter-modern perspective - there may in fact be a more subversive genealogy of inter-relational practices that is often neglected by today's art critics.
Clarita Lulić, Burn, Ink Jet Print, 24 by 36 inches, 2015.
This other tradition finds its footing in Yvonne Rainer's early pieces with the Judson Dance Theater of the 60s, or works that were inspired by Womenhouse in the 70s, and which continue to gain a wider audience still with the canonization of artists like Sophie Calle, Gillian Wearing and Tracey Emin. It is from within this other trajectory about 'relationality' that we can better place the works of Lulić, who's pieces reach beyond the contemporary obsession with relational propositions by attempting to bridge the gap between the personal, the probable and the predicative.
But in order to understand the dialectic conflicts that drive Lulić's oeuvre, which has moved from charting interactions, to creating cartographies of activity, and finally to capturing the concrete aspects of inter-relational acts, we must begin by thinking about the overall trajectory of her art practice as a hermeneutic problematic of sorts. Thus, we can say that Lulić's first works are not entirely unlike the early work of Sophie Calle, whose first public piece was "The Sleepers". This particular intervention in the social sphere, or rather, the politics of public display, consisted of inviting passer-byers to occupy Calle's bed while she photographed them, served them food, and played host to the impromptu interactions of pillow-talk. Of course, the obvious forerunner to this work was Yvonne Rainer's "Two People on a Bed/Table", which told the story of a love relationship through a myriad of mediums, affective techniques of the body, and which also 'played' to a live audience.
Mining a similar vein of interests predicated on investigating the constructed nature of the private/public dyad, Lulić's first performative intervention was a work called "Pretend Boyfriends". The conceptual basis of the project, given as an improbable program of sorts, consisted of the following instructions when entering into the interpersonal refrain:
1. Approach a stranger in the street whom you could possibly form a relationship with (anyone really).
2. Ask stranger politely if he wouldn't mind being in a photograph with you (smile lots, it helps).
3. Approach another stranger and ask them politely to take a photograph of myself and stranger number one using my compact camera.
4. When posing for shot ask first stranger if they could pretend to be my boyfriend. 5. Try to act normal and smile more.
6. Thank everyone and leave. 7. Repeat.
Clarita Lulić, Pretend Boyfriends, 4 by 6 inches, Digital C Print, 2008.
While the resulting pictures vary from being clearly uncomfortable to seemingly spontaneous, they do carry the charge of a mis-registered act, or a sense of déjà vu, or even a touch of the uncanny. And it is this same sense of motivated misdirection which is transformed in Lulic's later works into playful allegories of entrapment, or really, into something of a passion play about inter-subjective acts and reactions. And yet, with the appearance of her latest works, which include a group of pieces that operate in the round, we find that Lulić's drive to make the singular quality of snap-shots into figures frozen in time is informed in no small measure by these earlier pieces.
Following from "Pretend Boyfriends", which shows us how personal experiences can, and often do, act as a stand-in for inter-personal connections, is a group of photographic works that have been brought together under the notion of a "Limerent Reaction". In this small body of work Lulić has taken the time to reconstruct her own personal history of relationships gone awry through a variety of photographic restoration techniques. Permeated by longing and a fixation with the past, we see a touch of this in her newer pieces with regard to the use of art historical references. Foregrounded in works like "Cupid", which not only hint at the paradoxes of love's designs, but which actively conflate a traditional allegory of 'inspired' love with pictorial illusions to the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian or Saint Thaddeus, we cannot help but be reminded of the many ways in which love can be seen as a type of enchantment and a sacrificial yearning throughout the ages.
Clarita Lulić, Limerent Reaction, Installation Shot, 2008.
Other small bodies of work, like "Cast Off", which consists of having documented a returned scarf from a past lover, and "Ultimate Grand Supreme", which acts as a commentary on the wholly unnatural aesthetic of the pageantry circuit, point to errant expectations in the realm of inter-relationality. Both pieces speak to the dialectic play of loss and idealization that accompanies the hyperbolic dance of desire and distance, projection and erasure, false image and real outcome. Of course, these themes continue to hold an abiding presence in Lulić's imagery from "Pretend Boyfriends" up to, and including, her present body of work, albeit with a different use of proxy props and interim subjects.
Clarita Lulić, Ultimate Grand Supreme, digital ink jet print, 13 by 17 inches, 2012.
An yet, perhaps Lulić's most comprehensive body of work, for which she was awarded a National Media Museum Photography Grant, is the three part series "Seven Short One Long". This expeditionary art venture produced an inventory of images that reveal the rhetorical gestures of fantasy and frivolity aboard a cruise ship, as well as the constructed sets and the day-to-day life of the working crew who support the 'vacation experience'. Something of an exposé of class distinctions, manufactured memories and the unfortunate aftermath of breaking down and cleaning up after shoots, "Seven Short One Long" invites another kind of looking than what is culturally prescribed. While providing us with a thorough catalog of familial imagery caught at the crossroads of the anthropological, the commercial and the personal, the most compelling series of images from this project is probably Lulić's second grouping of photographs. In these pictures Lulić takes the time to place herself in and among the fantasy settings of her subjects, each time, dawning a new hairdo and a different sense of scale with regard to the placement of props and backdrops. Here, Lulić acts out a dual role by providing us with direct access to the figure of artistic-reportage as well as being the undercover autobiographer of her own journey as an esthetician of intensive labor-aesthetic experiences. In this way, "Seven Short One Long" acts as an incisive commentary on the circumspect nature of the inter-relational imaginary as well as the not so subtle wish fulfillment of the artist to abandon ship.
Yet it is with the body of work entitled "Beholden" that Lulić makes a substantial contribution to what might be termed inter-relational aesthetics, and which marks the developmental of her work as a strong contribution on the 'other scene' of relational inquires in artistic practice. Going beyond the re-presentation of documentary motifs in a structuralist format, as well as developing the language of performative negotiation, "Beholden" presents us with a series of photos in which Lulić's husband is dowsed with modernist motifs, like dripping paint and pigmented powders. Taken in a more anonymous register, we find in the same works, a male subject made into an odalisque of sorts, adorned with a large bow that serves to denature the cultural expectations of 'pictured' masculinity. In such images, we are confronted with a recasting of the male figure for naked consumption vis-à-vis a twenty-first century twist on rococo inspired commercialism. Or, from a more modest and playful perspective, we could say that "Stephen with Bow" provides us with a simple but elegant sensualism that hints at the possibility of a privileged feminine gaze set over an against a subject-made-demure and perhaps, even a touch emasculated.
Clarita Lulić, Spanish Light, 16 by 20 inches, Digital ink jet print, 2012.
Other pieces in the same series suggest acts, like kissing, slapping, getting one's mouth washed out with soap or even being tested to eat the least desirable of foodstuffs, all of which allude to the hidden economy of contest and contestation in the sphere of domestic relations. Of course, what differentiates these works from those engaged in 'relational art practices' is that Lulić's project is not abjured from the question of feminine power or patriarchy, even when it takes up a program of propositions that might be inscribed under the rather powerful and pervasive idea of what we are willing to do 'in the name of love'. And it is in this sense that the relational quality of Lulić's pieces move from her earlier practice of cultivating a 'relatable aesthetics' based on interventionism, to a committed project that is decidedly inter-relational and socio-political.
Clarita Lulić, Stephen with Bow, Ink Jet Print, 24 by 36 inches, 2014.
Such a perspective stands in sharp contrast to the artists under Bourriaud's banner of 'relational aesthetics' which valorizes the idea of getting the art going public to connect with detourned programs of artistic production that invite transversal forms of play and open-ended experimentation. By contrast, Lulić's methodology is almost the opposite, which is to say, she tests the most intimate bounds between photographer and sitter, as well as the bonds between husband and wife, artist and subject, suggestion and retort. In other words, Lulić uses those objects which are a part of the everyday economy of domestic exchange such as trash bags, silly string, party masks, and ribbons for wrapping presents, all of which act in service of developing a pictorial vernacular of participation. Of course, all of these pictured scenarios highlight not just how we relate, but how the constitutive vocabulary of domestic rituals and gendered expectations makes relationality into a largely unconscious and culturally prescribed set of routines. This unique approach to the sphere of mundane interactions mixed with the sparse play of aesthetic conventions - which even boarder on being essentialist at times by highlighting the act of relation stripped bare of all its regular accoutrements - is the defining motif that drives Lulić's more recent pieces. Of course, it is through this directness, or rather, directedness, that Lulić's serendipitous set-ups allow the viewer to reflect on the conditions of social, gendered and domestic exchange that permeate our daily lives.
Clarita Lulić, Bin Bag, Ink jet print, 24 by 36 inches, 2014.
"Complete Offer", a subsequent body of work, is just as poignant for picturing the artist both nude and robed, which are two of the most common economies of cohabitation wherein we can just 'be ourselves'. Only here, there appears to be something of a stoic and stalwart attitude on the part of the sitter toward the enduring silence regarding the position of gendered inequality in the home. This is underscored by the series title, Extension I, II, etc., which points to the liminal presence of a second maternal figure, who not only blends into the fabric print background of a domestic interior but who hides her face and presence in the hair extensions of the artist. Of course, this is a nod not only to the troubled place that women hold in a world where patriarchal expectations still dominate the space of domestic life, but it also points to the feminine subject as one who receives little more than the general inheritance of a generationally reinforced subject position that is concordant with decoration and/or being an object of beautification. It is in this sense that the obscured figure of the mother in the Extensions series acts as Lacan's definition of a vanishing mediator for the presentation of the self in an economy of presentment. Thus, the artist confronts us most directly in these images with the gaze, which, while being seated on a pedestal that does not necessarily avoid the implications of idealization, still hints at a reserve of resistance regarding the persistence of a certain kind of invisibility that is often imposed on the 'fairer' sex as an unfair trade of sorts.
Thus it is, that in Lulić's newest body of work, these themes are granted a greater degree of presence by being given to us in the form of sculpture, photos, and mixed media interventions. And while Lulić continues to use her husband in these recent works as her sole subject, her pieces haven't lost any of their sense of humor or biting seriousness, which is to say, they have taken on an even greater degree of dialectic tension. In this way, Lulić's sense of compassionate conflict brings us one step closer to the most intimate critique of inter-subjective relations by hinting at the history of gendered roles, domestic discipline and other 'relational' diatribes. What is particularly prescient about this new body of work, however, is that she achieves this by broadening the scale of her pieces, the depth of her engagement with materials, and the idea of history writ large.
Clarita Lulić, Extensions II, Archival ink jet print, 22 by 30 inches, 2014.
Works like "Burn" hint at some of the worst kinds of public crimes carried out against women, while "Peck" and "Soap" rely on a coded language of conflict and constraint, or the feeling of being eaten away at slowly, over time. These sociological motifs, which depend on the framework of heteronormative conventions, are also echoed in Lulić's earlier sculpture works, which all gesture toward a certain reserve with regard to the notion of living 'happily ever after'. In this way, we can say that Lulić has created a sensitive and insightful oeuvre that looks at the interpolative roles attributed to domestic tranquility and/or relational conviviality. Her work does this by offering us a number of different ways into thinking about the signs, symbols and rituals of inter-subjective relations, or what is known in transactional psychology as participation research into 'the games people play', only here, relational research takes on a decidedly aesthetic turn.
Above all else, the value of such interventions is not only to have passed beyond the reserved distance of observation that haunts the work of artists like Calle, or the anonymity of Wearing's projects, or even the overt sensationalism of Emin's pieces, but instead, to put on display that which is the most intimate, the most common, and the most identifiable in human experience. We can see that with Lulić's work, what appears most pedestrian is that which is the most political because it provides an opportunity to think critically about what is still taken for granted in our cultural milieu as inter-relational forms and/or 'partnered' roles.
Clarita Lulić, Burn, Ink Jet Print, 24 by 36 inches, 2015.
This is because what appears to be at first comical and even a bit colloquial in some of Lulić's pieces, is in fact, quite serious at a time when much of the world has not yet consolidated the gains of women's liberation in the form of equal pay or equality with regard to reproductive rights, not to mention basic legal protections. Consequently, Lulić's work reminds us of the quieter voices, of the daily disputes, and of unquestioned social conventions that still dominate the lives of women in western world, perhaps to the exclusion of a lived equality of measure, voice and perpetuity in the home. Here we can say that the turn from relational aesthetics to inter-relational modes of expression, strikes a cord within the cultural problematic of inter-personal communication because this is where the greatest gains are yet to be made, i.e., in the implicit and explicit subject positions attributed to carrying out the 'duties' of everyday living. It is also the place where Lulić has made a most incisive and timely contribution to how we understand the conflicts that constitute the crucible of the inter-relational problematic. As such, a show like the "the Good Hurt" gives us an encounter of what is entreating and challenging about contemporary art, and because of this the art going public is sure to have an ongoing relationship with the works of Clarita Lulić for some time to come.
A Retrospective Review in Four Parts.
Mala Breuer: New York to Santa Fe. Bentley Gallery, April 23rd to May 30th.
"My painting is about being formed from formlessness building spontaneously intuitively metaphorically within a given structure of linear tension abstracted from everything implicating everything in my vision."
"Nothing in and of itself, the formless has only an operational existence..." Yve-Alain Bois
PART I: Abstract Painting and the Gift of Giving Form to the Formless.
There are a number of ways to begin thinking about the small survey of works by Mala Breuer currently on exhibit at Bentley Gallery in downtown phoenix. The first would be in terms of regionalism, as the subtitle of the show is from "New York to Santa Fe". Of course, Breuer studied in California as a student, making her influences something of a cross-country affair, even though New York style Ab-Ex painting and the earthy pallet of the Southwest play a vital role in different periods of her artistic production. A second way to begin thinking about Breuer's art is in terms of time, and especially, the times Breuer exhibited in. Over the course of many decades, one can say that Breuer's aesthetic was influenced by abstraction and minimalism in equal measure. Thus, Breuer's paintings are all about the timing of marks, the time of absorption, and intimations of a timeless sense of presence and light.
Mala Breuer, 7.29.95, Oil and wax on canvas, 30 by 30 inches, 1995. Image courtesy of Bentley Gallery.
These kinds of considerations are of paramount importance when reflecting on Breuer's accomplishments as an artist because the notion of temporality can never be separated from the idea of place or space. More than any single thematic interest, school of thought, program or manifesto, it is these enduring pictorial concerns that provide us with an entre into thinking about how Breuer's career traced a path across America that was evidenced not just in her pieces, but also, in the all-over composition of her life.
Breuer's journey from coast to coast, which eventually landed in something of an in- between place, can be best summed up in three discrete acts. First, there is the undeniable influence of Breuer's teacher, Clifford Still, which shows itself in the way Breuer handles paint as well as her approach to dividing up the canvass into an active field of contrasts, considerations and intuitive responses. Next came a distinct period of development in New York where Breuer was sure to have seen some of the landmark shows of her day, shows which surely shifted her aesthetic into a more urban register, mixing exuberant color choices with an almost gothic weightiness. Finally, Breuer retired from the Big Apple only to strike up a personal friendship with Agnes Martin in Santa Fe. In this later period Breuer adopted a slightly different methodology that included a more nuanced relationship to shifting gradations and the proliferation of lyrically painted striations.
And yet, over the course of her many transitions, which really consisted of so many passage works, or works that were about painting a passage of time, Breuer never abandoned any of the lessons of her past. Breuer's was a path of constant integration driven by inclination. A deft touch, dedication to the concept of the all- over composition, and a haptic sense of animated tactility continued to define Breuer's art practice for more than seventy years. But in terms of the change of scenery from New York to Santa Fe, Breuer surely gained more time to work, to discover a different pace of intention, and a new relation to Art Informal, or the making of a certain kind of formlessness that was even more melodic than the linear works of late De Kooning and which cultivated a sense of atmospheric repose that was on par with Olitski's best pieces. Thus, it was in the Southwest that Breuer's art really entered into a period of condensation and maturation.
Mala Breuer, 6-30-95 (60x60) Oil and Wax on Canvas, 60 by 60 by 1.5 inches, 1995. Image courtesy of Bentley Gallery.
Consequently, we can say that the idea of locale, of transit, and of negotiating a place for the eye to rest amidst thoughtfully activated figure and ground relations was what the journey from New York to Santa Fe was all about. This is true inasmuch as we find evidence of dynamic and changing relationships throughout Breuer's work and life, a life dedicated to the notion of organic unity, which was the hallmark of the abstract impulse, and which Breuer made a rather heady contribution too.
Part II: What In-forms the Conditions of Art Informal as an Art Practice?
But all of these observations are the obvious trappings of any good read of Breuer's oeuvre, and they are certainly not without their merits. Such ideas provide us with a wealth of factual information about the paintings on display, albeit, without saying much as to why we should be interested in Breuer's project. In order to do this we have to place the work not only within the larger context of issues in abstract art but we also have to situate it alongside the prejudices of the cultural milieu Breuer inhabited. To overlook such questions is to miss the fact that abstraction, from the first generation up to the present, has been a bit of a boys club to say the least. Thus, working with, and against the reigning ethos of times - which had its own set of gendered biases - was as integral to navigating the field of cultural production for a female artist as having to find opportunities to make and exhibit work.
As such, the kinds of formal decisions that defined Breuer's career can never really be disentangled from another set of issues, issues which concern her place in the artworld as a women. And yet, taking this into account makes it possible to cast a new light on her aesthetic choices at a time when developing a signature style was what defined the New York School of Action Painters. Newman's zip's, Pollock's drips, Kline's contrasts, Hoffman's push and pull, everyone had to stake out an iconic claim of sorts, and defend it! This was avant-gardism as a type of militarism, the kind that played at 'king of the hill', rather than being an advanced scooting troop. Despite the many claims about innovation, rupture and breaking with the past, what really took hold during the years of 'high modernism' was often less of an exploratory attitude toward painting and more of an entrenched set of commitments.
Mala Breuer, 1979 (Untitled, 70x40), Oil and wax on canvas, 70 by 40 inches, 1979. Image courtesy of Bentley Gallery.
During this period, being in the trenches meant critics followed, drove and helped to define the teleological thrust of painting toward its supposed historical development, like soldiers in lock-step formation barking orders about so many competing diatribes. There was the supposed value of essentialism, the rather contagious idea of valorizing of the 'truth to materials', and the ever-present rhetoric of purity. So when we see an artist like Breuer sampling different styles, making marks that play with Newman's Zips, like "Untitled" from 1979, or adopting Still's graphic designs in pieces like "Line Up" from 1983, it is important to note that this type of open-ended appropriation just wasn't done at the time, or at least, it wasn't really back in vogue until neo-expressionism and neo-geo took hold in the late 80's. Thus, we can say that during Breuer's early period, not only was it not 'ok' to sample and riff off another artist's stylistic inflections, it was actively derided as being derivative, démodé, or simply uninspired.
Mala Breuer, 7.23.83 (Line Up), Oil and wax on canvas, 70 by 40 inches, 1979. Image courtesy of Bentley Gallery.
Of course, none of this was lost on Breuer, nor was the idea of a certain machismo or a heroic attitude toward painting, only Breuer choose to acknowledge it with slightly tongue and cheek titles like "Olympics" and "As Good as Gold". There is even a hint that Breuer understood that the militaristic attitude of the New York School had replaced the idea of modern art as an experimental enterprise by instituting and institutionalizing a call to Action --- Painting! Afterall, this type of painting was set to defeat the Parisian avant-garde, and Breuer's hidden critique of such warring factions was present not only in pieces like "line up" - which could easily be substituted for the admonition to 'stand at attention' - but in her eventual abandonment of the New York scene altogether and her substitution of figurative titles with non-descript ways of labeling the work, like simply using the date of completion for instance. Afterall, both of these gestures signal a desire to be 'at-ease' with regard to the dominant discourses of formalist art. One might even go so far as to say that easement is the modus operandi of Breuer's project if we take it to mean a type of protection derived from weathering the contest between dueling art capitals caught up in a petit-bourgeois game of 'capture the flag'.
Mala Breuer, 7.16.83 (As Good As Gold), Oil and wax on canvas, 84 by 72 inches, 1983. Image courtesy of Bentley Gallery.
It goes without saying that all of these trumped up polemics are rather hard to imagine in our post-historical culture of hybridity and sampling. In Breuer's day, however, it was quite the opposite. To challenge the normative prescriptions that issued from the gatekeepers of the critical establishment was to fall into error, or worst yet, total irrelevance. It was anathema to having abandoned not only the spirit of the times, but the very idea of modern art as a model of 'progress' toward flatness, embodied experience and aesthetic absolutism. What is even more interesting perhaps is how Breuer embraced techniques of pastiche and some might even say the occasional parody - however unknowingly - in the volumes of studies she made throughout her life. In some small way, Breuer's work always straddled a line between being what one would call a 'true' modernist and a defacto post- modernist, although Breuer herself would never claim any affinity for the later.
PART III: Painting Through a Time-of-Crisis, Conflict, and Contradiction.
The real conflict however, and perhaps the real interest in Breuer's career, could be seen as revolving around the following set of contests. First, her practice as an artist was wholly dialogic, yet the results were highly personal and even idiosyncratic at times. Second, while she did not try to 'brand' her look, or develop an iconic style, Breuer did work out the improvisational look of her paintings beforehand through collages, watercolors, and drawings that exhibited an uncommon degree of finish. In other words, she was after the feeling of radical reductionism and commitment to the act of painting, without making it into a mere affect of style. Breuer genuinely wanted to rehearse and respond to what was happening in the act of making while
avoiding any sense of being an autodidact. Thus, Breuer's type of essentialism was never one that was easily codified. This was a rare achievement at a time when one can say that most, if not all of the first and second generation abstract expressionists, met this very fate. And finally, while her paintings show the influence of artists like Still and early Stella, Breuer was also in dialogue with the female artists of her day too. Not only is there a connection to well-known figures like her close friend Agnes Martin, but there is also a degree of resonance, if not outright resemblance to the dashy application of paint by figures like Joan Mitchell, or the more conservative compositions of Helen Frankenthaler, not to mention the collage aesthetic of Lee Krasner.
Taken together, the idea that Breuer's heroicism was to be found in her titles and the mutability of her pieces, but not in the reification of her own style as an end-in- itself; that she was an absolutist about the act of painting, but not looking for an absolute solution to the questions of painting; that she was as much in conversation with the work of male painters as she was with that of women, but without ever needing to associate her aesthetic with gendered 'norms' --- all of this is what allows us to say that Breuer achieved something truly unique and often unrecognized by many of her contemporaries. She stayed in the work, and never industrialized her own mode of artistic production. She never abandoned investigating new possibilities that could have been seen as undermining the market value of her work in the long run. In short, Breuer never pursued 'purity' of form at the cost of content, nor did she abandon the real meaning of the word avant-garde, which is that of assessing advanced interests in a new field of inquiry, or rather, in new and dangerous territory. Without exaggeration or too much trumped up posturing, we can say that this is a claim that few artists of Breuer's generation can make wholeheartedly.
Mala Breuer, 11.21.83 (Emerald), Oil and wax on canvas, 72 by 72 inches, 1983. Image courtesy of Bentley Gallery.
PART IV: Mala Breuer and Time of Painting Reclaimed.
Taking this into account, how do we understand Breuer's work now, looking back at this small survey of select pieces? On the one hand, Breuer's artistic concerns all seem to circle around the pole of geometry, which structures her compositions, and on the other hand, she always courted a degree of spontaneity, which gave her paintings their assured execution. Breuer seems to insist, quite emphatically, on the measured ability of the artists' hand and a certain sense of touch to move us, in either big bold gestures or a minor vocabulary of extreme delicacy and precision. Breuer's work depends on creating a certain level of captivation given over to us through the consideration of bodily relations, where scale and the size of the mark are as important as the choice of color and form. What is perhaps most evident about Breuer's oeuvre however, are the many ways in which she wants the viewer to know that she's still exploring, that she's still present in the act of making, and that she hasn't gone into auto-pilot or become subservient to any one set of prescriptive measures. As such, Breuer's poetics are nothing less than a sensorial poetry of time, touch and temperament, organized vis-à-vis painterly transmission.
Beyond these achievements we can only say that Breuer didn't bother getting married the way Lee Krasner did, she didn't identify with the impressionism of Monet the way Joan Mitchel did, she didn't follow Morris Louis into color field painting the way Frankenthaler did, she didn't really even adopt a minimalist ethic the way Agnes Martin did, who would have been the obvious person she 'followed', or really, fell in with, later in life. Instead, Breuer remained in dialog with the affective qualities of her surrounding environment, while quietly cultivating a language of intuitive mark making rather than an unconscious form of automatic writing.
Mala Breuer, 10.20.95, Oil and wax on canvas, 30 by 30 inches, 1995. Image courtesy of Bentley Gallery.
Above all else, this is what separates her work from that of her contemporaries. Breuer labored to achieve a perfect marriage of gesture, scale and proportion, where chromatic opulence slowly transformed into optical elegance in the journey from New York to Santa Fe. Breuer never wanted to make works that were monuments, or which were overly imposing, but which still asked for your whole attention nonetheless. And she did this in the age where an obsession with cinematic scale and the experience of the sublime was not just the demand of the day, it was a prerequisite for financial and critical success. Despite this fact, or rather in spite of it, Breuer choose to define success around another set of terms, terms which didn't always have to do with the size, or shall we say, with a certain need to overcompensate for a lack of content.
And for this, perhaps, many years from now, historians will appreciate the place of Mala Breuer in the story of twentieth century painting a bit more that they do today. Without irony, she helped to open the door for artists like Mary Heilmann and Amy Sillman to gain wider recognition; without losing a sense of organic integration she embraced much of the systems painting that took place during minimalism; and without making her work an overt vehicle for politics she still managed to address some of the disparities and challenges of working in an almost all male profession. But what's most amazing is that Breuer did this using the vehicle of painting, and abstract painting at that! In this way, we can say that Breuer was always fighting an uphill battle, one that was far steeper, and against worse odds, than many artists would care to imagine. She was a member of an advanced guard of one, an avant- gardist in the singular, long before the age of pluralism or the rather haughty debates about the death and the return of painting.
Mala Breuer, 2.79, Oil on canvas, 12 by 12 inches, 1979. Image courtesy of Bentley Gallery.
Thus, the gift of Breuer's work is that of unlimited permissions without succumbing to a kind of abandonment without reserve. Her pallet, which ranges from the brightest primaries to the most subdued pastels, always continued to reflect her surroundings. Breuer's pieces entreat us to be present with her in the act of making, hiding little behind her hand unless it is a scumbled effect staged for dramatic punch or a change in tempo. If anything, her works ask us to pay attention to how we encounter our world, to be beholden to the space in which we reside, to appreciate the light cast not only across the surface of her various series, but to notice that Breuer's art is not so much about seriality as it is the reality of being engaged with the times you live in and the nature of the creative act. For having maintained this rare balance, and for the amazing strength to have gone it alone, not necessarily against the tide, but surfing the tunnel of the wave from the inside, Breuer's work deserves not just a second look but genuine recognition. There are few rare authentic voices such as Mala Breuer and it's worth the opportunity to see this selective look back at what she achieved, not only in New York, but here in the Southwest, a place that Breuer still calls home.
Mala Breuer: From New York to Santa Fe, is on view at the Bentley Gallery in Downtown phoenix from April 23rd through May 30th. The Gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 9:30 am to 5:30pm. For more information about the exhibition call Bentley at (480) 946-6060.
Kelly Richardson's Tales on the Horizon at SMOCA.
The Experience of the Expectant Sublime in the works of Kelly Richardson.
Kelly Richardson, Mariner 9, 2012. Panoramic video installation with sound, 9 by 43 feet, 5.1 audio, 20 minutes seamless loop. Originally commissioned by Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom. Images courtesy of the artist.
In the history of western art the idea of the sublime has undergone a number of critical revisions, each being representative of the concerns of the age. These include Kant's notion of the mathematical sublime, which trades on the conflicted idea that the mind can conceptualize the notion of infinity, but cannot properly cognize the experience of it. In other words, we have no objective feeling of infinity as finite beings. Second, there is Burke's notion of the sublime effects of nature, i.e., the great powers of the natural world that regularly threaten to overwhelm our small and otherwise, fragile sensibilities. As opposed to Kant's mathematic sublime, which upsets the limits of reason by pointing to that which is definitively beyond it, the sublime experience of nature brings with it the disturbing possibility of the dissolution of the body through natural disasters, ultimately returning our corporeal form to an entirely different sense of the 'great beyond'. And yet, both of these notions of the sublime serve as meditations about the possibility of stepping beyond our regular experience of the world around us.
Consequently, it is also worth noting that these first two ideas about sublimity refer to the enlightenment notion of reason and the works of the romantics, respectively. As such, they represent pre-modern paradigms for thinking about the implications of aesthetic experience. By contrast, we find that the works of Kelly Richardson confront us with the image of a third sublime, a kind of sublimity which the artist herself calls the "apocalyptic sublime", but which corresponds fairly well to what the art critic Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe refers to as the technological sublime. This third definition of sublimity, which is on display everywhere a futuristic catastrophe takes place on celluloid, is the cinematic equivalent of Kantian reason releasing the unknowable forces of nature on mankind, be it through a systems error, or simply, the politics of the worst.
In this way, we can say that the technological sublime creates the same awestruck feeling as that of nature's greatest powers, only instead, this new form of aesthetic experience is an expression of humanity's own designs. This unique synthesis, of reason becoming as devastating a force as any natural phenomenon, and in many cases, something much worse, is unique to modern and postmodern existence. In fact, this rather paradoxical contradiction, that humanity's greatest achievements are also implicated in its greatest failures, is everywhere on display in Richardson's oeuvre, making her something like the Casper David Friedrich of the early 21st century.
In fact, Richardson's work might even be said to exceed these historical precedents by landing us nearer to the ideas of another Fredric, the cultural theorist Fredric Jameson, and his notion of the hysterical sublime. Jameson's reformulation of the concept of sublimity is what Richardson’s work seems to be hinting at by creating an aesthetic of apocalyptic apotheosis, or the pictorial equivalent of a historical impasse set against the horizon of technological consequences that we cannot fully cognize, or even grasp for that matter. Thus, this fourth formulation of the sublime is a bit more complex than the previous three. This is because Jameson insists that the sublime of technological terror induces a much stronger feeling of cognitive dissonance than one might first suspect. As a result, we can say that where Gilbert-Rolfe has updated Burke, Jameson is closer to being a neo-Kantian inasmuch as he insists that the experience of psychological displacement associated with technological development isn't necessarily overwhelming, but that it can also be quite underwhelming because we can't form a clear and distinct idea of computational power by simply looking at a computer, a motherboard or a microchip. Not only that, but the historical condition of being outwitted by the power of our own inventions is only further exacerbated whenever all of these forms of sublime experience become complementary concerns, as they often are in our age.
After all, post-postmodern existence is a time that is equally beset with issues that concern the limits of human cognition, a fact that is readily on display wherever we lack solutions to the great planetary crisis of the twenty-first century, be they ecological, social, political, or economic. In other words, we now face the Kantian problematic in its negative form, i.e., as an inability to deal with the infinity of problems that now threaten finitude.
This situation is further complicated by our last ditch efforts to calculate a post-human solution to the limited duration of our life span through medical innovation, nano-technologies, and perhaps a possible 'final solution' that will do away with corporeal decay altogether, ultimately transforming us into downloadable digital selves. Of course, the catch twenty-two here is that life in any clone world, or a cyborg reality, is bound to be circumscribed by the endless search for wetware and hardware updates, making the fountain of youth into an infinitely degradable experience unless one can afford the proper systems maintenance. These immanent contradictions are somewhat akin to thinking about Burke's problematic in the negative as well, especially if we cast the light of post-humanism as the anti-romantic impulse of adopting surrogate selves, hybrid entities or becoming perversely polymorphous subjects of technological expropriation.
And finally, the type of hysterical reactions that are related to our inability to master technology demonstrate a growing need for us to dig ourselves out of the kinds of problems we find coming up all around us in the age of connectivity and surveillance. This is also how we have come to understand the inversion of contemporary perspectives on the sublime as well as why our current definitions of the term flip back and forth between Gilbert-Rolfe's technological sublime of absolute destruction and Jameson's techno-hysteria of unlimited computational potential. These two competing definitions of sublimity provide us with a kind of slippage that hopes to find the destructive powers of the sublime quelled by the beauty of balanced innovation with regard to technological development. Of course, Richardson's work constitutes a similar gesture inasmuch as it is full of sliding signifiers about sublimity and precariousness, even giving us something like an aesthetics of radical displacement for a culture on the brink of blinking itself out of existence. With the spread of western values, which are increasingly synonymous with the aims of global capitalism, we have all become unwitting accomplices in what is known as the sixth great planetary extinction. As such, the great value of Richardson's Mariner 9 is perhaps to have already given us a picture of our greatest achievements sitting stillborn on an otherwise dead planet, the half-functioning representations of a dialectic tension created by the promise of ever greater computational efficiency as well as our technological shortcomings.
Of course, these intersections in the discourse of sublimity provide a decent summary of what it means to live in a 'hysterical condition' as a generalized cultural problematic. Or, to put it somewhat more succinctly, we are living in the wake of an aesthetic discourse that has become a living reality, of art invading life rather than life becoming art. The coordinates of utopia and dystopia are losing their meaning, or have already lost their meaning altogether, in our post-historical world of diminishing returns. We find that we no longer have any visible means of reorienting ourselves, much like lost space explorers spinning off into a distant horizon without even a hint of which way is up or down.
Kelly Richardson, Mariner 9, 2012. Panoramic video installation with sound, 9 by 43 feet, 5.1 audio, 20 minutes seamless loop. Originally commissioned by Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom. Images courtesy of the artist.
But what better description could we give of an age where we seem to be entering into virtual worlds of affective richness and increasing depth; where thinking about the experience of culture has more and more in common with the idea of playing on a holo-deck; and where we are submerged in the activity of virtual space, rather than simply viewing culture as a screensaver or a backdrop to life's frantic pace. We are finally witnessing the ascendency of the moving image over the still pictures of previous era’s, and our fall into the thick film of simulationist gaming and spectacular entertainment may signal a cultural cocooning-effect that hopes to avoid the consequences of these rather chaotic and sublime times. Gif culture is now the animate baroque, and Richardson's work bares the mark of its consummation as she makes a full inquisition into the horrors that afflict our broken bodies and lost dreams, be they mechanical or natural, or really, any mix thereof.
Thus, it is easy to see how we have become stuck in a sense, looking back on so many conflicting teleological accounts of history, and finding ourselves living in what can only be termed a meta-stable endpoint for the moment, a still-point of sorts that feels something like being at the center of a swirling whirlpool moments before being sucked under into dimensions unknown. And being caught in the interpretive currents that circumscribe aesthetic experience, which mirror the obsession our culture has with current events, only serves to further obscure the dialectic contradictions of the present.
We experience cultural tension now as a kind of free-floating anxiety, especially in the age of political correctness, where all discourses are under the constant threat of becoming inoperable at any given moment depending on ratings and changes in the cultural atmosphere. But at least one thing is assured in such a harsh climate, and that is that finding ourselves unmoored from such comforting pleasantries as "knowing where history is going" keeps us ever vigilant, asking more questions, and perhaps, finding more interesting answers than idealism or rationalism could ever hope to provide. Much like the conflagration of downed crafts presented in Mariner 9, we are caught in a maelstrom of a sublime disquietude, and Richardson has taken us back to that original scene of technological terror occupied in the cultural imaginary by the Hal 9000, only we find ourselves planet-side wondering where it all went wrong and why Hal stopped talking to us… victims of a discourse gone silent about progress or anything else for that matter.
Kelly Richardson, Mariner 9(detail), 2012. Panoramic video installation with sound, 9 by 43 feet, 5.1 audio, 20 minutes seamless loop. Originally commissioned by Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom. Images courtesy of the artist.
Call it whatever watchword you think fits the high moment of pluralism best, be it post-historical, post-ideological, or post-postmodern, but we are caught in a spiral of critical dialogues about aesthetic experience while being encircled by the real world consequences of their dialectic negation. We are post-Kantian and post-Burkeian, but precariously perched on the valences presented by Gilbert-Rolfe and Jameson. Thus, we simply find ourselves wandering amidst the pile of wreckage, be it material, theoretical or "properly" aesthetic, such that the concerns of history are piling up all around us, prompting the feeling for a need to escape, or at the very least, for more and more exploratory missions, as the most recent Mars lander and the coming Mars reality television show attest too.
But isn't this definition of our cultural zeitgeist --- one that relies on surveying the present from the point of our past accomplishments --- defined by an underlying tension of mixed trajectories and so many foregone conclusions? And isn’t this ethos everywhere on display in Richardson's massive video installation Mariner 9? As a kind of retro-futurist rendition of the historical follies of human space exploration on Mars we can say that the final destination of the enlightenment project has not touched down anywhere near were we thought it might land. Consequently, it appears that our scientific future has not arrived intact, and that in many cases, scientism has not even yielded the hoped for results in terms of data and analysis.
But all of this plays into the pleasures of the panoramic imagery that issues from Mariner 9, where the sheer expanse of Richardson's installation, which is supported by a three-channel projection, accomplishes what any sublime image is known for best. It confronts the viewer with the limits of their own vision as an allegory for the limits of knowledge. In other words, Mariner 9 can't be taken in with just a single glance because it is the consummation of the magic lantern at a scale heretofore unheard of. Somewhat ironically, all of these efforts to achieve technological virtuosity have become the subject matter for Richardson's own imaginative mastery of the technology of representation given over to us through the auratic effects of video's real-time presence.
Of course, one should add here that it is not the mere expanse of the projection alone that highlights our inability to grasp the gestalt chiaroscuro of the Martian landscape, but that there is quite a lot to take in on the ground level too. Gyrating technology still putting off a flickering transmission signal; rusted and failing operational mechanisms on various scrubbed Martian landers; the shiny debris of rover modules mixed with the fallout of so many unknown impacts and the wavering exhaustion of long depleted fuel cells... all of this populates the otherwise barren landscape of the red planet. In Richardson's composite imagery we find ourselves amidst a fractured atlas of missions gone awry, as if we ourselves are standing on the terrestrial surface of a globe represented as the god of war, only recast in our contemporary times as the destroyer of so many space probes laid out under the otherworldly glow of an ethereal grey sun.
But where we find a true resonance with the definition of the techno-hysterical sublime is not just in taking in the whole image as an allegory about the limits of human knowledge, but as a picture of nature that is far more imposing that anything we have ever known on our home world. We could even say that the journey to Mars reveals that the ‘romantic’ aspect of the romantic sublime consisted of thinking about the dangers of nature as a terrestrial ‘vision’ rather than a confrontation with the destructive forces of the greater universe. Of course, Kant's quaint musings on finitude seem equally passé in the light of trying to cross the vastness of space, which is the closest thing we have to a material correlate for the idea of infinity. Richardson's imagery, in this sense, provides us with a kind of 'update' about the world of ideas that surround the notion of sublimity vis-à-vis a picture imperfect of the denuded hubris of technology run afoul of providing any long-term service over and against the forces of nature. In fact, we might say that Mariner 9 is itself, a perfect allegory for the function of art in terms of Kant's Critique of Judgmentinasmuch as it gives us an image we can appreciate as the very height of disinterested pleasure, a pleasure that depicts a series of objects that no longer give us any viewing pleasure at all. In other words, Mariner 9 is a near perfect synthesis of both form and content.
And it is this that allows us to say that a kind of encyclopedic representation of how the conditions of finitude can be conveyed in art is indeed Mariner 9’s great purchase. Thus, the limited capacity to absorb an image of such a size, not to mention the richness of halftone colors pictured in the hazy atmosphere of humanity's greatest efforts to surmount the prospects of celestial inquiry, are here, given to us at a scale that is beyond the aspect ratio of the modern cinema. And it is this ‘beyond’ that reveals the all encompassing dimension of aesthetic experience as a truly unknowable and hysterical relationship to knowledge, unknowable because we can't comprehend how little our efforts add up to and hysterical because we are viewing something like a historical reconstruction that is equal parts human comedy and human tragedy.
Thus, we can say that the hysterical sublime in Richardson's Mariner 9 operates like a forlorn fairy tale of Icarus's ankles shore of their wings, only here, the trajectory is one that has fallen back on the wrong planet of origin, adding a touch of insult to injury. We can't even pretend to know the fate of the objects that Richardson has rendered so carefully in much the same the way we can't pretend to know the teleological fate of our species in the galaxy. All we have is an idea of our efforts, and more and more, they remain somewhat out of focus, unrealized or incomplete. That, is perhaps, the unique contribution that Richardson's Mainer 9 makes to our contemporary moment. It gives us a clear picture of our collective adventures in space, or rather, of so many exploratory missions that never quite delivered the episodes of high drama we were hoping for. Mariner 9 is, after all, a kind of memento mori about the misadventures of space modules.
And is this not the fate of the modern age as well, to have condemned us to living in the afterglow of modular adventures of the most modest scale, namely the cubical, the car, and our ever expanding culture of modular disposability. And aren't the achievements of our civilization revisited here in miniature, like so many kids toys and erector sets strewn across the surface of an imaginary landscape of conflict and defeat, where we know not what happened but only that things stopped functioning. Is not the image given to us in Mariner 9, which purports a kind of absolute fidelity to the objects depicted, also a purely hallucinatory projection of sorts, or at least, doesn't it trade on the idea of the sublime in the most fantastical way one could ever hope to imagine, i.e., as a purely speculative image? And furthermore, isn't Richardson really involved in the genre of history painting as a form of magical realism, only her particular take on it reverses the terms by privileging the former, but never at the cost of denying the later.
But what is it that makes the image of Mariner 9 appear to be as magical as it is historical? While it is not merely the scale, design or allegorical elements presented in Mariner 9 that achieve such an effect, they certainly act as the perfect subject matter for the richness of digital color itself, which goes far beyond the projected capacities of the human eye, especially in terms of gradation and differentiation. In other words, it is impossible not to notice that we are immersed in an image of chromatic opulence that challenges our very ability to process the uncanny effects of an artificial image that appears to be more-real-than-real, or for lack of a better word, ‘magical’. This is Richardson's art at its finest, relying on a modus operandi that pushes the boundaries of the technology with which it was created. Richardson is even something of a bug finder, and a program tester by default, calling the software's manufacturer more often than not in a quest for a realism as yet undreamt of in the world of video art, but which she pursues nonetheless, working at the limits of her own vision as an artist-technician.
As a magical-historical realist with a penchant for science-fiction themes, her oeuvre represents a rather timely inquiry into the apparatus of representation itself, in both the technical and non-technical sense. Which is to say that Richardson's art merits the qualification of providing us with a philosophical image of the highest order, one that knows that form often demands innovation in order to become inexorably wed to a concept, ultimately allowing for the transubstantiation of the medium of video into something truly singular, i.e., something much more than just a superior 'technical achievement'. Anyone who takes the time to go see Mariner 9 in person will certainly feel a sense of forgetting the apparatus of display when confronted with the pleasure of full immersion in the image, an image that language is at pains to communicate with any sense of poetic efficacy.
And so what we are finally confronted with in Richardson's Mariner 9 is the totality of the image itself as both an effective and affective meditation on the limits of human knowledge, where we can see how some of the most advanced instances of human know-how have added up to little more than so many misshapen adventures in piloting unmanned explorers. The greatest scientific achievements of our culture are made to look like little more than toy cars strewn across a foreboding alien landscape. In fact, the objects in Richardson's Mariner 9 look like the remote control gadgetry of interplanetary games, the victims of so many mission statements and grand overtures to capture the imagination simply gone caput. Mariner 9 is, for lack of a better phrase, a defacto desert game of robot wars that gives us the zero degree and the height of human creativity in one and the same picture. This is, quite possibly the very definition of a kind sublime hysteria from the perspective of an 'observational mission', the kind that reaches a pitched fever in its demonstration before an audience, and to which Richardson is fully expectant when it comes to the idea that her viewers will get just as worked up about it.
But if that is a summary of the piece and its aims, what then in the significance of such a gesture? Of course, it points to the fact that infinity is not necessarily the limit of human knowledge as experience, but that the seemingly infinite amount of computational knowledge that humankind has so far acquired is not yet well enough organized to secure us a constant observational outpost on our nearest sister planet. Thus, if the enlightenment project isn't stood on its head by showing us the limits of knowledge, then it is perhaps even more greatly upset, not by the implications of infinity, but by our incapacity to master a much shorter distance, both conceptually and technologically. Second, the natural sublime and the threat of nature, which still interrupts the best laid plans of civilization, makes an image like Mariner 9 harder to confront than Caspar David Friedrich's Die gescheitnerte Hoffnung, which means, the "failed hope." Only here that hope was of technology making the journey between two natures, or two 'natural worlds', rather than becoming a future excavation site, or a space junkyard of sorts.
In other words, Richardson has not put us in a position where humanity stands triumphant, overlooking the vistas of conquered thought and exploration by rationalism and objective planning. Rather, she provides an image for us of a species whose best-laid plans most often come to an end due to oversights in design and transmission. Worse yet however, is that such junkyard images are spreading across our planet too, where the rationalism of 'man' seems to have birthed the greatest threat to ourselves and life on our own planet vis-à-vis, the captains of industry, the politics of war, and innumerable other efforts to seize and control the vital resources of a world suffering from rampant exploitation. And all of this is presented here in the fact that we have made a technological crap heap on Mars at the very moment we are making Earth and its surrounding atmosphere into something of a planetary garbage dump.
Thus, what Richardson's images point to are the many ways in which the sublime experience of nature has been overrun by technological imposition, technocratic ambition, and the ideological suspicion of all master narratives about progress. In such a situation, it is we who need an escape pod of sorts from the catastrophic effects that have been stirred up on our home planet. Thus, Richardson's Mariner 9 serves as a unified image of all of our endeavors to reach past the limits that separate two 'heavenly bodies' from one another, ultimately providing us with a mythico-poetic record of labors love lost.
If this kind of unromantic look at the aftermath of breaching the heavens above wasn't enough, than the break down of operational systems serves as a stand-in for the limits of human knowledge and understanding too. Moreover, these notions are offered up here as an allegory about the aesthetic discourses that condition the whole of contemporary culture, giving us a picture perfect display of the ascendency of the discursive apparatuses promoted by Gilbert-Rolfe and Jameson cast against the failing intellectual technologies of Kant and Burke. It is the dialectic play of gaining access to the inaccessible that allows Richardson’s Mariner 9 to engage with Gilbert-Rolfe’s and Jameson’s contrasting notions of the techno-hysterical sublime, where we are left with the feeling that their two definitions are forever intertwined in a Mobius strip that upsets the cognitive imagination, moving us beyond anything Kant or Burke could have ever imagined! And yet, it is this looping effect of concerns that we enter into when we view the endless loop that Richardson's works are played on.
Kelly Richardson, Orion Tide(still), 2013-2014, Dual or single channel HD video with audio, 9 by 32 feet or 9 by 16 feet (variable). Image courtesy of the artist.
Of course, this paradoxical state of affairs leads us to Richardson's second cinematic installation, which is somewhat more reserved in scale and conservative in its ambitions. Here I am referring to the dual channel video work, Orion Tide. Part caricature of world's end, part cartoon-animated extravaganza of departures yet unknown, we are not quite sure about what the launching pads in this piece seem to be aiming for. Presented in the form of so many illuminated lift-off sequences set against an otherwise deserted desert landscape, the image itself trades on a productive ambiguity that allows the viewers imagination to superimpose a variety of narrative devices onto the viewing experience, none of which is particularly optimistic.
What we can say is that Orion Tide certainly serves as an entrancing image of the turning tide of humanity exiting an imaginary space that is not unlike the visual landscape of the southwest. Of course, such imagery plays with the notion of a fractured futurism inasmuch as it intimates the idea of a terminal desire to escape our terrestrial origins, presented in an unending loop of launch sequences that seem to be one-way departures. I would underscore the word appear, because the launching forms, which really exhibit the golden glow of propulsion engines set against a deep purple horizon, exist in more of a dream space than what is portrayed in Mariner 9. Aesthetically speaking, Orion Tide looks more like an animated form of magical realism than say, a strictly ‘realistic’ type of modeling.
Kelly Richardson, Orion Tide(still), 2013-2014, Dual or single channel HD video with audio, 9 by 32 feet or 9 by 16 feet (variable). Image courtesy of the artist.
In fact, the seamless photorealistic effects that are characteristic of Richardson's Mariner 9 are replaced here by a kind of image that is broken into two parts, but whose very discontinuity is sutured back together through the continuous disembarking of so many points of light. It is a kind of hypnotic image whose constantly active surface trades more on the notion of the overall in abstract painting, than say, strictly narrative devices or any form of history painting for that matter. Even the constancy of the thundering soundtrack, held at a low roar slightly above the pitch of an engine turning over in a muscle car, plays with a completely different audio-visual strategy than what is presented by the arid gusts of wind that that periodically enter the composition of Mariner 9. The two installations almost constitute inverse operations, the first being a landscape of broken objects, while the second is dominated by a sense of near unbroken activity.
And it is this animate exodus that again, touches on the notion of the hysterical sublime inasmuch as the image appears to take place in the aftermath of a technological or natural catastrophe of some sort. Of course, thinking about the image in such terms still has a great deal to do with the imaginative function being held in absentia from the possibility of cognitive semblance. Such a conflict is represented here in the form of an end of the world event that is held in abeyance, providing us with a more challenging image than either the mathematical-incalculable sublime or that of nature's overwhelming power. This is due to the fact that a moving-image, like Orion Tide, proposes innumerable ways in which those ideas are held at a distance or simply left behind in the dust of an earthly philosophy that may no longer be of any real import.
Or, perhaps we can say that the contemporary cache of this particular video installation is that it provides us with a broader definition of sublimity from the point of thinking about the consequences of human actions on a global scale. This was, after all, that unmentioned theorist of the sublime par excellence, Jean Francois Lyotard’s, last observation about western civilization. Namely, that our final destiny as a species is defined by the drive toward planetary exodus, something he called a kind of sublimity beyond rule, or an inhuman goal to save whatever is left of the human record before our sun reaches the period where it enters its death-throws. It is here perhaps, in this last definition, where Richardson’s own notions of an apocalyptic sublime finally sync up with Lyotard’s idea that sublimity is a special kind of game about un-writing the rules of existence, pushing beyond the boundaries of mathematics, and abandoning the natural world and its consequences, all in favor of embracing the radically unknown which we might dare to call, the sublime of absolute desolation… a kind of force without recompense, or even life growing in its wake.
Kelly Richardson, Pillars of Dawn, Installation shot. Image courtesy of the artist.
And it is from such a space that the crystalline trees in Pillars Dawn, the name of the photographic C-prints in the third exhibition hall, come to seem like the incontrovertible outcome of the other two video works. In these images the time of the natural sublime is suspended in the mathematics of crystalline forms, giving us the picture of a type of geometry that refracts light rather than being bathed in it. And much like Richardson's other images, where we are drawn to assume that all of this is the inevitable result of the hysterico-technological sublime, Pillars of Dawn could be seen as another possible indictment about the cosmic consequences of our actions, or rather, our inaction when confronting the cascading effects of ecological collapse. And in Richardson's imagery, this foreboding fate is only further underscored by a darkened sky, nascent groundcover and the less than subtle allusion to creation turned against itself in the biblical notion of living forms being recast as so many ‘living’ pillars of salt-like material. These are, after all, the last trees that could even hope to survive in an atmosphere of acid raid on a scorched earth. They are the ad hoc imaginary evidence proffered for those who dare take a backward turning glance at a civilization run amok.
Kelly Richardson, Pillars of Dawn(I), C-Print, 40 by 40 inches, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist.
Or, we might say that Pillars of Dawn goes even a step further than that by suggesting the end is the beginning and the beginning the end, i.e., that evolution is a snake eating its own tale, an ouroborian allegory about an irreversible teleos of frozen entropy pictured here in the metastasis of growth. Not unlike the part played by the tree in Darren Aronofsky's movie The Fountain, we feel that the eastern notion of circular of time is represented here in the mythical form of a dead or dying ‘tree of life’. Pillars of Dawn is, at the very least, a structuralist inspired document about the constancy of time awaiting reanimation. But of course, the notion of the dawn in such a work may have more to do with the dawning of understanding, both of the life cycle, of the allegorical function of the tree in world religions, of planetary growth and ecosystems, than say, something like a simple allusion to the sun breaking through the clouds against so many immovable objects of refractory petrification.
Kelly Richardson, Pillars of Dawn (III),C-Print, 40 by 40 inches, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist.
Like all of Richardson's work, what we are given here is nothing less than a gem of image, multifaceted in everyway imaginable, and just as bent on forcing us to confront something quite alien and even a touch surreal. But however propositional and precautionary Richardson's "Tales" may be, we should not forget that they all rely on the idea of an event as yet unknown, or an otherwise mysterious transformation of the present into a future anterior to our own, but perhaps, not removed from it entirely. And if there is an ethical act intimated in the idea of sublimity, it is the notion of saving the mind, body and finally, the spirit of humanity from facing the forces of destruction, whether natural or technological. In this way, we can say that sublimity is a way of using what is radically exterior to human knowledge to reflect back on the interior experience of human cognition as well as humanity's endeavors to surmount the impossible.
To conclude this review of a small survey of Richardson’s past few bodies of work, we can say the following: that Richardson’s images make the hysteria of the present a little more bearable, and the threat of the sublime a little more comprehensible, or at least accessible to contemporary experience in a way that is on par with the very best artists from the enlightenment, romanticism, modernism and post-modernism. In other words, when Richardson's depictions of sublimity touch on the destructive power of unexpected results, she doesn't insist on throwing us into the event horizon of a scenario where all coordinates of reality become indecipherable, but instead, plays with probabilities and potentialities in order to create a compelling catalog of images. And this rather engaging program, of courting complexity while creating alternative event scenes, is certainly not absent the need to think about the implications that such images hold for how we understand the present moment, both in terms of cultural production as well as concerns that are far more global in scale. And for this, we owe Richardson a debt of gratitude for thinking the unthinkable at the edge of a blue planet in the backwaters of the milky way at a time when so many contemporary artists shy away from such ambitious themes, themes that we might call, so many Tales on the Horizon.
Bruce Munro at Lisa Sette Gallery.
Bruce Munro, Installation shot. Image courtesy of Lisa Sette Gallery.
Introduction: Light and Space Art and the Changing Conditions of Medium Specificity.
Three great events have happened recently in the history of light and its relationship to space. The first is that scientists have managed to freeze light, the second is that they have found a way to slow down light and the third is that NASA has purportedly invented an EM drive that goes faster than the speed of light. But what does all of this have to do with Bruce Munro's exhibition at Lisa Sette Gallery? Of course, this kind of question depends on thinking about Munro's work in relation to the history of art as well as new developments in our understanding of light and space in the early twenty-first century.
While the breakthroughs listed above represent the later, we have to place Munro's work within the trajectory of the former before beginning to draw a larger set of conclusions about the contemporary purchase of his debut show here in Phoenix. And in order to do that, we first have to understand that the Light and Space movement was an outgrowth of Op-Art, and Op-Art was the final outcome of Abstract Expressionism inasmuch as it moved the locus of expressivity from the artist's intention in a plastic medium to the relativity of atmospheric impressions given over to the viewer at the site of reception. In other words, the conclusions reached by Hans Hoffman in his Search for the Realand Joseph Albers lectures at the Bauhaus demonstrated how color was a relative property, providing an insight of sorts that mirrored Einstein’s claims about space and time.1The complementary nature of these theories ultimately lead the next generation of artists to abandon the space of painting in favor of a rather novel idea, that of painting with space.
But of course, the Light and Space movement wasn't just that. It also served as a framing device for how optical experience functions at the level of affect and as a means of getting the viewer to engage with the world around them in a more authentic manner, or at least, in a modality that felt more meditative than say, the angst ridden aesthetic of Abstract Expressionism or the psychedelic effects of Op-Art. And while Munro's work certainly encapsulates all of these concerns, he also wants much more from the genre of Light and Space than the program it offered in the twentieth century, be it poetic allusions, the embrace of religious themes or even an occasional nod to the classic problems of philosophy.
This isn't to say that none of these themes made an appearance in the work of Munro's forerunners, only that the emphasis was on just that, the appearing of what appears. And in this way, we can say that many of the motifs at play in Munro's work help to broaden the scope of concerns that are regularly associated with formalist traditions in art. Not only does Munro achieve this by inventing a kind of electronic naturalism that is both visually alluring and conceptually challenging, but his work makes its entre into the elegant space of Lisa Sette gallery after a long period of doing public installations and site-specific pieces. Thus, even though it is Munro's first gallery exhibition, the works on display in downtown Phoenix are really the result of a lengthy period of maturation. As such, we can say that Munro's exhibit at Lisa Sette is in dialogue with the greatly enlarged field of concerns that circumscribe Light and Space art today, and in many ways, they point to how the movement is finally coming of age.
Of course, this is because we are not only beginning to understand the radical implications of thinking about Light and Space as a workable medium, but also how these properties can serve as a means to question what were previously thought to be reciprocal relations that adhered to a minimum of internal constancy. Or to be a bit more precise, we are learning that the relative relations of light and space are much more relative than we could have ever imagined! And of course, this changing outlook on the physics of light and space has implications for how we think about metaphysics as well, which is a subtext that informs almost all of Munro's works in one way or another.
In this regard, his self-titled debut show is an exquisite example of commitment in art that engages with a greater set of concerns, concerns that reach far beyond what the genre of Light and Space Art has so far permitted. And it is this idea, of moving from the analysis of affect to addressing the greater implications of physics, metaphysics and the physical landscape that sets Munro's work at the forefront of a whole new generation of artists that are providing us with a different viewpoint not only on the present, but on the history of light in art as an open space of negotiation, interpretation and future promise. But how exactly is this the case?
Part One: Dancing with the Dervishes and the Devils of Modernism.
Bruce Munro, Restless Fakir, mixed media (metal frame, glass, wood, optical fibre and light), 77.25" x 33.75" x 21", Unique. Image courtesy Lisa Sette Gallery.
In walking just past the door at Lisa Sette gallery, we come to the work titled "Restless Fakir" on our immediate right, which Munro claims to have been inspired by watching the television show Carry on up the Khyber when he was a child. The series featured a Fakir, who are Sufi ascetics known for adopting the miraculous practice of lying on a bed of nails, demonstrating a great degree of discipline over the body and physical pain. Of course, this is not just meant to be a sideshow trick of sorts, or some amusing novelty act, but serves as a gesture that points toward the Fakir overcoming the fear of death, as he could potentially slip up at any moment and be ejected from his mortal coil. In other words, the practice of laying on a bed of nails points to the disambiguation of religious weights in the sitter, having attained a kind of balance, or 'middle path', between a spiritual outlook on life and the immediacy of material concerns imposed on the body.
And while Munro's bed of light nails obviously refers to this practice, his reinterpretation of this particular religious object combines the sacred geometries of the glowing triangle, encased in so many conic points of light, with a sense of symmetry that echoes the syncopated rhythm of minimalist strategies. The reserved beauty of this work issues not just from having transformed a ritual object into a new platform for thinking about religious practices in the electronic age, but also from the dynamic contrast between sleek synthetic materials and raw wood, both of which are suspended in the air by black steely legs.
Thus, we can say that these rather precariously spaced points of light serve to underscore the dialectic contrast between ancient forms of manufacture and modern modes of production not just because of the contrast of the materials employed, but also because of certain deviations Munro has introduced in how the bed has been constructed. It is important to notice that the spacing of the nails that kept the Fakir from being impaled have been set further apart in Munro's bed. Thus, the real point to be stressed here, or the distress that is communicated by these dissonant geometries, is implicated in the title of the work as well as his use of superimposition in the cultural imaginary.
In other words, it is this change in ratio, or really in aesthetic rational, that allows form to act as a carrier for content, and in this sense, for the real content of the piece, which is how the loss of knowledge associated with ascetic traditions is what would really keep a Fakir up all night. Furthermore, this deviation in design also represents something of an implicit critique of the minimalist program as well as modernism writ large because Munro has removed a sacred geometry, or a kind of safety geometry, that was a necessary element of the Fakir's bed and replaced it with an abstract form of repetition, however evenly spaced. Such a reconfiguration of means, and by proxy, of themes, hints at the larger problematic of belief in the modern age as this bed could only support a digital or holographic avatar and not a living Sufi mystic.
And yet, the contribution that Munro's piece makes to the discourse that surrounds religious symbolism in contemporary art actually depends on how it is suggestive of an unobtainable use-value, not as a comment on the reification of value associated with the art market, but as a symbol for the systematic incompatibility of the electronic age with certain religious observations. And it is this dynamic contrast, between the age of perpetual communication, self-documentation and social media, and the attending loss of religious observations, inner reflection and self-discipline, that forms the epistemological schism upon which "Restless Fakir" stakes its claim. Afterall, Munro's recasting of this particular object is also implicated in redressing the function of objecthood and theatricality associated with aesthetic absolutism by Michael Fried.2We could even go so far as to say that Munro's arche-bed is begging the question, of pointing to a first kind of 'performance art', or a performative object or sorts, even though he would not perhaps admit as much.
And while the title "Restless Fakir" cannot be separated from the idea of a split perspective between original and reproduction, use-value and aesthetic distance, or systems thinking and inner revelation, we could also list any number of ways that this first contribution to the show is tied to what Nietzsche referred to as the re-valuation of all values, or really, the split with traditional values that attended the birth of modernity. This is because the metaphysical quandary presented by Munro, or rather re-presented by Munro's conceptual bedlam, has only gained sharper relief as the conflict between religious fundamentalism and modern secularism has intensified. In fact, it seems that this period of transvaluation was not nearly as much in evidence in the modern period or the postmodern era as it is today.
Furthermore, one could say that Nietzsche's rather prophetic claims about the 'death of God', which is actually an allegory about the existential condition of modern 'man', has only just begun to show us the full measure of its intended meaning in the wake of a century where scientism reigned triumphant as the ideology of progress. And while Nietzsche's philosophic insights about the uneven ground between modern secular values and religious fundamentalism has become fodder for the television news and the 'War on Terror', Munro has given us a work that intimates a much more nuanced form of philosophical violence, a type of violence meant to activate the subtler bodies of perception by way of an uneasy support.
In fact, Munro gives us the eternal return of the same as a means of critical reflection, indeed even the kind of reflection Nietzsche called the practice of 'critical history'. Perhaps this is because it is the last mode of reflection left to contemporary art after the 'antiquarian' claims of Postmodernism or the 'grand style' of Modernity.3But if we keep coming back to these epistemological differences in thinking about the split between the old and the new, or the Modern and the Postmodern even, it may be because many people see modern capitalism as the defacto reason behind the War on Terror. And this conflict provides us with another iteration of the Christian crusades against the Middle East, or the eternal reoccurrence of the politics of the worst, making the use of a critical model for thinking about history an absolute necessity in our troubled times. And Munro's objectification of these different systems of value, offered as an object that incorporates the perspectives of both Eastern asceticism and Western aestheticism is not absent of a rather pronounced internal conflict all its own. If anything, it offers us a place of silent repose for thinking about the tensions that occupy religious and political life today.
Viewed from this perspective we can say that the modern ideal of breaking with the past is actually realized in our times as a period of genuine crisis about first causes and recalcitrant conclusions. Not only that, but Munro gives us a picture perfect image of our twenty-first century relationship to religious observances by returning to the image of the Fakir, a figure who adopted the most inward of all possible perspectives in seeing the divine in everyday existence rather than the will-to-transcendence, or the will-to-power for that matter. Sufism is a religion that gives primacy to the experience of inner knowing, and as such, is uniquely fitted to act as a stand-in for the problematic place of 'the spiritual' in an increasingly secular age. And as for Munro, he knows how to put into play a whirling set of references that make the dance of interpreting his works something to be envied by other artists, or even by the standards of the Dervishes.
Thus, as we pass by this first work in the exhibition it is hard not to think of the many ways in which the disciplining of the body is a common theme not only in Sufism, Christianity, Islam and a whole host of other religious practices from around the world, but that Munro has placed this iconic bed before us as on object of ideation and contemplation about the destiny of asceticism in an era of electronic pleasures. While few would deny that the digital age is a hedonist playground when compared with the era of mechanical reproduction or the history of the written word, Munro leaves us with the feeling of a kind of temporal fracture, or a manipulation of the space-time continuum, by pointing to this collision of values.
Or better yet, as we step back from this first piece we cannot help but think about how it is not just the times we live in that determine our cultural and religious positions, but rather, the spaces in which these observances are developed as 'modern' practices. This is, afterall, what it means to think about Light and Space in the expanded field, something Munro has been actively engaged with out in the world as well as in what we all fondly refer to as 'the art world'. Perhaps even, Munro is asking us to take a second look at the relativity of our own moral presuppositions about the differences between these two spaces in much the same way that is his work operates at a kind of second remove from the practices of Light and Space art in the twentieth century, not to mention, their attending systems of valuation.
But of course, we are not left with the feeling that Munro is a moralist. The strict design and insistence on viewing this particular object as a work of disinterested pleasure, at least in Kantian terms, is given over to us as a work of art that trades on an interest in imagined displeasure. As such, "Restless Fakir" is a kind of heretical statement that is ascetic in its means and apoplexic in its themes. And perhaps, that is really the secret import of Munro's own brand of spiritual insight, that by bringing so many contradictory impulses together in a single work he asks us to partake in the experience of a kind of religious observation that is absent the dictates of dogma or doctrine. As such, his making and unmaking of the bed of the Fakir is a complex censure of ready-made reflections and an act of contagion in the re-appropriation of forms, be they modern or ancient, minimalist or mystic.
Part Two: The Ferryman as a Figure Caught Between Two Worlds.
Bruce Munro, Ferryman's Crossing II, mixed media (mirror, light and animation), Dimensions are site specific, Edition of 3. Image courtesy of Lisa Sette Gallery.
As it stands however, one could easily say that this same methodology underlies Munro's second piece in the show, which is "Ferryman's Crossing II". While it is suggested to be a second interpretation of a much larger work currently on view at SMOCA, "Ferryman's Crossing II" is really a sister piece, or even the formal inversion of the first iteration. This is due, not only to the fact that Ferryman's Crossing II is presented at a rather small scale, but because its pyramid-like forms, monochromatic pallet and singular specks of reflected light stand in sharp contrast to the rather expansive play of circle, line and color that circumscribe the immersive experience of "Ferryman's Crossing I". Afterall, in the first interpretation of this larger theme we are placed wholly within a panoply of time-based refractory effects, while the piece presented at Lisa Sette only allows us a view from the outside, or from above, if one is willing to venture an extended lean into the project space in the hopes of seeing something of their own reflection projected back at them on the surface of Munro's digital waters.
And yet, for all these differences both pieces still rely on a coded set of references to the compression of information, communication and affective delights, making the serial nature of these works a bit more relatable beyond the associations provided for by their respective titles. Surely, the strongest conceptual link between "Ferryman's Crossing I" at SMOCA and its redux at Lisa Sette is that both use Morse code as the basis of their aesthetic program, or 'programming' as the case may be. Only the way these dots and dashes are displayed at Lisa Sette consists of a stream of digitation that passes before our eyes in wave-like undulations while the tapping rhythm of the dit-dit, dot-dot is set to the timing of the lights in the larger museum piece. Along with this conceptual bridge between the two works, the most obvious formal connection has to be in the way they both operate like water, producing a luminous reflectivity on the surrounding walls of both SMOCA's largest exhibition hall and Lisa Sette's project room. Of course, it isn't lost on even the casual viewer of contemporary art that Munro has given us two pieces about being awash in information as well as how technology has become a device that provides us with so much 'streaming' data.
But beyond the play of these temporal and aesthetic elements, Munro has produced another flowing arrangement of references to religious enlightenment by playing so many conflicting signs off of one another, the most obvious being our growing obsession with the speed of data transfer and the slow pace of personal reflection engendered by natural forms and/or spiritual contemplation. There is also his serial use of a type of symbolism in "Ferryman's Crossing II" that issues from a place that many cultures still believe to be the origin of our modern religions, namely, ancient Egypt. And yet, even the diminutive scale here suggests that perhaps this metaphor for the Nile in miniature is representative of our collective forgetting of the matrix of religious meanings that have emerged from this part of the world, and that continue to play a major role in the belief systems of both the East and the West today. Following on "Restless Fakir" it is hard not think about how Munro's use of religious symbolism, plated over in mirrored surfaces, alludes to how the influence of Egypt was mirrored in the philosophies of Pythagoras and Plotinus, or even in the modern age by Freud and Jung who both used Egyptian culture as the inspiration for describing the complexes of the modern mind, be they Oedipal or archetypal.
Of course, none of this is lost on Munro, who is obviously an adept of sorts with regard to colliding the myths of modernism and the mythos of the past. We could even go so far as to say that in choosing water themes Munro has not only given us an opportunity to reflect on the rewriting of certain codes and cultural references, but that he is indulging in a circuitous rewriting of the tale of Narcissus and Echo given over to us as an aesthetic experience about the depthless condition of loving our digital selves, or at least, the affects of technology that we have become an intimate part of documenting 'the theater of the self'.
From such a perspective, it doesn't appear to be an accident that Ferryman's crossing I and II are absent any anthropomorphic reflections. In fact, they operate as an inversion of the relationship between Echo --- who used the sound of Narcissus's own voice as a means of trying to interrupt the circuit of self-adoration --- with an active theater of light and color that is anything but a still pond of reflection. Rather, this is a picture of technology reflecting on itself through real-time effects, only here Munro has made sure his projections operate as an active call-and-response system between two forms of code and a systems approach to aesthetic experience, where we as viewers are left to stand aside, occupying the place of Echo rather than Narcissus. Nonetheless, both experiences of Ferryman's Crossing are eschatological deep and visually enchanting, especially since Munro is able to skip a critique of technocratic culture and consumer waste across the unwavering surfaces of simulationist strategies without disturbing the pleasures attributed to spectatorship.
But beyond the hypnotic synchronization of Light and Space effects with allegoric themes, it is Munro's use of different forms of technological communication that stand-in for our collective obsession with the hidden power of instantaneous transmission. Afterall, face-to-face communication has been replace by using interfaces, interactions by transactions, writing letters by instant messaging and so on and so forth, in less than a hundred years. And because of these changes Munro's work asks us to seek out the subtext that lies beneath his still waters in searching for a greater world of associations beyond what is provided for by the apparatus of display, or what one might refer to as a network of effects.
Indeed, Munro hints at this not just in his titles, but also in the many ways in which he asks his viewers to look and think about what lies beyond the immediate impact of phenomenal experience, whether visceral or technological. In Ferryman's Crossing I and II, this requires connecting the notion that these two pieces are derived from the use of a wartime technology where the increasing speed of communication allowed the Western world to became so enamored with the exercise of its own technological power, that the twentieth century became a period of unending wars that still shows no signs of slowing today. From Morse code to harnessing the power of the sun for the atom bomb, these were light and space conflicts about coded messages and decoding nature's secret information, a fact that isn't lost on Munro's poetics of digitization.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that Munro wants us to take a second look at these larger themes in the age of cyber warfare in much the same way that Herman Hesse asked something similar of his audience after the first World War. Both periods are circumscribed by the drive to use speed as a means to conquer space, where the potential eventuation of MAD, and the ongoing debates about which countries will be permitted to develop WMD's are based on promoting a similar kind of socio-political paranoia. This is perhaps, even the reason that Munro makes an allusion to Hesse in his titles about a double-crossing of sorts, or why he felt compelled to produce a second iteration on a theme that points to a much large problematic. Just as Hesse wrote Siddhartha as a prophetic plea to the German people not to succumb to a spirit of resentment in the wake of the sanctions levied on Germans by the international community after WWI, Munro's aesthetic program asks us to resist the same kind of kneejerk reactions today. While Hesse lived to see two World Wars and Munro two Iraq Wars, we find that the viewers of Ferryman's Crossing are caught between the intimations of a Cold War technology and the unending War on Terror, both of which were promoted through ever widening channels of mediated communication. And in many ways, Munro seems to be suggesting that there are more productive possibilities for the use of new media because it doesn't seem as if we are even a single step closer to being ferried to the land enlightenment by technological progress alone.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that a text that revived the debate about religious reflection in the twentieth century is the very same book that Munro used as a type of codex for his artistic interventions based on Morse code and compact discs. But Munro's own crossed codices refer not just to the serial nature of the titles he has chosen, or the need to cross town to see both pieces, but on Munro's own position as a ferryman of sorts who shows us that even in the midst of the clash of civilizations we should not simply cross out the quest to walk a different road, or seek a higher path.
In this way Munro has used the intersection of so many literary, artistic and mechanistic signs, and even formal allusions to Egypt and the far East, to create a symbolic world that leaves us standing mesmerized in wonder. And much like the hybrid aesthetics of the past, we find that the dazzling nature of the synthetic worlds Munro has created for us are a kind of sphinx-effect in Phoenix, where Munro has not only resurrected reclaimed materials, but provided us with a riddle about the conflicted nature of techno-scientific enlightenment. The mix of inscriptions he uses, from the mechanically calibrated to the laser-etched, point to the progress we have achieved in the means of transmitting information at the very same time that they demonstrate how technological 'civilization' has slowed, or even retarded, its inward development.
And yet, Munro's works also seem to use the technological to ask us about the tension created by the hyperbolic inversion of digital reality and real life; or the normative distinction between life and our digital 'second life'; or the cultural re-appropriation of the word avatar from being a spiritual guide to a figure of our digital desires run amok. Munro isn't interested in providing us with any sense of easy resolve either. Restlessness is not just an entre into his first work in the show at Lisa Sette, but is something that Munro is after in every work he produces. Munro wants us to wrestle with the cultural cocooning-effect that technology engenders, and specifically, how simulated worlds keep us from asking deeper questions about the destiny of technocratic life. Neither optimistic nor pessimistic, Munro's Fakir's and Ferryman allow us to confront the idea of whether a culture of ever increasing illuminated screens is also absent of the glow of an inner soul.
And it is for all of these reasons, as well as the solace provided for by Hesse's book, that Munro choose a reference from Siddhartha to use as the title of a work given two separate, but equally impressive interpretations. The story of Siddhartha is itself, based on seeking more than one interpretation of enlightenment, and 'Walking the Siddhartha Road' has come to mean embracing each and every kind of experience in life as your true teacher, no matter how great the suffering involved. Both "Restless Fakir" and "Ferryman's Crossing" are named after figures of inner resolve, and both provide us with examples wherein Munro is giving us the end product of achieving what he has been searching for as an inner desire. Namely, an embodiment of the contradictions and complexities of our age, complexities that seem to take on greater permutations with the passing of time, and which ultimately demand our concerted attention and deep soul searching. Toward this end, Munro has already achieved much by way of cultivating an art practice of political and spiritual import, not to mention a kind of technological beauty that is both about artifice and chasing after spiritual bliss.
This is because both of Munro's first two works in his solo exhibition at Lisa Sette could be said to deliver us a shock of sorts by making the seductive glow of technology into a means for thinking about the divine, or at least, they would be considered to be a departure from traditional religious views associated with the Fakir's or even Hesse's works for that matter. Indeed, in seeking the transvaluational of all values there is an aspect of Munro's artistic practice that is closer to enacting what that other great spiritual teacher of the 20th century, G.I. Gurdjieff, thought we all needed for our conscious evolution, which is to say, consciously applied shocks that allow us a new perspective in 'self-observation.'4In both "Restless Fakir" and "Ferryman's Crossing II", we are granted such a gift in the form of colliding the new with the old, or rather, 'the shock of the new' associated with modernity, with the most ancient of forms.
The shock, of course, is that the digital motifs that circulate in Munro's works in the form of coded communication are what keeps us sitting sedentary in the computational world, whereas what the Fakir, Herman Hesse and Gurdjieff taught was the absolute necessity for discipline over the body and spiritual development through conscious action. As such, the timeliness of these first two pieces is in having shown us the contrast between these different philosophies of spiritual evolution, as well as the threat of becoming spiritually bereft in the infomatic era.
Ours is a time when we are flooded with data, so much so in fact that we speak of becoming inundated, or unable to process the voluminous amount of information that is at our fingertips. In this way, the luminous glow of our telematic devices is just as entrancing as it imprisoning; just as full of options as it is ridden with anxiety; and just as much a daily form of communion as it is a burdensome obligation. And as for the question of conscious action, the spiritual teachings that Munro alludes to are not ascetic practices of 'clicktivism', or of consciousness raising through so many 'likes', 'shares', and crowd-sourcing efforts, but hard won battles of individuation fought over the course of a dark night that has nothing to do with sitting in front of the computer screen long after the sun has gone down.
And this incontrovertible tension is expressed in Munro's works because they rely on being meditatively engaged in a kind of mindful appreciation of our place in both the cosmos and the white cube, as well as cultural production in the largest possible sense. That is undoubtedly one of the defining features of Munro's aesthetic, he doesn't want us to lie on the bed, or place a toe in the waters of the moving image, rather, he asks us to participate in conscious observation, and to become more conscious of how the illusory view of the world as a kind of Maya is intimately tied to how we think about the spread of virtual worlds today.5In this way, he uses the threat of de-realization to bring us into contact with a greater sense of reality, and maybe even what the sages have referred to as real-life, unity consciousness, or simply, a life without illusions. His artistic program could even by described as digitization by way spiritual intimations.
Part Three: Romanticism isn't just a Metaphor for Having Your Head in the Clouds.
Bruce Munro, Cloud, Mixed media (light, digital animation, flocked panel), 47.5” x 47.5”, Edition of 3. Image courtesy Lisa Sette Gallery.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that his third piece in the show is titled "Cloud". Or that in it, Munro manages to capture a touch of western inspiration that still hints back to the figure of the spiritual wanderer inasmuch as Munro has made it know that the title of "Cloud" comes from William Wordsworth's poem "I wandered lonely as a cloud." Drawing our attention from the sky above to the earth below, Munro has used both Morse code and a chemical equation based on photosynthesis to generate a very seductive moving-image of nature. But the image is not just that, because the code itself is manifest as a kaleidoscopic effect of ten thousand abstracted Daffodils in the process of blooming. And yet, we feel ourselves drawn into thinking about concerns that are more global in nature when we encounter a work like "Cloud". This is because even the references to naturalistic creation and Wordsworth's poetry aren't very far from producing a pattern which is closer to the aesthetic traditions of the East, and the symbol of the Mandela as a sign for integrated consciousness in particular.
Only here, Munro has animated the petals of the Daffodil to take on the trappings of so many geometric designs, which slide between being flowers and the symbolic geometry known as the "flower of life". And these contrasts are set cycling in a recursive loop, that is both literal and conceptual, and which is overlaid by a cycle of illumination from above that makes the image pass from light into shadow at intervals that are paced just long enough to keep the composition active but not frenetic. And we can rest assured that Munro has left space between the image and its obfuscation to hint at the passage of time and the illusory nature of form, once again, without ever being heavy handed about it. This is, afterall, a gesture by an artist who thinks as much about working in the round as he does in the space of the digital, both of which are integrated here as an immaterial projection cast over the circumference of a curved substrate.
Even Munro's love of the landscape shows itself in this third piece that makes use of the rich colors of the natural world, setting it somewhat apart from the other works in the show at Lisa Sette. And this deviation is a welcome departure from the restricted pallet of "Restless Fakir" and "Ferryman II" because Munro has created a dynamic composition composed of a wide range of golden hues, bright cerulean blues and shadowy purples, all of which are traditionally associated with royalty and which hold the symbolic weight bestowed on the earthly incarnation of God in traditions that stretch from monarchical to dynastic rule. To miss this implicit subtext in the single work that actively embraces color in the show is to miss something of the absolute specificity of Munro's decisions, which turn not only on a consideration of both greater and lesser games of signification, but on an entire knowledge of art history from around the world. Bruce Munro has not just an encyclopedic knowledge of color and design, but he knows how he wants to us to navigate the space of meaning of production, even in a causal stroll through the gallery space. That is why he moves us from tradition to tradition, and from one age to the next, in playing with the scale, or rather, with the octaves of timing and tempo in thinking about art history as a workable medium.
Part Four: Moonwatcher, Moonraker, and the Digital Moon-Maker (as allegories about Art Production After the End of History).
Bruce Munro, Moonwatcher, Mixed media (light, digital animation, flocked panel), 47.5” x 47.5”, Edition of 3. Image courtesy of Lisa Sette Galley.
That is perhaps why his third piece in the show, "Cloud" is set up to mirror the fourth piece in the show, "Moonwatcher". By being the same size, height and scale, not to mention that both works are projected onto convex semi-circles, only accentuates the juxtaposition provided for by a harsh line of demarcation in the waxing and waning cycles of the moon. And while both pieces are a mediation of sorts on cyclical influences, the moon being not only a symbol of the changing tides and different times of the month, but also of the lunar influence often associated with hysteria, madness and even crimes of passion, serves to make a work like "Cloud" appear to be a stronger representation of the self-renewing image of everlasting regeneration. While the use of Morse code is made explicit in "Moonwatcher" and the transformation of code is only visually implicit in the construction of "Cloud", a much deeper dissonance is carrier by the two images in terms of source material, the first title being excerpted from 18th century romanticism while the second piece was inspired by the cinematic history of 20th century science fiction.
And yet, because "Moonwatcher" is based on the words from a forward to an Arthur C. Clark book, it marks something of a departure from the other pieces in the show, or rather, it confronts us with a 'contemporary moment' in Munro's solo exhibition in a way that the other pieces do not. And this is not just because NASA just released a bunch of high definition, never before scene pictures of the moon landing; and it is not because reaching the moon was the penultimate achievement of modernity next to harvesting the power of the atom; or even because Moonwatcher sounds so much like the James Bond film Moonraker, which had every bad trope of phallocentric symbolism mixed with patriarchal power fantasies in a series that is still the longest running franchise in Hollywood history despite the most recent contribution being an absolute flop at the box office. But, we can say that a certain nod by Munro to cinema is heading the right direction here because this is the first of his pieces selected for this exhibition that pays homage not to a religious tradition, book or poem, but to Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, the movie 2001, a Space Odyssey.
With such a gesture, Munro seems to be taking us on his own odyssey in the space of the gallery, in a journey that extends from one of the most ancient religions in Central Asia, to a classic tale of Eastern enlightenment, to the romantic leanings of Wordsworth, and finally, to a central figure in the cannon of Hollywood cinema. To understand that Munro's work is both a history lesson about the present and a time machine that gathers different points of reference together from the past in order to challenge how we think about the present is to grasp an essential part of his aesthetic program. But how does this journey figure into Munro's embrace of the moon as an iconic symbol, because, when juxtaposed with the figure of a new born child floating at about moon's distance away from the earth in Kubrick's opening sequence, we find that we still lack a stable orientation with regard to the meanings that Munro is floating in front of us beyond this formal connection.
While it would be obvious to point out that 2001 is a movie about the struggle between the hubris of man caught in a conflict with his own technological inventions, or that the movie itself is about the struggle to find meaning in the universe not just through technological innovation but through a direct conflict with the absolute in the form of a floating black monolith, it is perhaps more interesting to turn our attention to why Munro might have switched from referencing religious practices, writing and poetry to cinema. In this regard, there is the obvious fact that movies are the mass religion of the modern world, and of course, Hollywood took its namesake from the Holly branch, which, while associated with meanings as diverse as love, a peace offering, and telling the truth, the word itself shares a close affinity with the etymological root word 'holy'. Even today, Hollywood is the contemporary equivalent of our holy places of worship, beaconing as many 'holly' pilgrims from around the world each year as the Wailing Wall or the Vatican. Only the key difference is that our culture wants to make this journey under the cover of night in order to see the glowing Hollywood strip in all of its illuminated splendor.
In much the same way, Munro's "Moonwatcher" reminds us of our artificial love of the aura attributed to the electronic landscape by giving us a picture of the moon absent any sense of naturalism. Munro's "Moonwatcher" is a kind of virtual object that is faceless, craterless, and encoded with information but without indenture. Even the cyclical division of its waxing and waning phases is represented by little more than a screen swipe that is not unlike the real-time transition of images projected on a computer in conservation mode.
Consequently, it is in this fourth piece that Munro truly begins to challenge his audience by tying together the deaths-bed of the Fakir, the life's journey of Siddhartha, and the symbolism of an eternally blossoming world, with the lunar impulses of a simulacrum moon. This is because the embryonic child floating above the earth is Kubrick's sublime moment of the superimposition of two ages of 'man', prefigures how Munro uses iconic forms in his own work. Even the reversibility of perspectives between to epochs is gestured at in such a reference. Just as we look up at the Moon at night from the limited perspective of terrestrial existence, Kubrick has given us an image on the cover of every box of 2001 that stands in for the possibility of humanity looking back on its own development from above, occupying the place of a kind of "Moonwatcher" that gazes down on our evolutionary cycle here on earth. This is, of course, the theme of Kubrick's masterpiece and it is also the hermeneutic operation that Munro enacts between Cloud and Moon in casting his projections directly opposite one another.
And yet, if there is another famous moon one thinks of as a technological construct that stands in for the tension between life and death, is would have to be that other waxing and waning cinematic symbol of despotic insanity, the Death-Star. Now, if this analogy seems stretched, it is first because both Kubrick and Lucas's masterpieces deal with the largest possible stretch of time. And yet, the Star Wars trilogy is the first 'trilogy of trilogies' in our society of spectacle that can be rightly called, a religious phenomenon. This stands in sharp contrast to Kubrick's work which was really dedicated to understanding the madness of modern existence and the machinations of history, posited as a question about the development of consciousness and technology. And yet, Star Wars deals with the very same themes, only using much more popular motifs and rhetorical devices. Thus, when we think about the symbolic import of the Moon-like "Death Star", and the struggle of two figures of 'natural men' against the cyborg consciousness of their counterparts --- or even the 'borg' consciousness of that other great space travel franchise --- we find that we are really attempting to understand how the conflicts internal to Kubrick's works are externalized as a kind of mass hysteria in the audiences of fans seeking an escape from techno-bureaucratic life.
And for those who have studied the sociological implications of the attending conflicts between 'Trekkeies' and those who follow 'The Force', we know that the little skirmishes and mock 'wars' that seem to take place in the long lines on the opening day of either franchise are representative of same spiritual divide that Munro's work speaks to as well. That is because the symbolic dispute between these two camps of dedicated fans is actually representative of the split between the modern and pre-modern notions of enlightenment, played out between the allegorical journey of spiritual development that takes place in the life of Luke Skywalker, which stands in sharp opposition to the desires of an audience that prefers the much more modernist enterprise of the Starship Enterprise, with it's mission 'to boldly go where no man has gone before'. This is, in a sense, the modernist dictum par excellence, an instance of 'the shock of the new' extended to being something of an intergalactic imperative.
And of course, it is this same divide, philosophically speaking, that is re-enacted in each of Munro's pieces, and toward which he attempts to provide us with a synthesis of sorts. On might even go so far as to say that his works are as much a creation of special effects and theatrical devices as they are of modern invention and/or the possibility of rupture brought about by spiritual dissention. In this way, Munro has developed an aesthetics of computation and contemplation that goes by the numbers, plays with code, generates imagistic referents and gives us a new context for thinking about received 'wisdom' in a multitude of forms.
This however, is not to say that there is anything rote about Munro's use of number as a means of creating representational imagery in his art practice. Numbers have long served as the principle object for obtaining knowledge about our natural universe. From the Egyptians, to the Pythagoreans, to Plato who famously had inscribed over the Academy, "let no one enter here who is not a geometer", we find that the very same dictum holds true today for those who write code for a living today. Munro's work fits into this genealogy because he has used numerical sequences to provide us with the image of a celestial body, knowing full well that the universe has long been considered to be an object not of "intelligent design", as our current and largely polemic debates intimate, but rather, an object that is only knowable through numerical design.
In fact, Munro understands that manifestation and mathematics go hand in hand, both when we attempt to describe the physical universe and whenever we endeavor to confront the process of creation as an aesthetic event too. Perhaps that is why Munro choose to adopt, or rather adapt, a passage from an Arthur C. Clark book to make manifest the moon, because like Clark, he knows that "any advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", and that the manifestation of our known universe is this magic that can only be known by number. By addressing these enduring questions about creation and our place in it Munro's work shows how contemporary art can bring the past into the present, and that such grandiose themes can also be played with as so many permeable memes.
Part Five: First Causes, Primordial Polarities and the Trinitarian Concept of Creation.
Bruce Munro, Eden Blooms, mixed media (optical fibre, steel, acrylic, sintered nylon, light source), 36" diameter each, Unique. Image courtesy of Lisa Sette Gallery.
Of course, this is the more than obvious conclusion that any viewer of contemporary art comes to as they happen upon the last piece in the room, which is aptly titled, "Eden Blooms". But having understood the numerical and coded basis of Munro's other pieces, we find that this same work could just as easily have been called Eden Blooms Eternally, because it is the productivity of sign, symbol and number in the traditions that Munro has referenced which underscore the limitless potential of creation and spiritual revelation. It would seem as if "Eden Blooms", which consists of so many untouchable black orbs with glowing serpentine-like emanations extending out into the room, acts as a kind of re-framing device of sorts for thinking about our religious tales of origin. This is because it is here that Munro directly confronts the doctrine of the ancient religions that teach us the notion that Eden and Adamic creation are really a metaphor for the idea of genesis as an endless energetic expression of things coming into being and passing away; of cosmogensis being built up of cycles, or great Yuga's, that the moderns have reclassified as much shorter evolutionary phases; all of which we still have yet to understand as a synthesis of empirical and spiritual perspectives.
And yet, it is Munro who has given us an aesthetic symbol that recasts creation in a way that is much more in line with today's futurists. His fiber-optic Eden is not only a reference to the ancient past but also a harbinger of sorts that heralds a period of new birth, or the rise of the coming singularity and of trans-humanism. Just as in all of his other pieces, Munro plays the difference of these two tales off against one another with great candor, a deft hand and 'a turn' in meaning that even a magician would say ensures the kind of risk that promises gaining 'the prestige' from a given audience, or in this case, the adoration of art patrons.
And this outcome in only assured in any sense at all because Munro is highly aware of the conflicting perspectives that are attributed to the pre-modern, modern, and postmodern periods. His oeuvre is about the goal of modern scientism and technology searching for the possibility of achieving eternal consciousness in a digital form as well as the types of attainment that ring eternally true from religious practices around the world. And "Eden Blooms" is no different in this regard because Munro is fully aware of the divided opinions about modernity's achievements and even postmodernity for that matter, both of which are considered to be 'materialist' paradigms, for better or worse.
Munro knows that these kinds of concerns are now at the heart of conflicts around the world, conflicts that are often couched as being caught between 'tradition' and 'progress'. Despite which side of the debate one sees themselves on, growing ecological problems and endemic economic crises are pushing an ever greater number of the world's population toward viewing materialism as a period of spiritual death in the West, and a descent into the most base of occupations: sex, power, war and wealth. And while this may very well be the case, the hyper-modern world looks at tradition as holding back the true potential of humanity, where all pre-modern beliefs are thought of as a kind of last stopgap before reaching a utopic future that never seems to materialize. And so the conflict rages on without respite or resolve. Yet, artists like Munro know that as the world grows older, and resources become more scarce, the question of whether to strive for a revolution in consciousness or revolutionary consciousness becomes a much more pressing matter.
And while spiritual practices and technical innovation may always be at odds, Munro is willing to wager that even as Adam's garden has given way to the age of the Atom, we may still have a chance at achieving a divine synthesis of sorts by way of faithfully reflecting on the meanings attributed to both material and immaterial realities. And while we may have only just begun this process as a 'modern' civilization, or in Munro's case, as a member of the next generation of Light and Space artists, one thing is for certain. And that is whether we are touring Munro's works at SMOCA, the show at the Botanical gardens or this rather inspired contribution at Lisa Sette, we find that Munro has placed us on another turn of the evolutionary cycle in his own oeuvre by pointing out that we are once again becoming a civilization of light worshipers. Like Akhenaton in Egypt, the solar cults, the mystery schools, and the ancient philosophers of first causes and prime movers, we find that the collective power of our scientific civilization is geared toward harvesting the resources of light, in all of its manifestations. Light is the visual evidence of energy in much the same way that energy is associated with the accumulation of power, and power is now controlled by those who dominate space and light waves, making for a closed circuit of sorts. In this sense, we have come full circle in both a cycle of civilizations and in the show room at Lisa Sette, where "Eden Blooms" could just as rightly be implicated in a technological 'fall' of sorts, or perhaps, we can still find a 'saving power' in technological appropriation that is more in line with Munro's artistic gestures.6
And it is this inherent reversibility in how we think about the paradoxes of progress, and of shadow and illumination, that makes Munro's final piece an effort that is on par with the acumen of the best of the Light and Space artists of the past. "Eden Blooms" is an allegorical object that points back to the genesis of forces, forces which are said to have expanded from a still point of light, and which are quickly becoming a substance of creation which humanity can also use as a malleable medium. And this doubling of the biblical tale, as a second moment of access to forbidden knowledge, is not just a material achievement absent spiritual implications. It marks the first time that humanity can co-create with the prima materia, and thus, the story of Eden has become a true metaphysical problematic in the most concrete sense of the word.
And so we can finally see how working with light and space is a broader domain of inquiry than one might first imagine. And this is how Munro's artistic program reconnects with the recent leaps forward in accessing the powers of light. Not only that, but "Eden Blooms" is inarguably a twenty-first century representation of that original separation of light from darkness; of the putting into motion of matter and energy; of the genesis of being and becoming; cast in one and the same symbol. Only Munro has re-cast the event as the birth of triplicate universes, perhaps as a sign for thinking about theories of the multiverse; perhaps as a symbolic gesture implied in the perfected union of the number three; and perhaps, because the trinity is an allegory about the three etheric forces that are used to characterize the movement of all of creation as a play of positive, negative and neutral charges.
Conclusion: From Prophets of the Electronic Age to Sages of the Symphonic Universe.
Bruce Munro, Eden Blooms (detail), mixed media (optical fibre, steel, acrylic, sintered nylon, light source), 36" diameter each, Unique. Image courtesy of Lisa Sette Gallery.
Whether or not this is the case, we can say that if modernism and postmodernism taught us anything it is that the prophets of our age come neither from Rabbinical law, Shari'ah law, or any other religious law for that matter. Our prophets come from a source far more ancient and far more egalitarian, and which were the precursors of our age in more ways the one. Of course, here I am talking about the atomists because our modern versions of Moses and Mohammad, instead of handing down the law from on high, sought to understand how the source of all things is an animating energetic impulse. And even though the modern age doesn't have 'prophets', we still revere their hallowed names as if we did, be they Edison or Tesla, Einstein or Hawkins. Of course, this line of prophets has not come to an end even today, but it swerves with the expansion and mastery of every new form of light and space; every new effort to smash atoms and see what the universe is made of; every hope we have to move beyond the paradigm of constancy that keeps us earthbound in a universe of boundless possibilities.
And when we one day, we hand down the 'good book' of light worshippers in art, from Seurat to Signac, and from Monet to Manet, and from Turrell to Flavin, we should be happy to count Munro among them as the light and space movement moves into a new century. Or, absent the religious overtones, one could say that the scientific discoveries about light in the early twenty-first century have allowed us to view the Light and Space movement in art in an entirely new way, and that Bruce Munro's work, along with Yayoi Kusama and Chris Fraser who have also recently exhibited in the Valley, represent something of the leading edge in a new generation of artists who have significantly expanded the concerns of the Light and Space movement.7
That being the case, we still have to ask the question, why did Bruce Munro choose to make his debut here, at this time? As everyone knows, there is a long history of prophets emerging from the desert. And Bruce Munro's transformation of different spaces across the landscape of the Valley is an event that makes sure this line remains unbroken, even as Munro breaks with expectations about what Light and Space art can, or should be. And the recognition of his achievements by the coordinated efforts of not one or two venues, but by four of the very best purveyors of contemporary art in Arizona today is sure to secure his work a place in the hearts of art lovers across the desert who run into his pieces on open air hikes and in smaller venues like Lisa Setter gallery. But the lasting gesture that remains in the minds of art aficionados is already there on the first wall one encounters when taking a step across the threshold of the front door at Lisa Sette. Other than the artists name, the show has been left untitled, and that is because Bruce Munro let's his work speak for itself.
Bruce Munro, Installation shot. Image courtesy of Lisa Sette Gallery.
1 This argument is made throughout Hoffman's Search for the Realand Alber's Interaction of Color. Hoffman, Hans. Search for the Real and Other Essays(Massachusetts: M.I.T. Press, 1967), and Albers, Joseph. Interaction of Color(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963).
2Michael Fried made the argument that Minimalism had to continue to resist mass culture by insisting on the absolute specificity of the object in relation to its audience and embodied experience. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe would put a twist on this thesis decades later by pointing out that painting was always already a five sided object addressed to the viewer in the round, and that Fried's polemic had more to do with absolutism and the rhetoric of purity than abstract expression, and furthermore, that Minimalism became the most easily commodified aesthetic of the post-war movements. See Fried, Michael. Art and Objecthood(Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1998).
3The three 'styles' of doing history which Nietzsche refers to as 'critical', 'grand' and 'antiquarian' actually fit the ages of pluralism, postmodernism and modernism quite well if they are taken as subjective outlooks on life. Modernism, in its claims of rupture and perpetual self-revolution, was a 'manifesto culture' given over to us in the classical 'grand style' of grand-standing claims. Postmodernism was very 'antiquarian' by comparison, often reflecting back on the achievements of modernism in one way or another, even if only to subvert them. By contrast, pluralism is the critical style, or even the 'post-historical' outlook, that is caught-up in a perpetual renegotiation and re-interpretation of the achievements of the past. See Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life(Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1980).
4Of course, here I am referring to G. I. Gurdjieff's masterwork, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: All and Everything, (first series), which offers an "objectively impartial criticism of the life of man" inasmuch as it is a tale of how the devil visits earth, providing corrections to the happenings on earth, which are then turned into so much doctrine and dogma which the devil never intended, and which humanity continues to war over even up until the present day. Like Munro's work, it is considered to be a superb synthesis of Eastern and Western thought. Gurdjieff. G. I. Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: All and Everything, (first series),(New York: Penguin Compass: 1950).
5 In this instance I am simply referring to the difference between the idea of Maya as the illusion of worldly values and the computer program that is used to build virtual worlds that happens to go by the same name.
6 I have put 'saving power' in parenthesis here in reference to Martin Heidegger's use of the two terms in relation to the ambiguous destiny of technology in the West. For Heidegger, the real threat of technology was how it acted as a framing device for thinking about the world, and in particular, for what he called the enframing of the world by machinational thinking. By contrast, Munro provides us with the opposite gesture by making works that turn the appropriative power of technology toward a different kind of opening, an opening that is intimately connected to aesthetic experience and even what Heidegger would have called aletheia as the coming into unconcealment of the truth, where truth is also considered to be beauty. It is worth noting that Heidegger became more and more pessimistic about the question concerning technology with the passing of time, which only seems to give Munro's works a greater sense of purchase in the contemporary moment. See Heidegger, Martin. "The Question Concerning Technology", Basic Writings ed. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1993).
7It is hard not to notice that Munro's works have a certain resonance with Fraser's, who recently installed a light and space piece at SMOCA that had two overlapping circles, which is the classical symbol of the Vesica Pisces and which refers to the union of the female and male through the intersection of the ovum. It is also worth nothing that the same symbol refers to Christ as the representation of the Piscean age, connecting both Frazer's works and Munro's to the idea of primordial symbolism. Furthermore, Frazer put twelve red and twelve blue neon tubes inside the ovum, which could easily be thought of cycling on the hours of day, the split between good and evil, and the genesis of conflict on both a temporal, material and cosmological scale. In this way, Frazer made an allegory of sorts about the separation of light from darkness, warm from cold, the male from the female, etc., but as a kind of meditation absent the moral overtones of religious dogma. Frazer also installed a site-specific work which plays with the effect of halation by creating a halo behind the shadow of whoever is viewing the piece, with one caveat, that only the person who is viewing the work will appear to be 'haloed' as it were, pointing to the spark of divinity in each of us rather than the fathers of the church, saints and other messianic figures. By contrast, Kusama's installations always make us feel as though we are placed among the stars, returning us to a feeling of awe and wonder at our place in the universe. But like Frazer and Munro, she also points to our primordial origins as stardust. In this way, all of their respective oeuvre's are informed by a secular model of religious experience that makes them more like sages of the Sonoran landscape, than say, prophets of a new age. And this is where the difference in generational outlook really comes into high relief: while the Futurists wanted to be prophets of the age of speed and the first generation of Light and Space artists really wanted to be purveyors of experience, this generation of twenty-first century Light and Space artists really aim at a synthesis of concerns that use space, time and light to think about a much broader spectrum of topics, be they historical, scientific, ethical, affective, etc.
Dion Johnson @ Bentley Gallery
Geometric Abstraction as a Matter of Scale and Refrain: A Review of Recent Works by Dion Johnson.
Dion Johnson, Race Car, 2015, 60 x 80 x 2 inches, Acrylic on canvas (two canvases). Image courtesy Bentley Gallery.
INTRODUCTION: The Three Orders of Geometric Abstraction.
0.1 The greatest problem faced by any critic reviewing the work of Dion Johnson would be that of providing adequate context. Those who enjoy contemporary art are likely to walk in the door of Bentley gallery and think that the work is full of eye-popping color, dynamic lines, and rhythmic compositions punctuated by the stark use of negative space. In other words, they are likely to receive Johnson's work as an exquisite example of pictorial design. And this is the case here in the Valley of the Sun too, where hard edge abstraction isn't shown as regularly as it is in Las Vegas, and certainly not as often as it has been on the west coast, the east coast, or the whole of Europe for that matter. Even so, there are two different contexts to be explored in relation to Johnson's work. The first is the historical dimension of his project, and the second concerns the value it holds for us in the contemporary moment.
0.2 Starting with the former, we have to understand that the history of hard edge abstraction has gone by many names over the course of the twentieth century, which has seen geometric painting referred to as being Non-Objective, Suprematist, Constructivist, Classical, Concrete, Op-Art, Minimalist, Neo-Geo and a whole host of other monikers. There isn't space in a short review like this one to write a history of these movements and their attending polemics, all of which consist of conflicting agendas even within artistic camps that go by one and the same name. Rather, we can only say that each of these schools falls into one of three categories, or general outlooks, that inform the process of making geometric art.
0.3 The first is that of being theocrats, which is to say, those artists who believe that the image refers to a higher order of organization, or rather, that it valorizes the idea of another type of order other than the world we commonly refer to as being 'naturalistic'. The second perspective is that of the iconocrats, which is composed of artists who make no claims on behalf of the image, and for whom the image is considered to be entirely self-supporting, i.e., a thing that issues from its own internal logic or the artist's inspiration... or really, any mix thereof. By contrast with these first two groups we can say that the third order of geometric painters consists of those artists who are ideocrats, or really, those geometric painters who attempt to critique the ideas of the other two groups, usually in an effort to challenge some aspect of the existing social order, be it pictorial, political or otherwise. But how do these three dispositions show themselves throughout the geometric art of the last century, and what points of reference, and even influence, do they provide for us in assessing the works of Dion Johnson?
Dion Johnson, Cathedral, 2014, 60 x 40 x 2 inches, Acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of Bentley Gallery.
PART ONE: Modern Geometric Abstraction and the Irrepressible Need to Believe.
1.1 In order to answer this question we have to start with understanding the kind of beliefs that can be attributed to the geometrical theocrats, a group that was inaugurated by Kasimir Malevich and his painting of a single black square at the exhibition 0.10 in 1915.1As the father of Non-Objective painting Malevich believed that creating modern art consisted of being a doctor to culture. He even wore a doctor's coat while he diagnosed what had gone wrong with his students work, and then presented options for how the same work could act in service of greater cultural imperatives, i.e., in the service of higher order considerations beyond that of simply expressing oneself.
1.2 What is not as well known about Malevich is that the kind of Non-Objectivity that he engaged with was against the rational order of industrialization, or rather, it was an attempt to introduce aesthetic considerations into this order so that the world would not be dominated by ends-means rationality absent any sense of poiesis. This was the real meaning behind 'Non-Objective painting', which was not a machine aesthetic, but a hand painted, intuitively felt, and personally prescribed approach to aesthetic experience in an increasingly mechanized culture.
1.3 In this way, geometric art was born of a kind of misunderstanding that was communicated through mechanical reproduction. Thus, it is not without a touch of irony that hard edge painting, and the myriad of forms and schools that adopted a seamless approach to the construction of images derived from the geometric impulse emerged from this mimetic misconception about Malevich's work. Furthermore, when the first artists in Europe and America saw Malevich's pieces in person, and read his manifesto, they were just as shocked that his paintings weren't absolutely flat as they were that his ideas about a total transformation of society appeared to be rather robust. But the thing that is important to recognize about Malevich's version of geometric painting, like the other Suprematists and Constructivists that followed his art and general 'program', is that it was indeed, born of the notion of supporting a new theocratic order. It was to be an order that heralded the coming of a new transcendent reality that fused the utopic aims of art with the dominant mode of production. Another way of saying the same thing is that modern geometric art was birthed from the political program of joining art and life, but in this case, life was the communist revolution and the order was a kind of modern secular theocracy.
1.4 This double obfuscation, both of the intentions that comprised the theocratic origins of geometric art and its political agenda, are only ever barely hinted at in Johnson's work through the use of abstract forms like a cathedral or titles that can be thought of as referring to militaristic transport vehicles, like the painting Helicopter for instance. Only these forms are filtered through the idea of a new digital order, an order that is played out as an aesthetic proposition already implicated in the mode of production that issues from the electronic age. In this way, Johnson's art already accepts Malevich's general premise, but without making any avant-garde claims, or manifesto like declaratives, in support of its position in the field of aesthetic experience.
1.5 Instead, we can say that Johnson's paintings are retro-futurist by both design, and dare I say, intent. They are part of an already well-established theocracy, one that is circumscribed by the valuation of geometric appraisal in today's auction houses, in collectors portfolios and by a growing desire for a kind of painting that courts the look of computational design, simulated worlds and the virtuosity of a 'technical' aesthetic. In this way, we find ourselves living at the far end of Malevich's vision because the ideological basis behind of the fusion of art and life is now granted to numerical standards in the era of technocratic capital, and not the revolution of everyday life.
1.6 Or, looked at from another perspective, one could say that while Monet subjected the cathedral to a number of variations that became one of the most famous series of paintings in all of modern art because it highlighted the transient nature of color, and by proxy, challenged the notion of a stable belief in the substantive relation between form and color, Johnson's work gives us something else entirely. This is because Monet's theocratic beliefs drove him to explore endless variations in the spectral shifts of color throughout the day as the foundational experience of phenomenal reality while Johnson's Cathedral is a picture that issues from the theocratic order of morphological design and virtual impressions. Another way of saying the same thing is that in the age of digital reproduction the cathedral needs no variations because it is an object of pure ideation, and as such, it could be subjected to an unlimited number of digital filters, separated from the cyclical nature of day and night, forming a kind of series without end or even a concrete referent. That is why just one painting titled Cathedral is enough in Johnson's show. It points to a different phenomenological order, namely, the order of remediation, or of Monet's most well know subject re-presented to us through another kind of virtual experience.
1.7 And Johnson knows full well that Malevich and Monet are both forerunners to the use of Photoshop filters, pixels and a kind of technological thinking, and he exploits it by adding one more variation to the art historical record that was first impressed upon us by Monet's indelible series and Malevich's definition of Non-Objectivity, both of which take as their central theme, the idea of working with new impressions. Johnson does this of course, because Monet was already working at the limits of the tangible and even the somewhat illegible, by creating pictures of an ethereal aspect of our visual world as well as rejecting the harsh contours of academic painting. In this way, Monet presented us with a higher order of reality based on the continual transformation of perception, just as Malevich's strict reductionism gave us a purer form of graphic impressionism. Their aesthetic goals were the same, only their politics were different. Malevich embraced a poetic version of industrial design while Monet paid off the city officials to make sure that the local train route didn't fall within the horizon of his favorite garden.
1.8 Yet, what they both have in common is that they broke with the need to reproduce the visible world in a mechanical manner, where Mondrian represents something of a middle path between Malevich and Monet because he simply made his own geometric world and moved into it, exploring his own impressions of geometry as evidence of 'the order' that exists behind all other orders. While Malevich tired to make a new world; and Mondrian made his life into a total work of art; and Monet explored the order outside, all three artists were still theocrats because they believed others would follow their lead and ultimately, become believers in hard edge painting themselves.
1.9 By contrast, Johnson's work is in dialogue with an aesthetic born of another reality altogether, one that is provided for by the Ethernet, rather than the etheric impressions of light, the expression of geometric neo-Platonism, or the political expression of revolutionary motives. And so, his work is a kind of second generation project in a theocratic refrain, one that relies on embracing an irreal order that is as absolute and unchanging as the set operations from which it is composed, where each pictorial order functions much like what the philosopher Alain Badiou calls a 'Platonism of the multiple'.2But such a claim cannot be understood in its full measure unless we also attempt to account for Johnson's relation to the iconocrats and the ideocrats of the last century as well.
Dion Johnson, Helicopter, 2013, 60 x 80 x 2, Acrylic on canvas (two canvases). Image courtesy of Bentley Gallery.
Paradise Lost on the West Coast: The Demise of the Modern Theocrats and the Rise of the California Iconocrats.
2.1 This brings us to the second order of geometric artists that appeared on the avant-garde scene in the twentieth century. Although no one referred to them as such at the time, they were the great iconocrats. This group of artists was largely comprised of southern California painters that were reacting to the unabashed organicism of the New York School, or to the growing influence of Abstract Expressionism around the world. And while geometric painting was being made in different artistic communities everywhere as a kind of reaction-formation to the reigning ethos of the 'Cool School', it was really this rather small but dedicated encampment in Southern California that got the lion's share of attention for codifying a counter-proposition to the major names who made New York into the new art capital of the world. And of course, I've selected to highlight their contributions here because they are also the obvious forerunners to Dion Johnson's chosen aesthetic. Obviously, I am referring to the group of hard edge painters known as the Abstract Classicists.
2.2 While the most well known of the group was Lorser Feitelson, who studied the sacred geometries behind nature and classical art, and then let these designs inform the kinds of decisions he made in his compositions, many of his contemporaries took different routes to producing what was later deemed a 'classical' method. Taken as a group however, the Abstract Classicists were far more influenced by the Surrealists, and how images could emerge from unconscious associations in an almost gestalt like manner that could be built up to represent a series of visual tensions, both harmonious and dissonant.
2.3 In this way, the dialogues that defined the Abstract Classicists moved from depicting a transcendental order to engaging with a personal one, or rather, they tried to create a bridge between the two worlds by using geometry in much the same way that a number of Ab-Ex painters claimed that primal Jungian archetypes were the basis of their imagery. This too, is another reason that geometric painters on the west coast got more attention than a lot of other hard edge painting being done at that time. They represented both the pictorial negation and the conceptual integration of the same themes that dominated the New York school, which was something of a rare accomplishment in itself.
2.4 And yet, the Abstract Classicists ultimately had more in common with the most abstract works of the Surrealists and even the Magical Realists to some degree. In fact, Feitelson referred to his longest standing series as "magical space forms" rather than 'classical abstractions' based on the rules of proportion or ideal notions of visual balance and enduring stability.3This is most evident anywhere a paradoxical sense of space dominated the compositions of the Abstract Classicists, a movement that is still much more widely recognized for having played depth against flatness, intense colors against muted ones, and rectilinear forms against curvilinear shapes.
2.5 As a consequence, the Abstract Classicist weren't very classicist at all, which, had it been true, would have shoehorned them in with the previous group of theocrats. But this was not really the case when one reads their manifestos, letters and personal biographies. Thus, the kind of iconocratic effects evidenced in the works of the Abstract Classicists live on today as an enduring example of the power of iconic geometries. And of course, we see a strong current of this same ethic toward cultivating the graphic power of the image in the works of Johnson too, but only as an aesthetic program of sorts, and by that I mean, as a set of formal comparisons that can be drawn between his oeuvre and the hard edge painters that are upheld as the pinnacle of geometric art on the west coast.
2.6 And yet, Johnson's work also marks a clear departure from the aesthetic of this school inasmuch as he has warped and twisted their compositional preferences into a twirling play of geometric designs that are juxtaposed against big bold block shapes that have more to do with color field painting than any classical outlook per say. In other words, Johnson perverts the working ideology of the iconocrat-classicists by being more playful with his pictorial choices, even while he still believes in some of the foundational tenants that make their work so impressive, even by today's standards.
2.7 In this way, we can only say that Johnson is an iconocrat in the sense that he wants his work to have the same force of visual impact as the classicists, even though his particular aesthetic comes out of an entirely different set of generational concerns. If anything, he remains a theocrat if we allow him the indulgence of being seen as a sort of second generation 'classicist', or really, as an example of a 'second-coming' of this regionally celebrated school of geometric painting, placed under the sign of so many baroque variations. Afterall, both the renaissance and the baroque were theocratic orders, which is to say they were orders founded on belief, and in the case of the baroque, on a belief in forwarding the achievements of a previous generation of artists that had the same space of reflection and time for reinvention as Johnson has had in relation to the Abstract Classicists.
2.8 As such, Johnson's work falls into the same category of revisionary ratios as his So Cal forerunners, both at the level of belief and aesthetic taste. This is because his project follows from the first generation of theocratic painters who believed in forming a new order of sorts, and yet, Johnson's pictures grab their aesthetic punch from making die-cut geometries out of the motifs that dominated the Abstract Classicists.4Only, his pictures are not as restrained nor is his method of making quite so sacrosanct.
2.9 And, as we shall see a little later on, the baroque became the opening gesture of postmodern hard edge painting as well, and Johnson's work really represents something of a synthesis not only of these two schools as a kind of theocratic gesture that has to do with the belief in geometric painting as a paradigm of purported purpose and contemporary purchase, but also as an art practice that develops through a series of negations, syntheses and integrations based on former paradigms.
Dion Johnson, Turnstile, 2015, 32 x 36 x 2, Acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of Bentley Gallery.
The Beginning of the 'turn' in Geometric Art: The Birth of the First Generation of Ideocrats in Hard Edge painting.
3.1 But before skipping too far ahead, we have to take a brief look at the last painters of the geometric idiom in the modern era. But to be entirely fair, taken as a group, their works span the period that reaches from mid-century modernism well into post-modernism and beyond. Thus, we can say that by contrast with these first two orders of geometric painting, the third order of geometric artists consists almost solely of ideocrats, and it is worth mentioning they are still very much in vogue even today. This group stretches from Joseph Albers to Bridget Riley and includes all of those artists engaged in Op-Art, Art Concrete and a whole host of other movements that wrote extensively on the operations of color and retinal experience. The 'idea' of the ideocrats was to explore the full expanse of operations that exists between the eye and the mind, between perception and comprehension, between phenomenal experience and cognition. In the postmodern era, this would be expanded to include radical optical dissonance and even social and political concerns, i.e., the evaluation of cognition in the broadest sense of shifting perspectives, social awareness, consciousness raising, etc.
3.2 Thus, this rather large group of artists helped to move the discourse around geometric painting from the supposed 'classicism' of the California school of hard edge abstraction to a fascination with the open ended play of haptic qualities that issue from the relativity of impressions given over to the viewer at the site of reception. In other words, it was not a transcendent order or a classical order of stability that these artists were concerned with, but the shifting ground of all experience, and the varied 'order' of embodied perception. Just as hard edge painting in California was the formal negation and conceptual synthesis of Abstract Expressionism in New York, the ideocrats were the formal negation and conceptual synthesis of the classical attitude in geometric art, removed from any notion of a transcendental order outside of the experience of the here and now.
3.3 This is because the ideocrats valorized the activity of the image as the most abstract of abstract possibilities, where perception itself was seen as a site of negotiation, interpretation and even suggestibility. They didn't want to resolve the gestalt function of the image, but to place the onus on the viewer to carry out the operation of doing just that on their own terms. In this way, the ideocrats were not gesturing toward another order of meaning, or making grand overtures about the power of aesthetics to participate in world revolutions. The modern ideocrats wouldn't even permit an expanded field of concerns to enter into their program until the rise of postmodern geometric abstraction.
3.4 Instead, the modern ideocrats focused only on creating a revolution in how we think about and experience perception, as well as how disordered our collective reactions are in interacting with the vibrating graphics of a geometric image. The problem was that this art was also representative of a disruption in the collective unconscious as well, especially as modernism began to run aground, both as a logic of production and as an epochal outlook. The appearance of the ideocrats, or of an ideocratic outlook on artistic production, almost always represents this function in the logic of culture, namely, it marks the exhaustion and critique of a certain system of values, or in this case, beliefs.
3.5 In this way the ideocrats appeared as a school at the end of modernism and postmodernism alike, which provides a clue to the fact that we aren't beyond engaging with abstraction and geometric abstraction in particular as the spirit of the age, especially if we stop to consider its relation to the increasing levels of computational abstraction that are the explicit content of capitalism in all three of its forms: industrial, post-industrial and hyperbolic. This shows itself in the geometric idiom in painting in the period of industrial abstraction as the working 'ethic' of the Suprematists, Constructivists, Classicists, etc. Painting as a type of industrious activity was the keynote of these movements and their manifesto's. Again, the geometric order mirrors the dominant mode of production in the post-industrial era by dealing with 'working space', or with a kind of theatrical production where the emphasis is on immersive experience. This, of course, is the hallmark of Op-Art, Minimalism and Neo-Geo. And finally, in the hyperbolic period of art production that we fondly refer to as being pluralist, or much more properly, as being neo-baroque, the geometric idiom finds itself dominated by works not unlike Johnson's in one singular aspect, which is that they are almost wholly recombinant in means and synthetic in their themes.
3.6 But again, I've jumped too far ahead here because I am only referring to the dialectic triad of modernism, postmodernism and pluralism as evidence of a conscious exploration of the idea of hard edge abstraction and the fact that over the course of the last one hundred years, hard edge painting has produced a perfect Hegelian triad twice over - thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis - that reaches from 1915 to 2015. This problem, of tracking the play of ideation, which never left the scene of geometric art, (or any form of art for that matter), was misplaced as talk about the 'death of painting' in postmodernism, which once again, is simply a way of characterizing modernism as a period of productivity and expansion, of postmodernism as a period of exhaustion and negation, and pluralism as a period of recovery and integration.
3.7 And yet, to the dismay of the postmoderns and the pluralists, who denied and still deny every linear account of the conceptual machinations of art associated with production and 'development', it is becoming increasingly clear that these paradigms make up the substantive content of the 'return of Hegel' in both the artworld and aesthetic theory because pre-, post-, and pluri- are the three moments Hegel describes as thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis in any epochal formation.4Of course, this is only true from the point of view of consciousness, which was the basis of Hegel's actual thesis on art, a thesis which itself, depends on two interdependent notions. The first of these is that after the 1800's art would increasingly be about the Idea of art. The second part of Hegel's philosophy about aesthetics consisted of the notion that he left for us art critics to sort out, namely, that visual interpretation is nothing more than the possibility of the exploration of an Idea given by the confines of its discursive field, which in this case, is that of hard edge painting.
3.8 Regardless of whether anyone understands Hegel's point today, or whether anyone wants to venture a line of art historical observations that illuminate how the art object is evidence of consciousness as the evolution of a type of pictorial ideation, we can say quite unequivocally, that what defined the modern ideocrats was working with the 'idea' of perception itself as the content of geometric abstraction. Another way of saying the same thing is that each school that comes at the end of a generational logic is punctuated by a moment of absolute Hegelianism, of art production as an instance of the Idea reflecting on its own course through two stages, namely, that of thesis and anti-thesis. And of course, some of the vibratory qualities that issue from the high moment of Op-Art, or of 'medium specificity' reflecting on its own conditions as being absolutely relative; or on the lost value of 'the truth to materials' becoming disrupted by the viewers own subjective impressions; or of the claims of 'purity', either as a means to a certain teleological end or a new politic altogether; or simply their subsumption into an industry of affective delights known as 'fine art' --- we can say that all of this is present in Johnson's work in his adoption of principles like simultaneous contrast and the push and pull created by certain colors as well as a in his knowing nod and wink to his intended audience at the site of reception about how color and pleasure work. These were, afterall, the ideas that Albers and Hoffman fought over in The Search for the Real, or rather, their respective searches for the reality of color relations in art, which is another way of saying 'the Absolute' in art production.
3.9 And yet, this is not the explicit content of Johnson's work. Johnson certainly wants us to have an active optical experience, but not one that creates instability at the level of affect. He wants us to take a certain degree of pleasure in visual consumption, but not as a means of courting disparate forms of pictorial disquietude or hallucinatory effects, which were the stock and trade of the modern ideocrats. In this sense, Johnson's pictures are more reserved than the mid-century ideocrats because they work with the acute effects of color while leaving the relationship between the viewer and the painting relatively undisturbed. This gives us a second confirmation that we may be in the presence of a postmodern, or really, a pluralist theocrat when we look at the works of Dion Johnson because he worships at a different temple, or doctrine of production, that celebrates the geometric in art rather than the realm of commitments that belong to the ideocrats, be they modern, postmodern, or otherwise.
Dion Johnson, Ice Skate, 2014, 32 x 36 x 2, Acrylic on canvas. Image Courtesy of Bentley Gallery.
PART TWO: The Postmodern Reprisal to Modern Geometric Art and the Need Not to Believe.
4.1 This quickly brings us to the conclusion of the modern influence of geometors in painting if we are practicing interlocution as the art of interpretation, or at least, looking at art through the lens of consciousness. As such, we have thus far, summed up the motives behind the kind of investigations taken up by three different orders of geometric artists in the first half of the twentieth century as well as their subtle influence on Johnson's aesthetic. From here, we must examine the motives of their post-modern counterparts, and then finally, take a look at how these three outlooks are still at play in the pluralist era, and in Johnson's work in an entirely new way. Thus, we have to continue our analysis with another figure of the 'turn' between modern and postmodern art, a painter who is decidedly characterized as being on the postmodern side of the paradigm shift that took place a decade or two after midcentury. Here I am talking about that geometric painter who recently got his day at the Whitney in retrospect, one Mr. Frank Stella.6
4.2 Hotly debated even now, Stella's paintings upset the ideocrats of his time by producing works that relied on a kind of geometric hermeticism that ultimately proved the Greenbergian teleos untenable, or at least, somewhat uninteresting as a way forward for abstract art. Stella's most famous suite of works, which were the paintings that really defined the 'break' between modern and postmodern abstraction, consisted of making geometrically contoured canvasses that were then 'filled-in' in a way that mirrored the outer boundaries of the work, repetitiously completing the painting at its center-point. This ultimately removed the question of organic unity from being of any importance at all in the minds of most abstract painters by fulfilling the dictates of the desire for flatness, purity and the truth to materials in the most auto-didactic manner possible. This was aesthetic utility and organic unity at best, which is to say, as an embodiment of the highest levels of dialectic contradiction!
4.3 As a consequence, Stella's works showed how the supposed drive toward reductionism and essentialism was itself, reducible to little more than a mechanical set of operations, and by proxy, a mechanical way of thinking. This reframing of the kind of aesthetic absolutism that the fine art world traded on at that time ultimately relegated the Greenbergian paradigm, and its attending system of values, to the dustbins of history. And of course, it is not without irony that this reframing was both conceptual and literal, or that it was comprised of the acts know as negation and synthesis... which ultimately resulted in a new thesis about the geometric enterprise in art.
4.4 And yet, following what now appears to be only his opening act, Stella then moved in the opposite direction by birthing something like a school of geometric expressionism that continues unabated today. In Stella's break with his early work, his geometries expanded, not only to include gestural marks and sign systems from the culture at large, but his art practice eventually took on a sense of full relief as sculptural installations that included every kind of geometric motif imaginable. This helped to establish a new iconoclastic order in abstraction, one which Stella himself said must compete with the greatest accomplishments of the baroque era in his seminal text Working Space.7But this was not because of his belief in another order, but in the order of the image to be self-supporting as an example of the totality of contradictions associated with the formal operations and sign systems that function as iconic symbols for 'art' in a secular age.
4.5 And in this way, Stella managed to set the tone for all of postmodern geometric abstraction as a program of reacting to the accomplishments of the modern era. In Stella's case, this consisted of subverting the conceptual premise that relied on identifying the producer with his or her given forms as being of a singular iconic value, such as Pollock's drips or Newman's zips. Instead, Stella wanted to move the discourse of abstract art from the endless reproduction of reified motifs, which is to say of art-as-style, to a logic of radically open iconicity. In other words, he wanted a more disordered sense of order.
4.6 Thus, we can say that Stella desired completely impure geometries, depth of field in literal space as well as pictorial space, and the play of formal elements as truly elemental forces in the work, and not just for himself as a matter of personal preference, but as so many options for the next generation of producers. In other words, Stella desired a kind of unbounded iconicity that was played out through an expansive hermeneutic of conflicting operations, or something like, a theatrical approach to subverting the moderns who simply thought of iconicity as the 'stamp' of success, or of making art into something like a production line based on the cult of celebrity, art-for-art's sake, or so many other rhetorical positions.
4.7 The implications of Stella's new working program was that it resisted massification and the industrialization of production, and this is what constituted his break with the moderns, both as an aesthetic choice and as the introduction of a post-industrial mode of painting, i.e., a post-modern model of making. Of course, this only resulted in a higher level of contradiction, where iconicity was pursued for its own sake rather than reproduced as variations on a single motif ad infinitum. But, for a new generation of hard edge painters who had longed to marry the worlds of hard edge painting and expressionism, it returned the power of the image to a higher order of means and a greater sense of freedom.
4.8 By contrast with works from this era, Johnson's project embraces the chromatic opulence that Stella brought back into the discourse of geometric art, and at times, Johnson has even indulged painting in 'the expanded field' too by making installations that cover the walls from floor to ceiling, producing the feeling of a 'total work of art'. But by refusing the desire to create forms with a deeper sense of relief we can only say that these restrained forays beyond the canvas show a type of influence that Stella's permissions open up in Johnson's oeuvre. And so, it would be wrong to use Johnson's occasional derivations beyond the picture plane as an excuse to lump him in with the perspectives proffered by the iconocrats.
4.9 Of course, we can't say what direction Johnson's work might take in the future, but we can rest assured that his current art practice is decidedly not of the order of immersive aesthetics that have followed Stella's iconocratic efforts to make the image stand out before us, in the most literal and metaphoric way, which is to say, using its varied grounds mixed with the symbols of the geometor, be they protractors, triangles, gradations, etc. That honor, of following Stella's program into a richer depth of field, into polemics of re-appropriation and the critique of reification, as well as working with space and place belongs instead to the Judy Pfaff's and Jessica Stockholders of the artworld, and not really, to Dion Johnson.
Dion Johnson, Night Light, 2015, 32 x 36 x 2 inches, Acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of Bentley Gallery.
From Geometric Expressionism to Systems Thinking in Hard Edge Painting: Minimalism as an Idiom Subtracted from Subjectivism.
5.1 Even so, this kind theatrical approach to making geometric painting come off the wall, and out into real space, was the effect which was given a reductive twist by the time that Minimalism was in full swing, vis-a-via, the rise of pictorial asceticism. And like all of the aforementioned camps of hard edge painting there were just as many conflicting views at the heart of the Minimalist movement as every other movement that adopted a geometric set of sensibilities. Most notably, there was the dramatic divide between Agnes Martin, who claimed a kind of transcendental function for her work while most of the other painters included in the Minimalist camp characterized their programs as one type of 'systems' painting or another.8And yet, from either perspective, the final outcome was a new generation of painters that talked about the theater of effects that issued from their works as producing affective states separated from subjective expressivity. In this regard, they furthered Stella's program by not only removing the issue of iconicity from identity but by actively disassociating the most commodifiable aspects of their production, ultimately placing the emphasis on the use of 'the unexpressive' as a condition of aesthetic appreciation. In other words, the Minimalist talked about their art as being generative rather than intuitive; as being operational rather than inspirational; as being put in motion, rather than appealing to a set of emotions. Or, as Sol LeWitt famously declared "The idea becomes the machine that makes the art."9
5.2 In a way, the Minimalists were to be the negative image of Abstract Expressionism and they took part of their program from the synthetic propositions of Stella's 'working program', but subtracted the expressive modalities he had developed in his own form of geometric expressionism. In other words, the Minimalists took Stella's idea of using theatrical effects from painting that blended the sculptural and the painterly, and transformed it into the more austere theater of objecthood described so well by Michel Fried.10This taking up of Stella's thesis, forming a kind of anti-thesis, and coming out with a new synthesis of sorts, was just one more step on the journey of art moving deeper into the realm of ideation, or of the Idea as exalted above the intentions of the producer in order to form another synthesis in the dialectic play that defined the journey and development of geometric art over the course of the twentieth century. As with all movements, it would naturally engender the return and critique of pure ideation by the next generation of geometric painters, but this is part and parcel of the logic of cultural consciousness, generational reaction-formations, and even, the capitalist emphasis on the constant need for perpetual innovation.
5.3 Thus, a turnabout in the polemics that surrounded Minimalism as a 'critical paradigm' occurred a generation later. This happened not only because Minimalism was about the idea of the operations of the object in space and time as evidence of a system of thought that was implicated in the contradictions that were internal to modern art as an 'expressive model', but because the Minimalists achieved this unique accomplishment of making objects that felt absent any producer without ever realizing that an object that 'felt' removed from authorial attention, as well as transcendental claims about history, teleology, or progress, was also very likely to be reclaimed as a mass aesthetic faster than any other avant-garde movement of the twentieth century.
5.4 Of course, this ran contrary to the intentions of the Minimalists because they put a decided emphasis on viewing objects in the round and activating perception in a way that incorporated a lot of the relative effects of the first generation of ideocrats, while still pursuing a theocratic effect that eschewed authorship by pointing to the workings of a strictly internal logic. Without a doubt, Minimalism was the worship of order as order. It replaced organic unity with a set of empirical operations. Or, to put it another way, Minimalism was the dialectic negation of the ideocrats identification with optical pleasures, only they subtracted the focus on affect and substituted it with a kind of systems thinking, or a type of game theory of artistic production. In other words, their worship of order was of the immanent order that can be created in this world without any allusion to a horizon of meaning beyond it. One again, the cultural logic of geometric art moves itself forward as a genre by way of negation and synthesis toward purer and purer 'working models' of Ideality.
5.5 And while it goes without saying that this logic was put into motion by the artist, and that it was also dreamt up by the artist, the final result was almost always rational and without compromise, giving us a school of works that look as though they emerged from a strictly Platonic order, or even, a kind of 'scientism' of aesthetic/ascetic propositions. That was minimalism's 'secretive' methodology, to attempt to raise ideation-as-process to being a transcendental gesture subtracted from the inflections of authorship, or to give us art as an logico-scientific paradigm. The contradiction here being, that all it left the audience to talk about was the little bit of subjective inflection that occurred, quite by accident, in the execution of systems painting, as the last remains of 'taste'.
5.6 Thus, minimalism achieved the effect of subtracting itself from the cult of iconicity as the repetition of personal expressivity at the very same time that it succeeded in becoming an object that most decidedly resembled industrial manufacture. This amounted to raising the level of dialectic contradictions even beyond the kind of program that Stella had been courting in the first part of his career, not to mention, the outright rejection of the ostentatious aesthetic that developed in his later years. In other words, in pursing the theocratic order of ascetic Platonism, the Minimalists accidently fell prey to embracing an industrial mode of production, leaving the reigning theocratic belief in abstraction intact as a kind of absolutism that was coextensive with the ideology of capital and technocratic scientism. They did this largely by working in serial forms as a model of experimentation and innovation. This was theocratic art 2.0, 3.0, 4.0, etc., and it mirrored the logic of 'systems' innovation in post-industrial capitalism to a tee. And while this is a rather paradoxical situation in the history of geometric painting if ever there was one, it created the conditions for Buren and groups like Surface/Support to self-apply the geometric order to the social landscape as a form of critique that escaped the problematic aspects of putting objects that looked like they belonged on the sales room floor of high end decor boutiques in a white cube that was supposed to trade on trafficking in greater 'designs'.
5.7 As for thinking about Minimalism and its attending derivations in relation to Johnson's work we can say that we don't really get much of a hint of the influence of this period of geometric abstraction from his pictorial choices except through the repeated use of empty spaces, of black and white, and perhaps, even the complete absence of touch. But most of this was already in play in the work of Minimalism's forerunners. If anything, the asymmetry that circumscribes Johnson's different bodies of work often feels as though someone has inverted the Minimalist sensibility in order to give it the feeling of formal participation from within, or systems painting gone awry. Johnson's paintings have a kind of internal activation and even a wild frenzy about them that is closer to making the geometric into an instance of schizoid aesthetics when juxtaposed against the canonized works of Minimalism's heyday.
5.8 This makes it safe to say, that Johnson comes at the idea of geometric abstraction from a very different place than the Minimalist theocrats, who gave us a Platonism of production, a synthesis of deductions, and a belief in the power of the object over that of the image as an expressive potential. But what is important to remember here is that it is these same qualities that Johnson will work against, even while remaining a theocrat himself, and so a paradigm that bares little resemblance to his work can be seen to provide a necessary dialectic tension at the level of motivations, which is to say, as a conceptual program. An easier way to say the same thing is that the hidden continuity between the goals of the first generation of theocrats, who aimed to fuse industrial production with secular principles of design is realized in the work of the Minimalists, whose objects would be most at home in the buildings of the western block architects who thought up 'Brutalism' as the final outcome of Constructivism run by committee. Minimalism is afterall, something like this same aesthetic in the States with an added dash of color, and our embrace of it as a mass aesthetic has to do with the fact that Minimalism as a model of making is best suited to function not only as a common re-articulation of design elements, but is also the closest thing we have to functioning like a communist approach to mass design.
5.9 The real kicker here is that today's parametric approach to architecture, which often consisted of letting a design algorithm play itself out as form, and then using that form as the substantive content for a building, is the kind of architecture that Johnson's paintings would be at home in. Thus, a further reduction in authorial intention even from the working program of the Minimalists has resulted in a third generation theocrat outlook, whose radical secularization consists in getting as close as one can get to having no producer at all, and this further reduction in intentionality or expressivity paradoxically resulted in organic forms rather than architectonic brutalism. Furthermore, there is an echo of this aesthetic in the works of Johnson too, or at least the influence of the kind of architectonic look associated with neo-organicism in 'fluid' architecture alla the later works of Gehry, Greg Lynn, etc. So, if we are being entirely honest, the theocratic enterprise has never been disrupted, but only refined in three stages: architectonic design (Non-Objective, Suprematist, Constructivist, Bauhaus), architectonic design with new technological means (Minimalism, Deconstructivist, Postmodernist, Simulationist), and architectonic design with sophisticated means (Parametric, Folding, Blob, Emergent, Neo-Baroque). It is no surprise that the 'spirit' of these three moment's in the evolution of the idea of a secular theocratic order follows the logic of thesis, (the creations of a new society), anti-thesis (the reduction of that impulse to the pure play of its constitutive elements), and synthesis (the joining of that order with the reigning social order, i.e., technocratic capitalism) just as it is follows that Johnson's aesthetic taste belongs to the last of these three schools in geometric art and/or architecture. Afterall, Johnson's work is not outside the order of the ages, the logics of production, the dictates of the genre, and the common currency of the theocratic enterprise, or at least, that's all we can say before coming to a qualitative description of his works.
Dion Johnson, City Girl, 2014, 36 x 64 x 2 inches, Acrylic on canvas (two canvases). Image courtesy of Bentley Gallery.
The End of Postmodernism and the Return of the Ideocrats in Geometric Art: Critique as the High Moment of Synthesis in Hard Edge Painting.
6.1 But before delving into any criticism concerning the contemporary conditions of artistic production and Johnson's work in particular, we have to first look back at the end of the twentieth century, which brought with it the critique of every order of ideation, but self-reflexively, as its own Ideal. And this was evidenced in both Pop abstraction and Neo-Geo, both of which gestured at the re-appropriation and the subversion of culture writ large. The first of these two schools was obviously known as Pop Art, which aimed its self-reflexive critique at the massification of 'culture', while the second critical encampment, Neo-Geo, took a stance against the transcendental claims made on behalf of fine art, and geometric painting in particular. In other words, neither movement subscribed to the logics put forward by the postmodern iconocrats or theocrats. And they both did this by playing those particular methodologies off against themselves.
6.2 Most notably perhaps was Lichtenstein’s adoption of the method of mechanical reproduction as a means of resisting the cult of originality in high art as the dominant mode of production, while Peter Halley re-appropriated the history of geometric art as a means of underscoring the geometries of control associated with techno-bureaucratic 'systems'. Much like Lichtenstein, Halley adopted something of a cartoon-like aesthetic in order to point to the depthlessness of postmodern culture and its failure to produce a sustained 'cultural revolution'. And this too, was meant to double as a twofold critique of 'high culture' as well, not to mention being a commentary on the reification and fascination with 'affects' for their own sake, which was the hallmark of psychedelic art, hippy culture, and the utopic dream of 'tuning in, turning on and dropping out' of the superstructure of late capitalism. In other words, the dialectic tension of the ideocrats, at the end of both the modern and the postmodern eras, is always hyperbolic in terms of how they engage with different games of self-reflexivity about art and the dominant mode of production. The only difference between the first and second generations being that the first worked for increasing freedom in the mode of artistic production while accidentally breaking art into its constitute parts in the era of formal subsumption by capital while the second strove for greater freedom in the realm of intellectual labor as part of the ideocratic paradigm, which was indicative of real subsumption, or the period of post-industrial capital. And yet, this double set of contradictions does not mean that the postmodern ideocrats are any less synthetic in their operations, and negative in demonstrating their positions, than say, the second generation of iconocrats and theocrats.
6.3 And while I could be accused of being a little ahistorical for mentioning Pop Art after Minimalism I am really referring here to the simulationist works of Lichtenstein from the period of the early eighties, when he focused almost entirely on making flat paintings that imitated gestural abstraction. Of course, it was during this same period that Halley began composing his essays about the critique of geometric art, which is no small coincidence. Thus, it is a short jump for Halley to pick up on the 'simulationist' aesthetic that both Lichtenstein and Warhol adopted and then turn it into a movement by infusing a bit of French theory, alla Foucault and Deleuze, at the very moment that semiotext(e) was translating the first portions of seminal works by a number of famous French Post-structuralists.
6.4 Lichtenstein however, is very clear in his interviews that at the level of ideation, he mirrors the camp of the Minimalists in 1) reacting to abstract expressionism by negating its formal means, 2) adopting a machine aesthetic that many people refer to as 'anti-art' because art at this time is so completely identified with the cult of expressivity, and 3) in only introducing minor variations on the original image as a way of commenting on the dominant aesthetic taste in mass culture at that time. Thus, Lichtenstein had the same essential working program as the Minimalists, only he incorporated both figurative and abstract imagery, and made distinctive changes in the content of what was being said by the characters in his works, and/or the formal arrangement of his graphemes.
6.5 The point here being, the logic of postmodernism is the same at the level of ideation, which is to say, as negation, when we consider simulationism to be the same kind of program that circumscribes Minimalism, Neo-Geometric art and Pop Art, not to mention Fluxus, Happenings, Photorealism, Neo-Expressionism, etc. But by comparison with these movements, it is only the addition of a greater level of self-reflexivity that allows Halley to work in a critique of older versions of hard edge painting in the same way that Lichtenstein took up the critique of mass culture. In fact, there is more continuity between Lichtenstein's artist statements and Peter's Halley's essay's "The Crisis in Geometry" and "Nature and Culture" than one might first suspect. So much so in fact, that calling Lichtenstein the father of Neo-Geo is more appropriate than citing Warhol in many ways, and Halley goes out of his way to obscure this connection in his writings by consciously foregrounding the originality of his own perspective, which simply consist of running Lichtenstein's program in the negative.11
6.6 And beyond the simple recognition that Neo-Geo, (or simulationism), is simply Pop Art by other means, or rather, it is really Pop Art with a more selective focus on geometry, if one wants to be picky about it. What everyone seems to miss however is the obvious Hegelian triad that issues from the efforts of the ideocrats in (Neo)geometric painting. The first moment of which was to place all emphasis on the operations of color as relative, and to consider this relativity as a kind of absolute statement about what can be done with the medium in its 'specificity' (Albers, Hoffman, etc); the second move by the postmodern ideocrats is to critique the removal of the medium from its 'specificity' in cultural terms (Lichtenstein, Halley, etc.); while the synthesis provided for by today's pluralists is simply to embrace this as a positive condition and to extend the idea of geometric systems and the activation of color to include the context of the exhibition, greater allusions to nature, cinema, and any number of racial, sexual, and gendered differences (Reed, Marcaccio, etc.). This, once again, provides us with a perfect Hegelian triad in the form of a thesis about new order of investigation ('pure' color relations), the negation of that order as being separate from the conditions of the world in which they exist (re-contextualization), and finally, these two opposing perspectives are brought together by using them synthetically in order to build works of every greater complexity (pluralism). For a great example of what I'm talking about see the recent works and reviews of Odili Donald Odita's exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery.
6.7 As for whatever small allusion there is to this period of geometric art in Johnson's work, it is most certainly related to Halley's day-glow pallet and Lichtenstein's synthetic taste, both of which take an unabashed joy in celebrating the artificial. And really, that is about the extent to which we can draw any parallels between this camp of geometric painters and Johnson's work, which only further confirms the notion that Johnson may very well be a theocratic artist. And yet, together, these warring camps of theocrats, iconocrats and ideocrats created a dialogic contest over which school of art would become the reigning aesthetic in the paradigm of geometric painting in any given decade, and they did this by way of thesis, negation and synthesis at the level of intention, contestation and pictorial re-evaluation. But why is this so easily missed today?
6.8 First, the 'schools' of thought about hard edge painting no longer run in succession but are all co-extensive. In many ways modernism was a period of discrete camps, postmodernism began to see more overlapping movements and greater dialog between them, and today, we have different methodologies all happening simultaneously in a global exchange of image production throughout the world. Second, this is happening because of the hyperbolic mode of over-production, which is to say, as art schools pump out more and more graduates than ever before, each new wave of geometric painters is better educated and working from a greater diversity of opinions and influences than at any other time in history. In other words, pluralism is an endemic condition, or a kind of defacto status, that can now be attributed to the ethos of all artistic production with anyone in particular knowing what it means. Third, most critics overlook the dominant mode of production in capitalism, the changing logic of ideation, and the competition between painters in forwarding their program and/or the programs that came before them because they think that it stinks of reductionism, when in fact, it makes the art of interpretation into a rather complicated and messy business. Fourth, and finally, in the age of pluralism everyone hates to admit that these ideological positions continue to hold sway not only as the subtext of a given artist's working method; and not only as the context that allows new works to be received as meaningful; and not only as the obvious wall-text that accompanies canonization; but it is also the only intelligent way we can begin to speak about the pluralist era as an interlocking cartography of interests and conflicts about the nature of artistic production.
6.9 Of course, this digression brings us up to the present moment, and to a much greater question, which is how we think about geometric art in the early twenty-first century, and Dion Johnson's recent works, because these are the schools of thought which he was educated in, which he is in dialogue with, and which he owes a certain debt to at the level of inspiration, negotiation and sensation.
Dion Johnson, Sky Diver, 2015, 32 x 36 x 2 inches, Acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of Bentley Gallery.
PART THREE: The Pluralist Polyphony as the Proliferation of Differential Hybrid Orders.
7.1 But before we proceed to comment directly on Dion's work, there are a few key points to understand about geometric painting today. Compared to the last century, most of today's hard edge painters are syncretists of a sort, who have adopted a hybrid aesthetic and polyvalent programs of making. Perhaps some of the most prominent examples are the ideocrat Sarah Morris who is post-Neo-Geo in adopting a multitude of mediums to comment on the growth of the same kind of corporate and governmental powers structures that Halley's art talked about in the 80's. Or there is the iconocrat, Mary Corse, who mixes Op-Art with Minimalist geometries in order to create a synthetic experience that exists somewhere between the ephemeral and the absolute. Or there is the theocrat, Tim Bavington, who brings together the theatrical presentation of his geometries by abutting his piano-key like paintings with large monochromes, mixing two different genres of production, one which is about the timing and the space of color as well as its variations, while the other is about the singular experience of an uninterrupted color field.
7.2 So even as these various perspectives continue to hold sway in the art world as so many mixed propositions about the future promise of hard edge painting, where do we place Johnson's work at this moment in time, and how is it in dialog with his immediate contemporaries? While Johnson's name traffics in L.A. alongside those other rising stars of geometric abstraction like Joe Lloyd and Thomas Burke, (both of whom are also represented by his Los Angeles gallery Western Projects), there is something uniquely different about Johnson's aesthetic that one shouldn't overlook. But this something is perhaps best understood by contrasting his work with those who show at his same gallery in L.A. and who also stand in the long line of ideo, theo and iconocrats in geometric art.
7.3 Certainly, Joe Lloyd's paintings pick up where Diebenkorn left off, only Lloyd works with a similar program in the negative. That is to say, Lloyd plays the geometric and the gestural off one another in an effort to create maximum visual tension absent any talk about essentialism and the landscape. He is an iconocrat to the degree that his work is absolutely anti-essentialist, and evidences this through the play of negation and synthesis: the negation of Diebenkorn's essentialism and the synthesis of his formal elements into higher orders of aesthetic contradiction. But what makes him an iconocrat is that he knows the iconic value of Diebenkorn's project, and he wants to further that sensibility by taking it beyond Diebenkorn's aesthetic commitments, commitments that may have kept him from realizing a greater vision for the integration of the geometric and the gestural as the two major conflicting tendencies of twentieth century abstraction.12
7.4 By contrast Thomas Burke has extended Stella's program in the negative by giving us warped geometries that look three dimensional in reproduction but are entirely flat in person. It is a project about programmatic hermeticism and optical inversions that aims to negate Stella's claims in Working Space about the future of geometric abstraction as an aesthetic project while using Stella's geometric motifs so you won't miss the allusion to the system of thought that undergirds his project. In other words, like Lloyd, his method is negation and synthesis: the negation of Stella's early aesthetic program by way of a synthesis of his iconic geometries from before the 'turn' mixed with the pictorial illusion of roundness, rather than say, actually creating works that operate in the round like late Stella. Thus, his is an intellectual project on par with other contemporary ideocrats who are running the working programs of twentieth century painting in reverse, almost like checking for bugs in a computational system, and then adding a new line of code to the OS. Afterall, in our era, this is how we distinguish the synthetic-pluralist ideocrats from their more ideologically motivated forerunners in the modern and postmodern periods.
7.5 In opposition to these two projects, we can posit the notion that Johnson is a theocrat inasmuch as we can identify the aesthetic programs that he embraces from the get go. He knows the power of the image, its genealogy in the history of geometric painting, and he intends to carry it forward by intensifying the internal logic of his geometries and broadening the extensive possibilities of what they refer to. But make no mistake, like his contemporaries, his method is that of negating essentialism, and synthesizing formerly opposed methodologies. This is, afterall, what the entire pluralist generation has in common, even while they each make a claim of 'originality' for each new fusion of formerly opposed idiograms.
7.6 Nevertheless, in Johnson's work we encounter a set of aesthetic relations that are theocratic inasmuch as Johnson still believes in the power of the geometric image as a diagnosis of the times we live in; as a space of unconscious associations and a program of optical pleasures; as a blend where reductionism and vibrancy hold sway in equal measure; and which, for lack of a better term, can work as a critique of all those geometric programs which don't embrace the potentiality of the genre to be engaged in games of perpetual self-transcendence. That is, if you will, Johnson's working program. It is one which not only rehearses many of the high moments of geometric art from the last century, but it is the work of a theocrat when compared against the programs of Lloyd or Burke because it still believes in the kinds of pictorial orders it is indebted to.
7.7 And while the painters of Johnson's generation all site the influence of digital technologies, the ability to sample from history, and talk about painting in terms of occupying a space between the virtual and the real, these are a kind of half-hearted retort that is repeated in a mantra-like fashion in graduate school programs around the country in order to create an air of cache around geometric art in the early twenty-first century. Does Johnson subscribe to these critical memes too? Of course, they are the grand themes of our generation. And does he fall prey to being derivative of the kinds of work that merely reproduce the digital as affect, like the paintings of Torben Giehler, Alex Brown and so many others? No, Johnson's work is of a higher caliber, on par with the likes of Philip Argent and Adam Ross, both of whom know their art history and yet still give us challenging images about the present by creating a diverse catalog of works in the geometric refrain. Like those artists mentioned above, Johnson's work makes you believe something else is afoot that one dare not say in the pluralist era, and that something is that Johnson believes in work to hold its own against the ideocrats and the iconocrats by playing with an expanded set of visual registers. And in Johnson's work, just what are these registers?
7.8 Of course, he mixes large uninterrupted passages of bold color with stark contrasts in a middle key, and even though Johnson's mark making is absent any evidence of the hand, he still moves further down the chromatic and pictorial scale to include the most minute of compositional variations. So why is something which is so readily apparent to anyone who sees the show, namely its ability to play the visual octaves in a wider range of variations than most geometric painting from the past, of any enduring value today?
7.9 It is because most of the ideas that have driven geometric art have resulted in playing at one end of the pictorial scale or the other, but never in the full measure of what is pictorially possible. Most of the geometric paintings of the twentieth century have either been somewhere between working with mid-range to big bold moves, or small gestures growing only somewhat larger. Simply think of Franz Klein and Jackson Pollock at mid-century, or of the geometries of Mondrian and Malevich at the birth of modern geometric art, or even the later period that stretches from Frank Stella to Peter Halley. You almost always find an orchestra of mark making that is absent a section or two. Or worse yet, that is playing in all high key color chroma, or nearly absent color altogether if you happen to be the Minimalists. In many ways, much of the geometric art of the twentieth century lacked virtuosity or was hemmed in by its own program in one way or another, limited either by the expression of its 'beliefs' about painting, or limited by its 'belief' in painting as a type of paradigm, camp or a set of codices.
Dion Johnson, Tremolo, 2015, 60 x 80 x 2 inches, Acrylic on canvas (two canvases). Image courtesy Bentley Gallery.
CONCLUSION: The Dialogics of Dion Johnson's work as a Pictorial Passion Play about the Need to Believe... in the Theater of Artistic Production.
8.1 By contrast, Johnson gives us the full range of color, line and plane as a type of cipher for the idiograms he creates and as a theocratic gesture aimed at transcending the limits of former paradigms. He wants us to feel the tempo, both as the formal demarcations of 'color notes' across his canvases, as well as how his pictures play with the beat of art history even as they venture into the virtual landscape of unrealized possibilities. This is also why his titles always seem to be referring to a dramatic swing of sorts, an extreme of experience or the torque needed to continue to evolve a modern genre of painting into a more expansive and inclusive set of propositions. His names for each work not only have an affective purchase in directing us toward thinking about a larger spectrum of bodily experience, but they allude to how the paintings themselves are made up of swinging gestures, toppling rhythms, and pictorial punctuations. It isn't lost on even the occasional art patron that such forms and titles allude to the extreme of corporeal experience, or bodies held in tension by the forces of the earth and the desire to transcend such limitations. This is yet, another subtle confirmation of Johnson's theocratic focus on the dialectic tension created by 'peak' experiences, be they material, spiritual, aesthetic --- whatever.
8.2 But, unlike most of what has come before in the genre of hard edge painting, these works insist on a sense of fixed instability that mixes the logic of the syncopated and the sectioned off with oblong forms and crescent shaped arcs. Whether the tilt of Johnson's compositions are vertical, wavering or straight as an arrow, we know that in the entre into his spaces of visual compression and interrupted activity, it is us, the viewers, who will be going along for a ride that has something of a rollercoaster-effect about it. Like a classic three act play, his works have an anticipatory introductory sequence, a place where some of these relations experience a dramatic turnabout of sorts, and conclude with a modicum of quite reserve based on so many dissipating 'story' lines. They are an instance of the short, intense, passion play, in pictorial form.
8.3 And beyond the rise and fall of formal characters that comprise his imagery, there is the simple description of the work itself, from the counter-punctual color harmonies of Tremolo; to the double shades of blue sky that serve as the ground of Helicopter; to the frozen whites that dominate Ice Skate; to the cosmetic pallet and skipping rhythm of City Girl; to the lofty and suspended forms of Cathedral; to the hot reds that dominate the visual expanse of Race Car; to the last minute compression sequence in Sky Diver that falls on the far left of the picture plane; to the slowly encroaching curve of the color black in Night Light; all of this could be described in greater detail, piece by piece, painting by painting, and it still would not bring you closer to the experience of the work. To get a sense of how Johnson has composed with scale, and how he makes the psychology of perception function as a filter for the aspirations of form, there is no substitute for seeing the works in person. They are most certainly in a dialogue with more than a few schools of geometric abstraction from the past, but where they pull away from their contemporaries is in the way Johnson approaches the idea of being a theocratic painter.
8.4 Johnson believes, and he wants us to believe, that there is still more that is possible for the genre of geometric abstraction beyond the logics of production proffered by iconocrats and ideocrats in hard edge painting. Furthermore, Johnson wants his art to deliver us a sense of awe in the house of hushed whispers we call the institutions of contemporary art. And while they undoubtedly make good on that promise, Johnson's growing body of work also shows the potential to take its place alongside the very best of what hard edge painting has so far offered its audience and its critics alike, which is a place to think about the valences of the geometric impulse as it relates to artistic intention, be it in the past, present or future tense. Following from this premise, we can say that his works are given over to us through a measured sense of aesthetic experience that asks us to think about the geometric idiom as a means of judging the orders of belief that circumscribe contemporary existence. And for this, his images have served as an excellent means of thinking about geometric abstraction as a matter of scale and refrain.
1 In 1915 Malevich was not concerned with hard edge painting as a graphic aesthetic, but instead referred to is as being "not an empty square, but rather the feeling of non-objectivity." Malevich often referred to his reductive paintings as even being naturalistic in a sense, and claimed that they referred to seeing a plane flying in the sky above or a structure at a great distance. Black square was not even referred to as being a black square but rather, as a rectangle. And considering that the sides of it are not truly parallel to one another, it's really something more like a tilted parallelogram. And for Malevich, not being concerned with hard edges in the painting was related to it being an expression of a feeling, a feeling for a new type of order, or an impression of a different kind of 'objectivity'. It's fitting to start the reflection for this review here in 1915 to cover a hundred year span of the kinds of influences that Johnson would have been exposed to lecture halls and survey courses covering the last century of art practice. Of course, what he wouldn't have been exposed to is the recent controversy over Black Square, which, when x-rayed, revealed a racist joke, that the image was of a "battle of negroes in a dark cave." Of course, this doesn't conflict with the thesis put forward in this review because theocratic orders are often racist, with the Catholic, Protestant and Mormon churches not allowing black people to serve as ministers as late as the 1970's. The artworld, for all of its supposed progressiveness, is actually behind these conservative institutions in only just now broadening the cannon of geometric painting beyond its white "Suprematist" origins with shows like "Hard Edged" at the California African American Museum.
2Platonism of the multiple is a thesis put forward by Alain Badiou following from the observations of set theory that there is no set of sets, or no place of pure platonic forms in a realm of ideation that could count as the totally inclusive set that includes all other things. Badiou instead claims, that "it should be noted that the 'independent existence' of mathematical structures is entirely relative for Plato... Next, the Platonists desire is for maximal extension in what can be granted existence: the more existences the better... Lastly, the Platonist acknowledges a criterion whenever it becomes apparent that a choice is necessary as to the direction in which mathematics will develop." So what does this have to do with geometric painting? The answer is nothing other that the idea that no geometric painter ultimately ends up following the order of another; and the more types of geometric orders that proliferate in hard edge painting, the better; and wherever a choice becomes apparent as to the direction the artists investigation will take is itself, what allows geometric painting to develop. The last century of hard edge painting demonstrates the idea of a 'Platonism of the multiple' in painting, and adequately demonstrates the convergence of the Platonic thesis with Cantor's set theory. Alain Badiou, Theoretical Writings (New York: Continuum, 2004) 49, 55, 55.
3The Magical Space Form series actually lasted from 1948 to 1963 and marked a break in Feitelson's own work with the classical ideas that had dominated his paintings in previous decades. In this series he "abandoned illusionism and volumetric forms in order to explore what he called a 'duality of interchangeable form and space' achieved through flat two-dimensional forms." In many ways, this already provided the set-up for Stella's integration of form and space a decade later, making the logic of the iconocrats in geometric painting rather transparent. Michael Duncan, "Lorser Feitelson's hard edge abstraction", Loser Feitelson and the invention of hard edge painting 1945-1965 (Los Angeles: Louis Stern Fine Art, 2003) 19.
4 The term revisionary ratio's was coined by the literary critic Harold Bloom to refer to the degree that each new artist or writer revises and extends the achievements of others who are working in the same genre or with similar themes. Of course, the term is even more apropos in relation to geometric painting for obvious reasons.
5 Of course, here I am not just referring to the large scale reassessment of Hegel that has been brought together in collected editions like Hegel and Contemporary Continental Philosophy, (ed. Dennis Keenan) and Hegel and Art (ed. Stephen Houlgate), but much more specifically, to the seminal essay by Robert B. Pippin in the later entitled "What Was Abstract Art? (From the Point of View of Hegel). Now, anyone who has studied Hegel won't be surprised at all to find the generation of negation, namely, the postmodernists, claiming that the Hegelian history of model is flawed because of its supposedly linear teleos. And it is even somewhat funnier to watch artists have this conversation at the Tate Modern as they stand under a big linear model of art history, or that many simply seem to forget that we still teach art as one movement after another, including contemporary movements like 'relation aesthetics', 'speculative realism', and tomorrow, something else. But linearity was never Hegel's point, because the analytic of finitude, which is to say, the problem of being finite beings gives us only a very limited capacity to cognize everything that happens in the world, and that the best chance we have of making sense of things is not as timelines and a logic of succession, but as the evolution of consciousness. In fact, is one wants to understand the failure of most criticism's of Hegel, it is simple this: where does line of developmental logic presented in Hegel exist but in space, and of course, this is the space of consciousness, which is to say, the very possibility of being conscious of any form of developmental logic at all. In this regard, Pippin's essay is wonderful in summing up all the key moments of Hegel's thought and his contribution to how it foreshadowed the "intensification of self-consciousness" about art production after it left the paradigm of realism; how abstract art is a better "concrete" example of thought taking on the trapping of re-presenting the play of ideas; and that all art after Hegel is something akin to the "growing externalization of self-understanding." But where Pippin is really at his best is in describing the movement of the spirit, or of consciousness as being that of self-alienation, externalization and reconciliation, which is a perfect description of the birth of modern art in the period of industrialization, the externalization of this particular form of artistic production as alienation during the postmodern period, and finally, of pluralism as the period of reconciliation, synthesis or what I call integration. The problem of course, both with Hegel, and the period of art that stretches from Modernism to the present, as well as Pippin's essay is that it sees this process as one of increasing liberation and specifically, of the liberation of consciousness in a given sphere of production which misses the fractal, holographic, and integral picture of the universe that many modern theories of science propose, and in so doing, may fall prey to the kinds of arguments Marx made about the reification of thought and the increasing alienation of the artists under capitalist imperatives --- which is to say --- under ever increasing academic specialization. This essay can only point to this conceptual divide, and suggest, that much like the Hegelian paradigm, we will see a new thesis of concerns come together around this very issue at the end of Pluralism. See Robert B. Pippin, "What Was Abstract Art? (From the Point of View of Hegel). Hegel and the Arts. Ed. Stephen Houlgate (Evanston: Northwest University Press, 2007) 244-270.
6Of course, there have been both good and bad reviews of Stella's retrospective, but some of the worst, such as Ben Davis's piece for Art News entitled "Stella at the Whitney is All Style and No Substance", misses the point entirely. Every criticism Davis makes doesn't take into account the historical trajectory of geometric art at that point, or in the latter course of the 20th century. Davis simply lambasts Stella for being the first example of an art star who got his fame too young and then continued making vapid work for the next five or six decades. He indulges in the kind of art criticism that aims to be provocative but only shows a total lack of understanding, both of context and content, and which ultimately devolves into name calling. It seems that Ben Davis doesn't understand the first rule of logical argumentation in a court of law or public opinion, which is that just stating your opinion is not 'making a case' for the values of a work, or in this case, an entire career.
7Stella put it this way: "No one wants abstraction to turn itself around to accommodate the innate taste for illusionism; but abstraction has to recognize that the coziness it has created with its sense of reduced, shallow illusionism is not going anywhere. Caravaggio and Rubens made manageable pictorial sense out of the dynamic illustrative diversity of 16th century painting, building a strong base for future painting. What we need today is a similar base for the future of our own painting." I only mention Stella's argument here because, it seems that in the next few decades, abstract art would not only take up Stella's general thesis, but in many ways, even surpass it in the age of pluralism. Frank Stella, Working Space (Cambridge: Harvard University Press: 1986) 66.
8 Of course, the texts to be consulted here are Agnes Martin, Writings (New York: Cantz, 1992) and exhibition monographs like As Painting: Division and Displacement by Phillip Armstrong, Laura Lisbon and Stephen Melville (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001) or Logical Conclusions: 40 years of Rule-Based Art (New York: Pacewildenstein, 2005).
9 Logical Conclusions: 40 years of Rule-Based Art (New York: Pacewildenstein, 2005) 1.
10 While Fried quite rightly sums up the Minimalist paradigm, or what was called ABC Art, Primary Structures or Specific Objects at the time as being 'largely ideological', his account really doesn't account for the place of minimalist painting in materialist terms as other than coming at the end of a period where painting is "seen as an art on the verge of exhaustion, one in which the range of acceptable solutions to a basic problem - how to organize the surface of the picture - is severely restricted." Of course, the ideological question proper is how did become restricted, why, and through what series of dialogical operations is it now valorized as a critical form that escapes the entropic malaise that is presupposed by Fried but never really clarified. Simply making a case for non-art, the collapsing of the dialectic between painting and sculpture, or between producer and system, which are Fried's key themes, does little to tell us why objecthood is a necessary condition of production at that time other than declaring literalness to be a 'critical move' against modernist painting and Op-Art. Again, the second obvious question is, why do either of these movements have to be negated in the first place? In other words, Fried's arguments are ontologically consistent but epistemologically ungrounded. Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998) 149.
11See Lichtenstein's statements in Lichtenstein by Laurence Alloway (New York: Abbeville Press, 1981) 105-107, and Peter Halley, Collected Essay's 1981-81 (Zurich: Bruno Bischofberger Gallery, 1988).
12Of course, in order to understand this dialectic outcome we have to really understand the logic of the iconocrats. This consists of understanding the valances between two distinct moves. First, the iconic value of the Abstract Classicists is that unlike the theocrats they were not trying to found a new order of society. They were not like the Suprematist, Constructivists, Futurists, etc. What was meant by deeming the hard edged painters in Southern California 'classicists' was not so much that there works really harkened back to classical naturalism but that they proposed that the kind of iconography they were developing would be of enduring value for generations to come because it spoke to the balancing of forces, both formal and psychological, i.e., their compositions were not wholly erratic, and they did not look unconsidered, gestural, or for lack of a better work, haphazard. Second generation iconocrats like Stella, integrated the gestural and the geometric in a second 'classical' move of sorts, because the entire language around notions of the golden mean and other classical scheme was the tension created between line and spiral, geometry and gestural sweeps, the orchestration of light and shadow, etc. Stella simply re-introduced these missing elements in order to make a second order classicism, or a baroque classicism of 'enduring' iconic value, and he explicitly made his arguments along this line of thinking about the power of iconicity. That is to say, no one can ever enter a room of the first or second generation classicists and not recognize the work on the wall as having iconic purchase in both the sense of being identified with the producer and as a very specific arrangement of formal gestures and marks that make their impact by being self-supporting, i.e., part of a secular order of composed geometries with their own internal logic. By contrast with the first and second generation iconocrats, the pluralist iconocrats, (which in California probably begins with Ed Moses), mixes geometries and gestural painting quite freely, and but also tries to avoid being so readily identifiable. In other words, the logic is of growing expression of the powers of iconicity itself, first as geometric, then as geometric and gestural, and finally as an open-ended play of the possibilities of the gestural and the geometric in any configuration whatsoever, even beyond working in series. Each piece can be it's own icon, and this conclusion was reached by way of thesis (Abstract Classicists), negation (geometric expressionism) and synthesis (iconicity unbound). This quite directly fulfills the Hegelian thesis by giving us evidence of the growing freedom of the Idea of art, and the Idea of iconic abstraction, as the exploration of its own possibilities within a domain of discursive potentials. The problem, is again, that the triad represents the freeing of the idea from the constraints of nature, something Hegel was for but Marx abhorred. And, the next 'new' thesis which may carry the idiom of hard edge painting forward again may be a return to understanding the kinds of radical geometries which actually do undergird our natural universe, such as the amplituhedron, and their implications not only for overturning the obsession with iconicity for its own sake, but for renewing the promise of the Classicists by working with a series of geometric forms that not only issue from a higher order of organization, but which were unknown in the time of the classicists, both ancient and modern.
New Works by BY Laura Strohacker and Kendra Sollars @ Phoenix Institute for the Arts & Chartreuse Gallery
THINKING ABOUT CIVILIZATION AND ITS CREATURELY DISCONTENTS: NEW WORKS BY LAURA STROHACKER AND KENDRA SOLLARS
“True artists don’t deny or avoid conflict; they struggle with it, energized by contending forces. New works of art bear a mark of the freedom that engendered them. And that mark, made visible or audible to the public through a work of art, multiplies the experience of freedom into a shared or common, sense that supports enlightened politics.”
Doris Sommer (The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities pg. 137)
“Animal Land is timely and important, we’re living in a time of premature human induced extinctions and our project is a type of last stand.” Lauren Strohacker and Kendra Sollars (From the video “What is Animal Land?”)
“The anthroposcene is a brilliantly provocative label for the new epoch... it works on the most basic level as a kind of tactic: the planet has changed so much that many scientists believe we have entered a whole new geological epoch! Or rather, its message seems at first blush to be: humankind has changed the planet so much that it has created a new geologic epoch.”
Jeremy Davies (The Birth of the Anthroposcene, pg. 70)
INTRODUCTION: Welcome to the Animal-Scene.
The latest contribution from Lauren Strohacker and Kendra Sollars to the Animal Land Project made its double venue debut at Rhetorical Galleries on Roosevelt Row and Chartreuse Gallery on Grand Avenue this past June. While Rhetorical Galleries presented a dual channel piece as part of their summer series of solo exhibitions, a second single channel work called “Mule Deer” was shown in the group exhibition “Land Tracings” at Chartreuse. Like all of the other pieces in “Land Tracings”, Strohacker and Sollars’s work was one of the winning entries for the Artist Research and Development Grants that are given out annually by the Arizona Commission for the Arts.
While the pieces at both venues are similar in style and format, and are somewhat more restrained in scale than other video works from the same series, Strohacker and Sollars’s latest works present us with two very pressing questions. The first is why has this particular series garnered so much attention in Arizona from being exhibited at the Mesa Arts Center, to being included in In Flux Cycle 5, as well as shows at the Phoenix Art Museum and the 2015 Biennial, not to mention being one of the stand out pieces that was highlighted at the Iris Nights Lecture Series in the Anneberg Space for Photography. In other words, why has this ongoing project become not only emblematic of concerns here in Arizona, but how does it resonate with issues in the culture at large? Or to
put it another way, what does the Animal Land Project have to say to us about everything from new scientific discoveries concerning animal sentience, to our increasing awareness of the hidden cruelties associated with the meat packing industry, to the territorial lines drawn out by gaming organizations concerning rules about local hunting practices, the on and off season, animal population control, etc., etc.?
Of course, answering this first question about larger issues of cultural relevance has a lot to do with understanding a second, somewhat more complicated issue which depends on whether or not one is familiar with the term anthroposcene. This is a key term that Strohacker and Sollars use in the opening line of the wall didactic which describes their collaborations as “a visual metaphor for wildlife in the anthroposcene era." For those who don’t know, the anthroposcene refers to the period in which we are now living, which was most notably described in the best-seller, The Sixth Great Mass Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. While this book isn’t the place where the word was coined, its thesis still reflects many of the broader claims about the anthroposcene that are concerned with the pivotal role that human influence has come to play in the biosphere, namely, that human life and the ills of capitalism have finally pushed us to a point of such dramatic ecological change that we are now living in an entirely new geological period.
Above all else, this era is characterized as a time of cascading crises that are now taking place around the world and which have not only been getting worse for some time, but which are actually accelerating with each passing year. From atmospheric pollution to nuclear and petrol disasters; to the clear cutting of forests, the spread of land dumps and the absorption of environmental toxins; to endless drilling and mining projects that are as disruptive as fracking the earth for natural gas... all around us we find that the final result of these collective endeavors is indeed cumulative and critical. This is because they seem to be triggering an extinction event of epic proportions, which, if it isn't addressed soon, may grow to include not only the greater part of the animal kingdom, but humanity as well.
PART ONE: From the Holoscene to the Anthroposcene.
Thus, to grasp the true significance of the idea of the anthroposcene and the changes that are currently underway, we have to begin by understanding that the anthroposcene was preceded by the holoscene which began approximately 11,700 years ago. This geological era is generally characterized as a warm and largely hospitable period in the history of our small blue world. For all of the human conflict that erupted during this epoch, the general lack of major ecological disturbances still provided for a sense of relative stability that allowed for the rise of different species, cultures, the written word and even the transition from agrarian to urban living. Sure, the earth suffered its regular tumults, but life was by and large expanding, species were rapidly diversifying, plant and animal
life was multiplying and what we think of as the health of the planet seemed all but assured. At the very least, it wasn’t much of a concern. By contrast, the anthroposcene is the idea that this period is coming to an end far quicker than we could have ever imagined, with consequences that can’t be thought of as being anything other than catastrophic.
So, the rather obvious question to ask here is how does this relate to the works included in the Animal Land Project? Of course, the kind of public installations that Strohacker and Sollars have been making these past few years take on a greater depth of meaning when we think about the absurdity of hunting animals to extinction in an era of mass extinction. Or, that the way we treat animals is in fact, a sign of our own self-alienation that extends to how we treat each other, our world, our resources, and even ourselves. Movements like intentional communities, re-wilding, and many other efforts to get us back in touch with the natural world, and especially the many forms of life that we share this planet with, are closely related to a kind of critical “re-naturalization thinking” that also circumscribes the Animal Land Project. And, there is the wonderful fact that the artists have linked their efforts with other animal protection agencies in a genuine effort to support the kind of changes in the wild that their artworks promote in suburban and cosmopolitan areas.
PART TWO: Art and Agency in the Era of the Anthroposcene.
But having sketched out the contours of their project, which are quite clear to any art patron who visits the site of these works and gives a little bit of attention to the supporting materials, doesn’t mean we’ve understood the works themselves any better, but rather, that we’ve simply grasped the greater context from which they emerge. Having made works about species as diverse as the Mexican Wolf, the Black Vulture, the Jaguar, the Mountain Lion, the Mule Deer, and many other animals, Strohacker and Sollars are not just giving us a living taxonomy of images for future remembrance. And they are not creating the equivalent of the great seed banks of the world, which feel like preparations for some futurial crop failure, or a mass plant disease that makes the earth’s growing seasons fall fallow. And, Strohacker and Sollars’s documentary gestures are not an apocalyptic warning in the sense of providing a modern day allegory that is somewhat akin to Noah’s Ark, even though they often seem to be adding to their cartography of endangered animals by focusing on one species at a time, while grouping them in moving pictures standing two by two, or even three by three.
And yet, what these videos do happen to share with some of the instances above is the hope of overcoming cognitive dissonance at the dawn of the anthroposcene. This is due to the fact that from the point of view of those who study the anthroposcene, the flood is already here because it’s on the news nearly every other week; the growing fields in many parts of the world have
already gone fallow as desertification spreads across the globe; and animals are indeed going extinct in numbers that we can hardly fathom, not to say anything about the accompanying death of bio-diversity in all of its forms. The problem of course, is that we have yet to notice that the rising tide isn’t showing signs of receding anytime soon. The spreading droughts aren’t getting any more hospitable either. And it goes without saying that any animal hunted to extinction isn’t returning to the ecosystem where it once served a crucial role. Consequently, we are encountering a world that is beset not by a single problem, but which is plagued by interconnected forms of social, political and ecological dissonance that have geological repercussions for life the world over.
As a result, the works in the Animal Land Project attempt to address these contradictions through a number of performative acts that can be thought of as being “intercessional” in nature, or interceding on behalf of nature. First, the works from the Animal Land Project are comprised of moving figures; they are often blown up until they are monumental in size; they inhabit public places as well as the enclosed spaces of galleries and museums; and they are meant to provoke conversations and even to be something of a visual sensation. In the theater of the moving image Strohacker and Sollars’s works are quite effective in addressing, connecting and informing us about different species that could become missing actors from the world stage... perhaps without so much as anyone really noticing they’re gone. And in this way, the different presentations of the Animal Land Project have been incredibly affective in invoking a psychological space of confrontation, mediation and even a kind of mediation on the mounting contradictions of civilization, co-habitation and creaturely life. But how exactly is this the case?
PART THREE: Reflection, Responsibility and the Politics of Reversibility.
Of course, the kinds of images used by Strohacker and Sollars are what we call negative images. They are like reversed polarities, hinting at an obverse world, an unseen world, or a world turned upside down or inside out by human colonization. Or, one might even say that they evoke an unfelt world that exists far beyond the city limits. In many ways, Strohacker and Sollars’s documentary interventions are an abstraction of so many erasable figures or digital ghosts, and yes, their absence is going to haunt our world if we don’t make concrete efforts to reverse the worst effects of anthropocentric thinking in the new century. Moreover, these glitchy figures of fragility often look directly at us, glance away, and then look back again, implicating us in the kind of gaze that might be characterized as occupying the position of an intruder, or a hunter, or even that of being a passive observer. If anything, we are presented with a space for reflection that could very well amount to being the last witnesses to a virtual crime scene where we, the viewers, are the real suspects under investigation.
Thus, when we watch a piece from the Animal Land cycle we seem to occupy a
double position of sorts that feels both removed, and yet, somehow portrays an intimate sense of presence. Not only that but Strohacker and Sollars’s installations give us the impression that we are meant to bare witness to these simulated phantoms of the living–present as they graze and trot about in our midst. Whether grouped together or apart, superimposed or separated, transfixed or fading in and out of frame, they represent the loss of embodied interactions with creaturely life. They are ephemeral reminders of the problems of sustainability, of reproductive perpetuity and of the possibility of providing for the continuity of the species, or really, of all species for that matter. And their images do this at a time when the odds don’t seem to be in anyone’s favor in particular, even though humans still consider themselves to be at the top of the food chain. Running contrary to this common prejudice is the idea that in this new epoch, we’ve all pulled an incredibly unlucky hand, and we have to play the hand we’ve been dealt because the house rules are Gaia’s and the ecology of exchanges has to be redistributed in favor of creating balanced and sustainable systems, otherwise we will be subject to a green-house effect that has nothing to do with people cashing-in and everything to do with our species cashing-out.
As such, Strohacker and Sollars’s images are not just a metaphor for a missing species, or the many species that are facing extinction in the animal kingdom, or even the notion of our troubled ‘natural world’ writ large. Instead, their ‘animal capture’ videos consist of subtle looping effects, hints of reversibility, and a touch of the uncanny. As the figures from the Animal Land Project come in and out of existence, paraded before us in a series of unprovoked responses, we are left to confront so many mask-like doppelgängers that can be as haunting as the costumed bunny in the cult classic Donnie Darko. I would even go so far as to say that this recursive aspect of their work, which consists of creating high contrast images of animals from real life that are then transposed into glowing, glaring figures of happenstance, only takes on a somewhat sinister feeling over the course of an extended viewing. Perhaps, this is because we are meant to think backwards and forwards about their acts and our reactions, about their vulnerability and our impenetrability, about their increasingly compromised positions and our obvious advantages in the great chain of being. And these dialectic contrasts are where the virtual image is made to be a bit stickier by Strohacker and Sollars, or at the very least, it is where the digital image is transmuted into something that really sticks with you.
Afterall, these avatars are meant to not only touch the texture of the deep unconscious but they are also stand-ins for the overexposure of civilizing effects that are slowly eroding our natural world and the interdependent relations we all share with one another on this small ‘goldilocks’ planet. In many ways, the true impact of these figural phantasms, with their hesitant poses, dodgy digitation, and skittish mimicry, is that they open a window onto the lost ground of Western culture as a sign or a symbol for “progress”. They almost seem to rehearse a
slow dance of abandon, like moving memoirs of the noosphere, that drift into an imaginary electronic ether that even Teilhard de Chardin could not have imagined would be the destiny of “development” in the West.
CONCLUSION: Instrumental Reason and Its Discontents.
From this new perspective we can say that if Freud wrote about civilization and its discontents today, then he would have had an occluded population to consider as well, i.e., the animal kingdom. Through the play of re-mediation Strohacker and Sollars have created a pictorial dynamic and a visual dilemma that not only catches our attention, but which also highlights how instrumental reason has finally run aground, or has simply gone mad. When we speak of animals now we also have to speak of infinite repressions, prisonlike conditions, unimaginable horrors, and of the anthropocentric designs that have led to a geological shift that has geo-political consequences, be they regulatory, protectionist, or otherwise. Perhaps that is why in a place like the desert, which is often associated with so many picked over carcasses, we find it easier to begin thinking about the ruins that issue from a larger world-view as we become a picked over civilization of sorts. In this sense, the kind of imagery that Strohacker and Sollars utilize operates like a death’s head for the anthroposcene, serving as a memento mori for reflecting on the growing sense of loss and mourning that have come to characterize our global situation as of late. This, more than any other single reason, is why their project has earned so many accolades these past few years.
As such, we can only hope that the Animal Land Project continues to have an influence beyond our borders, and that these virtual spirit-animals continue to act as an interventionist proposition, as a real-time condition, and as reminders of the kind of isolation, degradation and disintegration that is associated with anthropocentric drives gone awry. Certainly, our most noteworthy art organizations have given high praise to the Animal Land Project, and rightfully so. But whether or not our world is to remain a land populated by the diverse species that have come before the era of the anthroposcene, or if we are unfortunately destined to become a shadow of the former richness associated with the holoscene era, remains a pressing question in our day. Lucky for us, it is the kind of question that Strohacker and Sollars’s collaboration is meant to confront in any number of registers, be they aesthetic, socio-political, environmental, etc. The Animal Land Project makes Strohacker and Sollars two of our best pictorial historians of animal presence as well as the present contradictions of our mutually shared life-world.
And this is because the Animal Land Project is the kind of project that promotes the hope that every form of bio-diversity will continue to grow and to inhabit the earth for a long time to come. As such, it also goes without saying, that those of us in the art community hope to see the works created by Strohacker and Sollars
continue to gain a growing audience in the coming years and decades as consciousness raising isn’t something that went out with the sixties, but is an ethico-aesthetic paradigm that has to be renewed time and time again in order to confront the greatest challenges of each new generation. This, of course, is the real impact that the Animal Land Project has had on communities across the Valley and it is also the mark of contemporaneity that makes Strohacker and Sollars’s committed contribution to the intersecting discourses of installation art, video art, public art and interventionist politics a rather impressive endeavor in the age of the anthroposcene.
Carrie Marill, Everything is Honored But Nothing Matters, 2016, acrylic on linen, 20" x 20".
ABSTRACT REVERBERATIONS: A Review of Carrie Marill’s New Works.
Image of the show card, courtesy of Carrie Marill.
§1. Walking into the Carrie Marill exhibit at Lisa Sette Gallery in downtown Phoenix is nothing short of a visual delight. Vibrant pin-stripped colors zigzag across Marill’s canvases, which are largely composed of hard geometric forms painted over raw linen. Her aesthetic is a strident balance of manufacture and modernism, or at least, that’s the first impression that one gets upon entering her most recent exhibit. This is because Marill’s paintings hit the senses with the controlled comfort of painstaking consideration that we have all come to associate with the rigor of abstract art’s very best practioners.
§2. Artists as noteworthy as Morris Louis, Helen Fankenthaler, and Sam Francis had already created fields of dancing color on raw canvas by the time that second wave Abstract Expressionism was in full swing, giving us something of an early precedent for the way that Marill’s paintings play the coolness of acrylic color against the warmth of an unprimed substrate. Although we must not forget later generations of abstract artists too, such as Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelley, and Peter Halley, all of whom provided a postmodern counterpart to high modernism’s splashiest works by marrying hard edge painting with a sense of texture, stricture and structure that resonates as much with Marill's aesthetic as anything else. In fact, we could say with a great deal of confidence, that her pictorial choices span the trans-Atlantic divide by playing with influences as far flung as the Abstract Classicists in California and Art Concrete in Europe. In other words, Marill is well versed in the valances of art history as well as contemporary trends in abstract painting, and here are a number of reasons why.
Image courtesy of Carrie Marill.
§3. First, Marill mixes various strategies from modern and postmodern painting in equal measure and she doesn't let you know that she's doing it as a type of explicit dialogic game, as a hyper-self-reflexive gesture or as a polemic critique of what has come before. Rather, Marill shows you that she loves doing what she is doing because of her love of painting. Which is to say, there is nothing shy about her aesthetic, her process or her presentation, because these canvases all speak about a scrupulous degree of care. They are copiously tucked at the corners, set out from the wall far enough to have a sculptural presence, and they are imposing enough to declare their commitments in any room of post-war abstraction without apologizing for being fully in love with the tradition of abstract art. Marill leaves traces of her process in the form of pencil lines, subtle demarcations and an aesthetic of the unfinished, but none of this is haphazard in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, these paintings were set up as architectonic improvisations and they make an explicit nod to minimalism and the pattern and decoration movement while embracing the logic of ‘open systems’ thinking in the largest possible sense.
§4. But what kinds of systems are these paintings playing with exactly and where do we see this in the work? In order to better understand the kinds of interventions that Marill regularly introduces into the idiom of modernism, it’s best to start with the first work of hers that we see in the room when we enter the gallery moving in a counter-clockwise fashion. When strolling through the exhibit in this manner, the first painting that we encounter would be the 38’ by 44’, unframed, canvass titled, "The Original Pattern Affects the Rest". This painting consists of a grid that is set back in space, which is mostly black and white, and which is not wholly unlike a late Mondrian. The big difference however is that Marill has inserted short, stretched interruptions of color throughout, almost as if a glitch of some sort had occurred in this iconic modern aesthetic.
Carrie Marill, The Original Pattern Affects the Rest, 2016, acrylic on linen, 38" x 44"
§5. Consequently, we can say that the first painting that we come face to face with in the show presents us with an image that feels as though it was in the process of being downloaded on a router without enough bandwidth, or that we are looking at an abstract painting that hints at issues of resolution. This rather contemporary twist, which comes in the wake of the kind of post-digital painting that dominated the early 00’s, gives us a sense that Mondrian's grids have been transposed into a kind of virtual space as a gesture that pushes geometric art toward pursuing an expanded field of possibilities beyond mere flatness, essentialism or the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’. Instead of staying to those tried and true mantra’s that were once considered to be the very ground of the abstract enterprise, Marill has opted to upset the formulaic nature of such a system not only by fattening the paint application; and not only by introducing perspective; and not only by varying the motif to include intermittent bands of color in an otherwise stark composition.
§6. Of course, all of these are rather matter of fact assessments of what this particular painting trades on in strictly visual terms, but what the casual viewer might miss is the many ways in which this first work sets up a series of questions about abstract painting that will continue to reverberate throughout the whole show. Even the title, "The Original Pattern Affects the Rest", points to a long history of rhetoric devices that have dominated abstract art for more than a century, and it is these nearly unconscious biases that are the aim of Marill’s own deconstructive approach to Hard Edge painting. Not to mention that she’s let you know to keep an eye out on the affective interplay in the gallery between different paintings as well as within singular works.
Carrie Marill, It's Everywhere I Look, 2016, acrylic on linen, 44" x 44".
§7. Thus, it should be no surprise that this ongoing investigation into the graphemes and meta-themes of geometric art is on display in the next work in the room as well, which sits on the interior wall of the gallery at a quarter turn to the left. With this painting, which is itself a perfect square that is composed of a square pattern, we find that Marill is fully engaged with the visual techniques of Op-art as the dancing geometries in "It’s Everywhere I Love to Look" create a series of subtle shifts in contrast that are as much retinal phenomena as they are painterly calculations. In fact, you can be sure that even when Marill does give you a painting that first presents itself as an interlocking system, or even as a pure pattern, that she is still sure to let you know, that she knows, that the kind of art which is based on fulfilling a set of rules or working procedures is not only a game that has exhausted itself in the history of Hard Edge painting, but that such a strict, ascetic and purely logical approach to making an image is something that Marill actively works against. This is because ‘everywhere we look’ in Marill’s work, we find her developing a rich visual vocabulary composed of complex phenomenological cartographies.
§8. But in the second work in this show, the joy in creating haptic pleasures seems to issue from the permutations in pattern-work that occur in the margins of this hermeneutic format. Here, I mean, in unexpected variations, colorful punctuations and the play of simultaneous contrast that occurs along the boarder of "It’s Everywhere I Love to Look" as well as in selective passages throughout the ‘overall’ composition. While we find these ways of activating the picture plane spread out across the entire surface of this square painting, the visual activity in this work occurs alongside selected black squares, where Marill has inserted a thin stripe of framing color, be it in red, blue, ochre, or any variety of greys. Hardly reproducible, these accents have to be seen in person in order to get a sense of how they motivate the eye to move across the surface of the canvas in a rather dynamic manner, making it dance from square to square while also creating a contrast between the center of the composition and the periphery, where small grey squares act as boundary markers and thin stripes of punchy color surround a classic checkerboard composition.
Carrie Marill, Not Afraid of Color, 2016, acrylic on linen, 58" x 44".
§9. And yet, in moving our attention around the picture plane as well as around the room --- and particularly in a room so full of color --- it’s hard not to notice that Marill has used the same black and white squares to create a triangular peephole of sorts in the next painting that we encounter. This would be the unframed 58’ by 44’ work named "Not Afraid of Color". Once again, Marill isn't being coy about her choice of patterns, titles or her pallet. The famous "Who's afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue" by Barnet Newman, “Colors for a Large Wall” by Ellsworth Kelly and even “265 Colors” by Gerhard Richter are all considered to be seminal works in the history of modern and postmodern painting, and Marill’s love of color follows in the footsteps of these eye popping works which act as a set of permissions for her unabashedly colorful expositions. However, the shift in emphasis that her latest work provides about the ongoing discourse concerning the prejudices that have been stated time and time again against color, pattern and decoration as démodé avant-garde endeavors in the field of fine art could be summed up in the following manner.1
§10. While we can see that Marill’s compositions aren't made up of solid fields of color or big block geometries like all of the artists listed above, that is because Marill is interested in courting a kind of subtly with affective delights rather than creating a direct confrontation with immersive fields of pure chroma or cinemascope sized effects. Instead, the dominant motif in this body of work consists of stripes of one kind or another, which are either slightly thicker or thinner, a bit more glossy or matte, a touch more tightly packed together or a little more diffuse and dispersed throughout her varied compositions. But, even with this shift in emphasis away from big bold statements we can still note how her geometries tend to follow the contours of the canvass or how they consist of diagonal arrangements that veer toward greater and lesser degrees of incline.
§11. In other words, her choices are just a rigorous and insistent as her predecessors, even if they are presented at a more intimate scale than the masterworks of high modernism. And, of course, there is the obvious counter-point provided by Marill’s compositional choices, which, in a work like "Not Afraid of Color", consists of putting black and white squares in the center of a colorful framing device who’s contours are not wholly unlike the Arc de Triomphe. This counter-intuitive fission of color and contrast allows Marill’s paintings to inhabit a post-binary, post-monumental, post-production sensibility, which is simply a way of saying that this painting mixes regimes of color that are regularly held apart, that it trades on intensity rather than monumentality, and that it references the computation while still evidencing traces of ‘the handmade’. In fact, Marill’s "Not Afraid of Color” acts something like a status update that it is not a challenge to the cannon of abstract painting, but which represents an aesthetic inversion of the logic of iconicity, or even a detoured type of abstraction if you will.
§12. And this type of detournment doesn’t end with mixing the big, bright, bold colors of high modernism with the slightly more commercial motif of a black and white checkerboard pattern that could easily be found on any tablecloth or mid-century garment. Rather, Marill’s paintings also work to upset our notion of the autonomous work of art as soon as we look across the room and see the sister piece to "Not Afraid of Color" on the far east wall of the gallery. Beyond merely mimicking "Not Afraid of Color" in both size and compositional format, we can say that this next work consists of a single colorful rectangle striped in the same way a Jim Lambie installation piece looks on the floor of the Tate Modern. The big difference being that Lambie’s complete color fields of experience are meant to be walked through while Marill’s more restrained aesthetic relies on the fact that this particular painting has just a touch of raw canvass peaking through the center, almost highlighting how one last stripe of reduced color can act as an unmediated, unprimed pillar of sorts, around which the whole composition stands as a framing device for an absent center.
Carrie Marill, Secure Attachment, 2016, acrylic on linen, 58" x 44".
§13. And yet, even with the proliferation of these deconstructive contrasts, the loss of any idea about these paintings being truly singular works begins to be hinted at more directly as soon as we look back to “Who’s Afraid of Color” and then back again to the painting set directly across the room from it. This is because, it is here that we notice what might be considered to be something of a near match between the positive shape in this new painting and what would seem to complete the uninterrupted logic of the upside-down U shape in the work facing it directly across the room. Perhaps that is because this sister piece, or this painting with a family resemblance, is only titled "Secure Attachment" as an ironic gesture of sorts about its place in the room on the far facing wall; or, perhaps it is a type of commentary on its incomplete compositional framework; or, it might even be an obvious clue to understanding how its size belongs to a pairing of paintings that can neither be ‘secure’ nor ‘attached’ without one or the other overriding the visual logic of their shared system. And, this is just one way that Marill initiates a viral logic of contamination and conflagration in her works.
§14. Of course, it is just as possible that the work is titled “Secure Attachment” because the ground itself is given equal presence with all of the other colors in this piece, acting as a unprimed stripe at the center of the composition, while the rest of the raw linen still holds it’s place as a ground or even, as a framing device for the linear elements on the opposite wall. In more ways than one, these are the type of paintings that suggest a call and response system, or an edit and overlay program, or perhaps, even an open-ended dialog with not one, but many of the other paintings in the room. Once again, Marill has courted a thoroughly deconstructive approach to image making by playing the ground of the image against its abstract figures; by using colorful linear motifs abutted against squares; or really, by juxtaposing the negative image of a geometric shape against its positive form in another painting. In other words, the play of absence and presence in her work is not only accentuated, but it is actually heightened with the addition of each new piece in the room. One might even go so far as to say that the oscillation of visual activity in Marill’s most recent show is really more of an accumulated property that exists between the works on display or through the co-extensive experience of the exhibit in total.
Carrie Marill, The Gateless Gate, 2016, acrylic on linen, triptych: 3 @ 58" x 44" each
§15. But in order to address the most concrete and singular example of this set of commitments we have to turn our attention to the centerpiece of the show, "The Gateless Gate", which is a triptych that sits at a stunning 122’ wide and 58’ tall. The deconstructive activity in this work centers around a set of compositional devices that consist of having painted six split diamonds that sit at the center of the seams between this three panel work, with three of the diamond shapes sitting on the left seam, and the other three on the right. Thus, we find that the eye is drawn to this gap between the works more than any other graphic element because it is the focus of both high key color and the uncompromising design of Marill’s geometric patterns.
Carrie Marill, (Detail)The Gateless Gate, 2016, acrylic on linen, triptych: 3 @ 58" x 44" each. Image courtesy of Carrie Marill.
§16. These same triangular motifs are echoed at a smaller scale across the expanse of “The Gateless Gate” as well. First, they fill up the center panel in a rather regular and uniform manner, and when we reach the two outside panels, the same motifs tend dissipate and lose its sense of systemicity as these diamond shapes become fewer and grow more incomplete at the outermost edges of the ‘winged’ pieces. Of course, it goes without saying, that “Gateless Gate”, is the deconstructive title par excellence and it tips us off to why those specific supplements to the act of painting, (which are almost never shown), not only appear here in the gallery, but also why some of them are placed directly in front of the most important work in the show. I am referring here, to the inclusion of the colored chuck-keys which are displayed in a box directly in front of “Gateless Gate” as well as the big tape ball that sits beneath the artist’s name when you first enter the space. Both sets of these accumulated items are positioned at points of absolute privilege in the gallery even though they are considered to be materials that are regularly excluded from the exhibition space, or which sit at the margins of the practice of painting. In this way, their inclusion here lets us know that Marill is working in a deconstructive vein throughout the show, and that this tongue and cheek gesture might be seen as being co-extensive with what the philosopher Jacques Derrida would have called an archeology of the frivolous, the inconsequential or the tertiary.2
§17. And for those who are unfamiliar with deconstruction as a philosophical project, or its influence in the arts, it is worth taking a moment to explain that deconstruction is considered, even today, to be one of the most controversial perspectives ever put forth about the nature of truths claims in the western continental tradition.3 The most expedient way of explaining the term, albeit in a rather gross and reductive manner, is that deconstruction largely consisted of underscoring the many ways that any discussion of privilege, presence and perpetuity is wholly dependent on what is excluded, marginalized and not given a voice. Derrida himself characterized deconstruction as the practice of an inclusive emancipatory politics that relied on the need to think in terms of circumspect ‘both/and’ statements rather than ‘either/or’ dichotomies. This allowed him to develop a philosophical project that was against exclusion and elitism, which has a direct bearing on Marill’s project if we understand that historically, these were also the two great criticisms that were leveled at abstract art.
§18. If that sounds a little complicated, it applies to the practice of painting and to Marill’s project in a rather concrete way. While artists such as Jennifer Bartlett had already included brushes and pallets as part of her work in the 80’s and 90’s, and Stella had already included the motifs of the geometer in his paintings about geometric morphology in the 60s and 70s, it is only here, in Marill’s work, that she gives us a look at paintings as a total process. She provides us with both painting/and it’s discarded ephemera rather than painting/or its unseen supports. This is most evident in her inclusion of painted chuck-keys that are used to tighten the canvas and the giant ball of tape that was needed to mask off portions of the work while it was being made. In this way, Marill gives us access to the remains of the day, both as a critique of the Greenbergian paradigm of ‘truth to materials’ and as an invitation to think about the greater context of art making as it applies to ideas of inclusion and exclusion, completion and excess, high art and its base materials.4 In other words, Marill’s pictorial choices are not without their aim inasmuch as they are historically specific and aesthetically decentering. This is because nothing in her exhibition is privileged and nothing is excluded.
Image Courtesy of Carrie Marill, from her Facebook artist’s page.
§19. And while even the causal viewer can appreciate the idea of a show about process in total and the display of variable systems, in order to truly catch the philosophical underpinnings of Marill’s work, one also has to take note of how her paintings make no claim to open onto transcendental experience, the supposed purity of geometries or even the hermeneutic games that circumscribe the large majority of process-based art. While all three of these historically informed attitudes toward abstraction are associated with an aesthetic of absolutism, that absolutism was intimately tied to the idea of organic unity, of gestalt thinking and even primordial experience in the modern era. By contrast, when we are confronted with Marill’s works, there are no "happy accidents" here, no slight drips of paint off to one side, no existential angst covering for the pictorial aggressivity of an impromptu execution. In other words, Marill is an aesthete of the highest order and she knows it, but she is a highly articulate and deconstructive one at that.
Image of an installation shot courtesy of Carrie Marill.
§20. However, if there is something even resembling an interruption in her work, and it is only ever a resemblance for sure, than it occurs in something like the work that sits to the right of “Gateless Gate”, which is the much smaller easel sized painting, “Open Without Force”. Now, it goes without saying that Marill is once again tipping her hat to let you know that even though we're familiar with a half century or more of abstract painting where all the color is pushed to the edges, her idiosyncratic take on it is a little different, or rather, it’s a bit deconstructive. While the large majority of abstract art that has played with pushing chromatic affects toward the limits of the frame has often been applied to the canvas somewhat haphazardly or by using gravity, many of these works are taken to speak about the ideas of absence, expectation, and failure. Afterall, a painting with no compositional movement at the center is somewhat akin to a stage where all the actors are waiting in the wings.
Carrie Marill, Open Without Force, 2016, acrylic on linen, 38" x 44".
§21. By contrast, Marill’s “Open Without Force” is absent of these ready-made associations. This is because of the fact that the forces that Marill plays with are not forced, and she tells you as much! Instead, her works consist of small references to digitation, pixelated affects and in this case, it almost seems as if the positive shape in painting, "The Original Pattern Affects the Rest", would fit rather snuggly inside the negative space of "Open Without Force"… in much the same way that the linear positive shape in "Secure Attachment" is approximately the same size as the inset colored V shape and checkerboard triangle that sits in the very center of the composition of "Not Afraid of Color". And once we acknowledge that a piece of the same checkerboard pattern that has been selectively edited into the painting "Not Afraid of Color" is actually a motif that has matriculated across the room from “It’s Everywhere I Look”, then we can finally admit that ‘we are meant to look everywhere’ because these are not only titles that refer to deconstructive relationships, but really, that they refer to all the elements in this exhibit and their inter-connected graphemes. As it sits, they are not only adopting a deconstructive aesthetic within the bounds of their own picture plane, but these works are indeed motivating a trans-action of sorts across all the surfaces of the entire exhibition, where the genre of action painting is re-presented through so many racings stripes, or at the very least, it’s placed with the track of a geometric refrain.
Carrie Marill, The Shape of Myself, 2016, acrylic on linen, 38" x 44".
§22. Perhaps that is why, when we reach the painting that sits to the left of “Gateless Gate", we find not a second sister piece to "Open Without Force", but an abstract self portrait acting as single positive form, like a mountain with a hollowed out crater at the top. Now, the obvious thing any critic would say here is that Marill is in fact gesturing toward the existential foundations that informed post-war abstraction, and that she has also fully accounted for the critique of authenticity and authorship that extends from Adorno to Foucault and is still considered to be the high water mark of post-structuralist/postmodern abstract painting. Or, a slightly less adept critic would say this self-reflexive vanishing act allows Marill to sidestep all the debates about the ‘death of painting’ that extend from the 80s all the way to the contested arguments over ‘Zombie Abstraction’ today.5 Or, a real third rate critic would simply pretend that these deeply entrenched historical concerns don't exist and would instead focus on how Marill's work comes out of the era of the ‘post-digital moment’ in painting that actively mixes inflections of a computational aesthetic with signs and symbols from the history of abstract art, and would then declare that this the mark of Marill’s contemporaneity. And of course, all three assertions would indeed be correct! But, that is not the final word on the subject.
Carrie Marill, Get Up Get Down, 2015, acrylic on linen, 38" x 44" unframed, 39.5" x 45.5" framed.
§23. This is why, when we get to the last of the larger pictures in the main gallery, a painting called "Get up, Get down", it is not just that these two mountain forms are the formal inversion of having painted a singular topless mountain range in "The Shape of Myself"; and it is not just that this painting sits floating a little less than a quarter inch inside a deep rich walnut frame that is as sensual as the linen substrate upon which the image sits atop; and it not just that a frame is absent from every other picture in the show or that this creates an obvious question in the mind of the viewer about intentionality. Rather, it is the totality of these contrasts, including the fact that Marill has left the negative shape ever so slightly drawn in, using a thin pencil line to represent the play of absence and presence between the two large triangles and the invisible third triangle which separates them from one another and helps to complete our understanding of all of the works in the room.
§24. This is because of the fact, that all of what I have said above is obvious as you turn around to look backward at what you’ve seen in the exhibition thus far. What is important to take note of however, is that the frame on this last picture stands in for the perfected game of historical, pictorial and philosophical debates that have surrounded abstract art in the course of the twentieth century, and that this is given over to us in a final symbol, in the form an elegant umber umbrage, which is both a framing device and a literal frame, for the contested notion that abstraction has always been about connoisseurship and little else.
Installation shot of Get up, Get Down, courtesy of Carrie Marill.
§25. That's the real point of the kind of critical reverb that bounces back at us from this last work, like someone went to plug in, and play about their love of painting, but didn’t want to merely echo the achievements of the past. Reverb is, afterall, not an echo. It is the remainder of a sound that has been dispersed within a space. Now, I’m not going to highlight the fact that the remainder, just like the supplement, is the hallmark of any deconstructive project, but rather, I simply want to point out here that postmodern abstraction was already an echo of the modernist enterprise. And, contemporary abstraction, at its most challenging, is more like reverb if you can grasp the idea of a sound that remains in the air after its origin has stopped transmitting, but which has not yet bounced back like an echo that appears to be a hollow and faint imitation of its originating impulse.
§26. This is a way of saying, that the kind of painting that Marill makes, set against those other painters working in the same genre, carries with it, an air of commitment to painting as-such, that few other abstract painters aspire to. And this is because she gives you the idea of aesthetic experience as a shared ambience that floats in a room even though each work is wholly self-supporting and can be thoroughly enjoyed on its own terms. This is what allows the whole of the space to exist as a charged vibrational quality. In other words, her work is historically informed and each of Marill’s pieces produces an affective reaction, whereas most postmodern abstraction was simply reactionary. In our current marketplace, we don’t need work that just echoes, mimics and parodies the achievements of the past. Instead, we need art that reverberates with the contemporary moment as part of the shared ambience we live in, or as part of what is often called the air of our cultural milieu. Marill’s work is just one such project, unique in the breadth of its ambitions, prescient in the timeliness of its convictions and quite frankly, the best representation I’ve seen of a deconstructivist aesthetic in painting in all my of years of writing about art.6 For that reason alone, Marill is to be loudly applauded just as her work should continue to command the attention of a growing audience in the art world and beyond.
§27. Furthermore, the visual choreography going on in the main room of the gallery not only renews the promise of abstract painting, but it complicates our relationship to a centuries old genre in unexpected and interesting ways. If we still have questions about abstraction in our culture today, from the abstraction provided for by financial markets on Wall Street, to the abstraction that accompanies many scientific breakthroughs, to the abstraction provided for by the rise of big data, or even the increasing abstraction of surveillance and real-time marketing, then the question that connects it all, and which can be troubling at times, is that these supposedly autonomous ‘closed’ systems are often revealed to be open ones, with marketers exchanging information with social networks, and social networks exchanging information with the government, and government officials exchanging information with corporations, etc., etc. And, Marill’s paintings are absolutely contemporaneous with these developments which is not only a mark of how they are co-extensive with other developments in the greater world of “abstraction”, but it evidences the way that Marill’s work sits at the top of her field, and that her painting practice is irreducible to either historical precedents or radical hermeneutics.
§28. In fact, her paintings are a reflection of the growing logic of interconnectedness that not only circumscribes our social fabric but the fabric of our natural world as well. And Marill's contribution is to have put it out there, in an allegorical and material form, that is representative of the ground upon which our post-industrial society is built and which is emblematic of the artifice which sits atop this tightly stretched substrate, i.e., Marill pictures are composed on a tautly stretched fabric beset by the slippage between the natural and the artificial, the earthen and the virtual, the slowly woven and slick sleek lines of industrial plastics. This is what allows us to say, that these deconstructive paintings demonstrate how abstraction can cover over a site unseen, and how painting can make seeing our world into a process of integral discovery once again. They do this by decentering all of our preconceived notions about what abstract art was, is and can be. In other words, by reconfiguring the known, Marill’s work opens us up to experiencing the unknown, which is the very best of what any genre of art can do. And her latest show succeeds in spades for having achieved it in the most daunting and historical bound of idioms, namely, that of abstract painting.
Image of the artist working in her studio, courtesy of Carrie Marill.
§29. Of course, many people know that Marill has been making great work here in the Valley for quite some time now, and this new body of paintings only adds to her growing reputation for producing shows that are truly exceptional in style, format and execution, all the while, adding a genuinely thoughtful contribution to reconsidering the philosophic, historical and aesthetic discourses that have surrounded the kind of work known as art informal. At the very least, Marill will never be accused of being uninformed about formalism, and at the very best, that she is one of it’s most outstanding proponents as her work sits at the leading edge of what is most compelling about Hard Edge abstraction art today.
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