ABSTRACT REVERBERATIONS: A Review of Carrie Marill’s New Works.
§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.
§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.
§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.
§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.
§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.
§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.
§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.
§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.
§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.
§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.
§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.
§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.
§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.
§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.
§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.
- It goes without saying that ‘art for art’s sake’ or ideas like ‘color for color’s sake’ have been roundly attacked for privileging the eye over the mind, and that this critique sits at the center of the divide between painting and more conceptually informed art practices. These arguments however, are perhaps best presented in The Rhetoric of Purity: Essentialist Theory and the Advent of Abstract Painting by Mark C. Cheetum and the collected edition titled Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision edited by David Michael Levin.
- What Derrida called the “archeology of the frivolous” concerns that other hotly contested term of modernity and abstract painting, namely, the idea of ‘genius’. For Derrida, the notion of genius was not innate, but rather, the idea itself relied on making a deviation from the regular use of language in an unexpected manner. In this way, abstraction can be viewed as being a deviation from the regular use of painting for representational ends, or one can talk about how each abstract painter creates deviations from the kinds of other abstract paintings that have already been made, or which populate their own oeuvre. In this way, genius is viewed as a kind of “double gesture” or “historical reflexivity” whereby “The medium of the conditions for (the) discovery (of genius) is always the history of language, the history of sign systems.” It goes without saying that Derrida’s deconstructive definition of genius as a “new combination”, a “new turn of expression within the rules of analogy” and as an “idiomatic deviation” are all wonderful ways for thinking about Marill’s project, which is the case that I make throughout the course of this review. Derrida, Jacques. The Archeology of the Frivolous (University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, 1973) 63, 63, 65, 71.
- Derrida’s philosophy had far reaching implications for art because over the course of a number of books and the many decades that he challenged the notion of transcription as always already relying on a kind of model that the artist puts into play at the very moment they look away from the subject. (See Memoirs for the Blind). Derrida has also taken up the much more controversial topic of the frame and it’s relation to a completed work in The Truth in Painting, but the main topic of his deconstructive inquires into art production concern the notion of vision as knowledge, and knowledge as supporting a series of truth claims about a subject. For Derrida, this is the metaphysical quandary of modern art as well as modernity at large. For a fuller account of the consequences of deconstruction in modern/postmodern art see, McCumber, John, “Derrida and the Closure of Vision” in Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision, ed. David Michael Levin (University of California Press: Berkley, 1993), Chapter 9: “Phallogocularentricism”: Derrida and Irigaray in Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth Century Thought. Jay, Martin (University of California Press: Berkley, 1994) and of course the collected edition Deconstruction and the Visual Arts: Art, Media, Architecture, ed. Peter Brunette and David Wills (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1994)
- Of course Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Michel Fried and many other critics had all been making arguments on behalf of the ‘truth to materials”, the “specificity of objecthood” and so on throughout the course of the 20thcentury as a means of helping art to secure it’s own domain of inquire alongside the sciences. Ironically, this demarcation of means and themes reproduced the ideology of scientism within the humanities and lead to the ‘high moment of deconstruction’ in the arts during the later half of the 20thcentury, ultimately opening the question of art making back up to an ‘expanded field’ of concerns. The short genealogy of this ‘turn’ in painting is covered in the following paragraph, where I place Marill’s project after that of Stella and Bartlett, the first of whom critiqued the notion of closed hermeneutic systems in fine art production by opening the 2-D picture place back up to all sorts of varied constructions, the second of which included all sorts of materials in her paintings and exhibitions such as paint brushes, pallets, tubes of paint and so on and so forth. Taken together, these artists are the forerunners to Marill’s working program just as the various schools of Hard Edge painting could be said to provide some insight into her aesthetic choices.
- It is unfortunate that the over-inflated and over-hyped works of neo-expression in the 80s are once again mirrored in the practice of ‘art-flipping’ and the recent rise and fall of Zombie abstraction, but, projects like Marill’s area kind of stop gap measure against such absurd market excesses. Instead, Marill plays with an excess of meaning production in art that strikes a balance between commitment and pictorial /philosophical consequences in contemporary painting, both of which are sorely needed in the field of abstract art today.
- While I have done my best to point out the deconstructive implications of Marill’s painting practice, the issue of sovereignty or autonomy in art, and the influence of deconstruction on thinking about these issues is perhaps best handled by Christopher Menke in his excellent text The Sovereignty of Art: Aesthetic Negativity in Adorno and Derrida. Here, Menke writes the following regarding Derrida’s contribution to the discourse of aesthetics and what the play of aesthetic deferral that follows from Derrida’s philosophy of differrance: “The formation of aesthetic meaning out of signifiers and their interconnection appears also to designate the point at which one can speak of the processuality of aesthetic understanding. Aesthetic understanding does not consist in establishing relationships between signifying elements, but in the reenactment of the process by which they are interconnected in such a way as to gain meaning. Aesthetic meaning is pushed back into the experiential enactment of the interrelation of signifying units. Establishing that aesthetic meaning is formed out of the interconnection of its signifiers does not by itself, however, provide an account sufficient to ground the thesis of the interminable, nonteleological processuality of aesthetic experience. Interminable processuality comes to characterize aesthetic experience because this experience needs to do more than just aesthetically relate elements already identified as signifiers; instead, even the identification of those elements interrelated to one another, of the signifiers of aesthetic meaning, becomes a problem for it.” This is one of the most succinct definitions ever written about how the play of aesthetic deferral in is characterized in deconstructive aesthetics and it is also what I am conscripting as being someone akin to the quality of reverb in the work of Marill. Menke, Christopher. The Sovereignty of Art: Aesthetic Negativity in Adorno and Derrida (MIT Press: Cambridge, 1999) 49.
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.
Geometric Abstraction as a Matter of Scale and Refrain: A Review of Recent Works by Dion Johnson.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bruce Munro at 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kelly Richardson's Tales on the Horizon at SMOCA.
The Experience of the Expectant Sublime in the works of Kelly Richardson.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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'.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Clarita Lulić and Inter-Relational Aesthetics: Intimacy, Inquiry and the Interpersonal Refrain. By Grant Vetter
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Virginia Broersma: Dithyrambic
The paintings of Broersma occupy an enigmatic space where anthropomorphic gestures collide with classical genre painting. Her bent, twisted and twirling forms weave the figure and the environment together into a seamless pictorial event. Executed in a manner that is both haptic and subtle, Broersma's painterly vocabulary mixes a reserved sensualism with dithyrambic operations. As such, her unique take on classical themes like 'the bathers' and 'the odalisque' challenge not only traditional ideas of beauty and design, but they explore the shifting space between figurative naturalism and the (post-)modern preoccupation with formlessness.
As such, Broersma's work avoids being read as a display of figurative pathos or another return to painterly 'heroism'. Instead, her images develop a dialectics of dissonance based on revealing and concealing, veiling and unveiling, determined mark marking and improvisational actions. These dynamic qualities, which represent forms coming in and out of being, also reveal a second set of questions concerning the phenomenal quality of what is being pictured. That is to say, a closer reading of Broersma's images quickly reveals a 'catalog' of pictures that stand twice removed from the subjects they portray. Of course, this is the case not only because painting is always already a form of mediation, but because the subjects in her source material hint at museum lighting techniques and the staged quality of the cultural imaginary in the era of hyper-mediation.
By making us aware of the split between the affect of 'staging' and the rhetoric of display, Broersma's work asks us to question not just how we think about classical themes as a reflection of socio-political and gendered interests, but also how iconic images are constructed as a total experience that extends well beyond the confines of what is 'pictured'. In other words, it is not just the aura of the image that serves as the raw material for Broersma's art practice, but rather, an engagement with the very techniques that are used to produce the 'quality' of the iconic for public consumption.
Thus, Broersma is not just another history painter of sorts, or someone who is interested in painting figurative morphologies, even though both of these concerns are central to her art practice. Rather, what we find at play in Broersma's imagery, beyond a certain painterly opulence, is that her images court an indefinable space that consists of endless questions about canonical works and their conditions of presentment. This paradoxical doublebind - of reworking historical or academic themes in order to make them more porous and less identifiable - is what gives Broersma's project a unique sense of purchase in the contemporary moment.
Composed of inerrant indices of the iconographic, her paintings work to reconfigure the status attributed to the image as a cultural artifact by directly addressing the crisis of terminal metastasis known as pluralism. Not only that, but Broersma's oeuvre challenges the cult-like 'status' of the image by sampling techniques and imagery from the most over-determined styles of picture making and then making- them-over into new models of plastic expression.
What we witness in such moments is the apotheosis of the 'grand manner' as it becomes subject to the mutations of improvisation over and against the auratic techniques of exhibition design as well as the 'quality' of mechanical and/or digital reproduction. Most importantly however, Broersma's work takes up this position as a process of open-ended play, providing a polyvalent reading of history painting that is a rare and honest achievement in a period of art production that often derides the codex of historical themes as retrograde or simply démodé. In Broersma's theater of pictorial pleasures, the themes of modernity take on a new vitality, not just for engaging with the past, but for opening up new avenues in thinking about the pictorial problematic in the early twenty-first century.
Bio: Virginia Broersma (b. San Diego, CA) received her BFA in Painting from the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, GA in 2004. Recent exhibitions include a solo show at Fermilab Art Gallery in Batavia, IL and group exhibitions at the Museum of Art and History in Lancaster, CA and at JAUS, Autonomie, and with 5790projects in Los Angeles, CA. Upcoming exhibitions will include a group show that will be traveling to the Palazzo della Provincia de Frosinone in Italy, and to the Oceanside Museum of Art and the Riverside Art Museum in Southern California. Broersma has been the recipient of a several grants including funding from the California Institute of Contemporary Arts, the Puffin Foundation and was awarded a Community Arts Assistance Program grant from the City of Chicago, IL, which she received in both 2010 and 2011. Broersma currently lives in Long Beach, CA.
Becca Shewmake: Assembler Clouds
The works of Shewmake collide the unmentionable with the intentional, resemblance with semblance and the graphic with the haptic. Consisting of highly stylized, layered surfaces, Shewmake's paintings are rich in both affect and allusion. Moving between the abstract and the figurative, her anamorphic characters float, merge and simply cohabitate in a manner that creates a sense of psychological unease. These rather precarious pictorial relations are further highlighted through the use of asymmetrical pairings and unequally weighted compositions. The contrast between tension and playfulness in her work develops out of an implied narrative that acts as a place of projection and desire for the viewer.
Working with a scatological vocabulary that celebrates the pitiful, the shabby and the embryonic is what allows for Shewmake's imagery to open onto diverse readings, readings that range from solemn empathy to abstract allegories. Whether seen as modern refuse, postmodern refusal, or contemporary refugees, Shewmake's hybrid figures are often cast in bas-relief from the environments they inhabit. By bringing together varied strategies from color field painting, neo-expressionism and gestural abstraction Shewmake's pictorial vocabulary creates a fusion of effects that range from the clinical to the emotive.
Extending a tradition of cartoon-like figuration beyond the manic images of George Condo or the psychosexual figures of Carroll Dunham, Shewmake's works ask us to consider the possibility of subtler narrative devices. Neither overwrought nor underworked, her pictorial sensibilities move between attraction and repulsion without needing to insist on an aesthetics of the non-descript. Rather, her idoscyncratic imagery emerges from a deft hand and a mood of thoughtful repose. This approach to feeling one's way through the figurative impulse allows the viewer to settle into a space of imaginative conjecture, and ultimately, of active reception.
Whether seen as a commentary on modes and models of painting, or as a visual anthropology of the figurative impetus, Shewmake's work makes us more aware of how it feels to be a subject of expression in an age of subjective compression. Her oeuvre might even be considered to be a form of notetaking, or a catalogue of sorts, about the status of the subject in the age of accelerated capitalism, where a fleeting impression, a minor indication or an affected contour is enough to put us in touch with what remains of the human condition in era that is often 'characterized' as post-human.
From this point of view, Shewmake's paintings could be seen as representing an uneasy form of realism that serves as a timely meditation on the contradictions of figuration's past, present and future. If anything, they are certainly emblematic of thinking about figuration as a verb tense, or even as a dangling participle. The idea of the figure as an intractable event is what makes Shewmake's contribution of special import in field of phenomenal and psychological impressions. As such, Shewmake's work makes more of an impression for not letting its viewers off with a sense of resolve, but rather, for opening up a myriad of questions that might be thought of as visual gestation, or of thinking about figuration itself as the muse of perpetual inquiry.
Bio: Becca Shewmake received her Master of Fine Arts degree from California State University, Long Beach in 2013, and her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Minnesota in 2005. Her work has been exhibited in galleries and museums in the Midwest and California, including the DeVos Art Museum in Marquette, Michigan, The Soap Factory in Minneapolis, MN, and the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, California.
Bessie Kunath: Free Normcore
The works of Kunath challenge how we think about interpretive modes of making as well as theoretical models of knowing. With past bodies of work like "auction items", and "everyday scenery", the fine line between commerce and aesthetic commentary is held in abeyance. But this is not to say that Kunath's work is absent historical references, or that it aims at merely repositioning the mundane. Instead, what we are presented with is a repurposing of the transient elements of culture in a manner that activates a variety of social, material and aesthetic presuppositions.
In Free Normcore, a term that further extends the claims made on behalf of the de-industrialized fashion movement, Kunath brings together a selection of 'free' and found objects for exhibition that have been rejected from commercial trade. By abutting cultural dejecta with programmatic premises, Kunath's works are able to occupy a space between aesthetic interventionism and the anti-aesthetic urge that puts both positions in question. Simultaneously reductive and random, Kunath's chromatic recasting of found materials underscores how notions of value, fragility, and outmodedness can challenge the insularity of interpretation that haunts the hermeneutics of meaning production.
In this way, Kunath's works openly embrace the productivity of ambiguity by lightly effecting found materials, as well as highlighting various forms in an open-ended and provisional manner. Thus, by challenging the rhetorical devices of re-presentation, and making selective interventions in domestic and discarded objects, we find that the threat of overdetermined meaning is constantly decentered by the encounter between artist and object, spectator and object, and culture placed in a broader context. Within the bounds of Kunath's projects however, there remains a subtle hinting at the larger architecture that frames the contemporary art world, given over to us through the use of sculptural objects as a type of edifice that is everywhere implicated in our current culture of disposability. In this way, we can say that ecological and social responsibility are part of the strata of expectations that attend the productivity of the art object, and Kunath's practice as an artist in particular. What is revelatory in Kunath's work however, is how the substrate of the common object can become a language that signs the present moment in a myriad of unpredictable and unforeseen ways, making a piece of cast-off commerce into a morphological experience of collected meanings that are as prescient as they are untimely.
Bio: Bessie Kunath lives and works in Los Angeles, CA. She holds an M.F.A. in Studio Art from University of California Santa Barbara and B.A. in Art and Education from the University of San Francisco. Kunath has actively participated in exhibitions in San Francisco, Orange County and Los Angeles. Kunath has been curating art exhibitions as well since 2005 and is a member of LA-based collective, Manual History Machines.
Tessie Whitmore: Space Face
The uncanny cacophony of cult-like objects that make up Whitmore's art practice create a space where nostalgia and interventionism challenge our 'ready-made' expectations. This 'mixed' status carries across her paintings, collages and errant idols in a way that allows us to put performativity and worship in question, and not just in the white cube, but also in the greater world of ritual behavior. Moving between counter-culture symbols and the motifs of abstract art, Whitmore's work collides the formal and the spiritual in a mode of artistic shamanism that embraces paradox and contradiction. Throughout her various bodies of work we find the emblematic designs of the new age movement colliding up against the iconic purchase of high modernism, allowing us to reflect not only on the melancholia of the post-historical age, but on the constant slippage between two disparate types of 'cultural' production.
Whether directly engaged in a performance, or re-presenting footage of a certain happening, or even making a space for viewer participation within her installations, Whitmore's art practice asks us to engage in thinking about how presence operates in the twenty-first century. By bringing everyday experiences into a place of alter-like reverence, and using common materials and processes to produce a meditative aesthetic, Whitmore's pieces have the ability to transfix the viewer without relying on a transcendental signified. Repetition and reduction, as well the dynamic use of image, sound and language, all work to create a space in which aesthetic experience connects us to questions about cultural as a form of resistance.
Whitmore's newest works push these dialectic antagonisms even further by bringing a heightened sense of absorption together with a deep historical engagement that examines the notion of 'belief' writ large. By colliding baroque motifs with a wholly immersive aesthetic, the gallery space is transformed into an arcane study in cultural iconography. Bringing the idea of the total work of art - or a complete installation - together with aspects of minimalism, color field painting, sacred geometry and secular mysticism, makes us ever more aware of the kinds of aesthetic conflicts that Whitmore traffics in. Caught somewhere between romantic disavowal and a hidden desire for transformative experience, we find that the duplicitous desires that drive Whitmore's art practice just might provide the curative effects and ecstatic experiences we need most in a culture of intensive commodification and near instant co-option. One might even say that the most poignant aspect of Whitmore's project is that it allows for the redemption of contrasting modes of experience by letting the ephemeral and the transcendental comingle is a space of equal repose.
Bio: Whitmore studied at Claremont Graduate University, MFA 2012 and California State University Long Beach, BFA Drawing and Painting 2009. She is a 2011 recipient of the Albert B. Friedman Grant Award and the 2013 Artist in Residence at Coastline Community. She was included in Mas Attack II, Torrance Art Museum, Torrance, CA, GLAMFA 2012: Greater Los Angeles Master of Fine Arts Exhibition, California State University Long Beach, Long Beach, CA, andBOOM Southern California MFA Invitational. She recently has been curating shows with her collective Manual History Machines including The Familiar Unfamiliar, Wonder Valley, CA and Are Friends Electric I at Fellows of Contemporary Art and Are Friends Electric II at Claremont Graduate University receiving the 2014 Curators Lab Exhibition Award.
Davin Kyle Knight / Michelle Jane Lee: Proximate Mediations
Davin Kyle Knight
The iconographic import of abstract art has undergone a series of diagnostic interventions in the printed and painterly images of Davin Klye Knight. Few contemporary works play with so many different forms of registration as Knight's most recent series. By actively moving between a wide variety of paper types, multi-layered forms of editing, and the duplicitous use of technology with handmade interventions, we find that Knight's pictorial vocabulary invites a forensic type of looking. In this way, Knight's images are like a theater of the uncanny, everywhere giving us doppelgänger effects through the multiplication of diachronic and synchronic operations.
Composed from drawn, collaged and post-production techniques, Knight's works also involve repurporsing his own personal collection of art tools in order to activate multiple readings of '(de)standardized cultural use'. By hacking the history of abstract painting through a multitude of filtering processes, Knight's images highlight the slow matriculation process that sees culture moving from the age of mechanical reproduction into an era of seamless re-mediation. And yet, such a transition is not always a clear resolve, and it does not leave us with a secure definition of what a painting is at the opening of the 21st century. In fact, anything but.
This sense of tension is activated in Knight's pictorial practice by putting the categories of authorship and intentionality in abeyance. The space between collage and drawing, progression in a series and pure improvisation, or digital and painterly effects permeate his eclectic compositions. Even the use of traditional art materials and commercial techniques begin a slow collapse as the viewer investigates Knight's contiguous surfaces. It is here that the diagnostic process comes into full play as we encounter the future anterior of abstract painting, caught somewhere between the complexity of technological enculturation and the reclamation of modernist sensibilities. Perhaps it is only out of such a conflicted territory that we can even hope to make a diagnosis of the present state of culture. Much more importantly however, are the many ways in which Knight's art practice stands out as a significant project in helping us think about the problematic status of image making in the contemporary moment, something for which his recent works should be roundly applauded.
Bio: Davin Kyle Knight is a mixed media artist who lives and works in Los Angeles. He holds an M.F.A. in Studio Art from Claremont Graduate University and a B.A. in Studio Art from Western Washington University. He was the recipient of the CGU Art Fellowship (2010 & 2011), Helen B. Dooley Art Fellowship (2011) and the CGU President’s Art Award (2011). Knight’s work has been exhibited in several West Coast cities, including Seattle, Los Angeles and San Diego.
Michelle Jane Lee
The works of Michelle Jane Lee are visual cryptograms that invite us to participate with them on a number of different levels. Her images are process-based works that are not reducible to a strict set of operations, minimalist works that are not merely the result of systems thinking, and while they tend to be geometric in nature, that does not mean they are necessarily essentialist. Every time we encounter one of Lee's delicately mounted drawings, which have the presence and power of any image that sits alongside a substrate, we are met with a series of ciphers that draw us deeper and deeper into the quite contemplation of Lee's hybrid forms and processes.
Her titles, often taken from romantic pop songs, are the first cue that this is not merely a minimalist program. The fact that the coded systems Lee works with are not hermetic, but are based on translating text into image, provides another hint that we are encountering a different kind of aesthetic project than historical precedence provides for. Even more telling is the fact that Lee's color choices are specific to a moment of personal remembrance, a quality that links her pallet to a phenomenology of 'felt' qualities even while activating certain color codes common to the culture unconscious. This dual inflection of the semiotic and sentimental is not lost on anyone willing to linger a little longer before the impressions that emerge from Lee's optically active surfaces. The insistence on touch, a certain carefulness in the consideration of process, and even a subtle sense of narrative are all provided for by Lee's emphasis on pushing select contrasts in pictorial experience.
All of this testifies to a certain trust that Lee has in her audience to make contact with both sides of the work, the emotional and the conceptual. Even the intimacy of scale provided for by her images invites a kind of intensive reflection by asking the art going public to have a singular encounter that relies on the necessity of placing oneself close to the image. It is here, within the intimate space of viewership, that the process of deciphering a series of encoded indices begings to reveal an art practice that is deeply committed to working through the concerns of twentieth century abstraction as well as developing a set of paradoxical interests that are decidedly different from the aesthetic programs of the past. From such a perspective we can say that the proliferation of proximate historical referents that are never absent of the personal dimension circumscribe the kinds of encounters Lee's work trades in.
In the final analysis however, it may be the many ways in which Lee creates a distance from the act of visual consumption as mere spectatorship that is the works abiding politic. Moreover, Lee's pictures are also a manifest contribution to how we think about the the politics of presence and presentment in contemporary drawing practices, as each of Lee's images is not only something which one is drawn to but which also feel as if they were drawn just for you.
Bio: Michelle Jane Lee spent her childhood in Seoul, Korea, lived in Chicago and studied at The School of the Art Institute (of Chicago.) Lee participated in the Yale University School of Art: Norfolk residency and has shown in cities across the US including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City as well as in Copenhagen, Denmark. She currently lives and works in LA.
The Status of Portraiture
While portraiture has long been seen as a sign of cultural 'status' and class distinction this survey of Los Angeles portraiture examines the varied approaches being taken up by today's painters with regard to rendering a likeness, not only of a seated subject, but of the subject of portraiture itself. These disparate approaches to re-imagining portrait painting not only include formal innovations but they also question many of the traditional assumptions of the genre. By challenging historical conventions such as naturalism, stability and easy identification of the subject, all of the painters in The Status of Portraiture challenge us to think differently about what constitutes a portrait in the 21st century. Conflating interior and exterior states with different personal and theoretical concerns the painters in The Status of Portraiture give us a new series of motifs for thinking about access to the image of another, and in so doing, perhaps even another route into thinking about ourselves.
Hampton / Iadevaia: Saccharine Salad
Over the course of the last decade Hampton's paintings have cycled through a series of motifs that are both identifiable and obscure, process-based and patterned, aggressive and demure. In fact, his oeuvre has a mixed constitution throughout, referencing themes as diverse as still life, landscape and even textiles. But what is central to his art practice is how all of these themes are implicated in the bifurcations engendered by action painting, or the asymptomatic relation between process-based abstraction and the empire of signs that make up 'cultural' discourse.
In fact, one might say that his works highlight a dialectic dissonance between radical re-appropriation and endemic dis-identification that relies on a vocabulary of undecidability, indiscernability and indetermination. Series like "Power Ballads" and "Greatest Hits" point to the hyper-reified condition of the painterly object while other bodies of work, like "Painting Lite" and "Acting Out", hint at the larger problematic of consumability as a self-constituting condition. Each of these positions is engaged in a dissembling play of sign and signifier that makes hyper-reflexivity appear to be the common condition of contemporaneity.
More recently however, Hampton's work seems to inhabit a post-dialectic stance that embraces mourning as an implicit strategy of the modernist enterprise, where the perpetual overturning of previous models of production points toward an endemic loss of meaning incurred by the cult of 'progress' and endless forms of 'innovation'. But how is this type of historical melancholy addressed in his works? What hidden presuppositions subsist beneath such a program and what is at stake in Hampton's challenge to the hyperbolic revolutions of received wisdom and its critical purchase?
First, we can say that Hampton treats painting as a 'live' medium inasmuch as he engages with the painterly sign as a symbol of flux. This is evidenced in what he refers to as a language of "swaths, spills and slides" that permeate all of his various projects. Of course, the conflict that adheres to these time-based processes often opens onto a series of doublebinds. Not only do such gestures produce the index of an absence that is also a type of presence — or the working of a type of work that has already past, and shows itself in this passing as a gesture — but they also give us a form of denatured authorship which hides prescriptive measures. Put another way, Hampton's painterly denotations play off the function of the oblique with regard to indication and/or intervention by never revealing the biases of a system, style, or a given language. Instead, his process-based gestures are insistent, emphatic and enigmatic — acting more like disruptions than determined distributions of a given material.
Next, it is important to underscore how the temporal quality of Hampton's marks are deployed over and against the stability of other signs, be they from the history of art, the world of industrial production, or even different forms of 'craft'. In this regard, we can say that his adoption of varied themes and ideograms beyond his regular vocabulary of 'sliding' signifiers is directed at upending genre distinctions, affective distinctions, and even the partisan distinctions attributed to 'fine art' and the greater world of art commerce. His is a project that abuts painterly marks of a rather transitional status against a mish-mash of the iconic and the derivative — where new derivations emerge from the interaction between these incommensurable paradigms.
Last but not least, it is Hampton's engagement with the greater world of image production, (as well as how it is given over to us by 'type and kind'), that points to how our regular ciphers of interpretation can be challenged vis-à-vis the active conflation of different modes of 'abstracting'. By mixing traditional materials with craft elements like glitter, decals, fake gemstones, etc., Hampton's work problematizes both the production of value and the process of valorization as epistemological and ontological coordinates.
This is achieved through a myriad of strategies such as how (1) Hampton uses different painterly strategies to mimic commercial signs like home decor; (2) or in how he deploys paint as a blunt thing — unpainted, laid on, slide down, pushed by gravity — where 'process' is used to hold expressivity at a bare minimum; (3) or even in the dynamic way that Hampton's painterly expositions elide every effort at reduction, (be it essentialist, expressive, or programmatic), by always giving us a theater of fragmented and partial processes.
And yet, among these kaleidoscopic techniques, one may presume that there is a hidden nostalgia for the sign to carry its full meaning, for it to be absolutely self-supporting, or that the play between surface and support in Hampton's work is there to provide us a brief respite from the endless flow of images that dominate contemporary life. But even if this were to be the case, there is no sense of rest or security in Hampton's active compositions, polyvalent themes or transitional forms. His is a kind of virtuosity, both mannered and simulationist, that combines the most irreconcilable of trajectories — be they modern, postmodern, or otherwise. The shear duplicity of his compositions questions the ease and naturalness with which we receive the (re)mediated image as a source of valuation, re-valuation, and even auto-valorization.
In fact, one might even say that every effort aimed at reaching the 'zero degree' of meaning in painting is overturned by Hampton's recent work inasmuch as it marries the iconographic function of wallpaper with the emotive touch of impressionism in an effort to enact a radical emptying out of critical nomenclature. Or, to be a bit more concise about its operative effects, one would underscore the ways in which his images start with painted patterns, and then re-appropriate these marks through industrial models of reproduction, while everywhere juxtaposing the two as a model traumatic equitability. Whether by equating art with commodity production; or textiles with historical motifs from high art; or readily identifiable gestures with the cult of personality; or even memory and mourning with marketability; his art practice is one that aims to allegorize the effects of a circumspect loss of meaning that attended the birth of modernism, and which shows no signs of slowing even today!
If we could point to three moments that help us place the trajectory of abstraction as an asymptomatic process with regard to (modern) reification, (postmodern) auto-valorization, and contemporary modes of critical (in)validation, it would have to be the following: (1) Baudelaire’s defense of 'Art for Art Sake', (2) Ad Reinhardt's declaration of 'Art as Art', and (3) Hampton's evidence of a painterly, patterned and otherwise kitsch strewn surface that declares the possibility of "Art forsaken for Art's sake." In other words, his practice as an artist is premised on the radical de-reification of the idiom of painting — both hopeful and, at times, pessimistic — but always committed.
Bio: Steven Hampton is a painter, educator, and art historian who lives and works in Los Angeles. He was awarded the Karl and Beverly Benjamin Fellowship while at Claremont Graduate University, where he received his M.F.A. in 2006. In 2011, Steven earned his Master's degree in art history from the University of California, Riverside, where he wrote his thesis on kitsch and "Bad Painting." Recently, Steven has participated inShangrila (Joshua Tree), Painting on Edge II (DEN Contemporary), The New Cool School (White Box Contemporary), Summer of Abstraction (Orange Coast College), and The Subterraneans (Torrance Art Museum).
The works of Iadevaia have carved out a special niche in the artworld for their gaudiness and theatricality. Neither kitsch nor high abstraction, neither installation works nor flat works, neither painting nor sculpture —Iadevaia's works are a hyperbolic mix of divergent aesthetic registers. Simultaneously attractive and repulsive, and everywhere inviting to the touch, his objects would be ever more intimate if they didn't court a precarious sense of fragility — or perhaps, they are that much more intimate for it. And yet, for all their disparate qualities, we wouldn't be mistaken to say that Iadevaia has been cultivating an oeuvre of hybridity based on exalting the 'misbehaving object', the 'partial object' and a full panoply of paradoxes that adhere to the conditions of objecthood.
While his earlier work was more immersive, often consisting of an aesthetic experience that reconstructed the exhibition space, Iadevaia's recent work has taken a turn away from creating the 'total' work of art by examining the totality of investments associated with materiality. His recent pallet has hints of Matisse, Bonnard and even Howard Hodgkin, while his sculptural sensibility is somewhere between the scatter-art of the 90s and the intuitive agency of Jessica Stockholder — and yet, what emerges in the end is not reducible to these influences, nor is it caught up in the same kinds of aesthetic questions. Against high modernist essentialism and postmodern reappropriation, Iadevaia's work sets in motion a radical dialectic that side steps all attempts at reduction, integration or de-codeability.
Be it a kind of slippage between the high and the low, the notion of interior and exterior space, or the difference between refined and raw materials, Iadevaia's work everywhere resists setting meaning to rest. Instead, it proposes an active, and even aggressive engagement with the terms and conditions of its own proposals. Where his art proposes to be an object in a gallery it nevertheless continues to look more domestic and even commercial; where his work proposes an exterior experience of optical and tactile pleasures, it still points back toward interior states and subtler motivations; where the kind of objects he produces present themselves as caught up in a form of hyper-reflexive gaming, Iadevaia's work still manages to be accessible and even relies on a certain sense of charm and humor. In other words, the dialectic tension in his work is based on emphasizing polarities of interest rather than simple dichotomies.
As far as interpretive models of production go, Iadevaia's work fits well within what has become known as the 'cinematic mode of production', not only for the faux set-design aesthetic that he engages with from time to time, and not only for the techniques he uses in constructing the work, but for how his works are situated within, beside or outside the cultural imaginary of 'good' design. In other words, his works often disrupt the feeling of belonging to this or that locale by presenting us with second level simulacrum that denaturalize our relation to the given, i.e., the 'scripted spaces' and aesthetic dispositions of culture at large.
In contrast to Frank Stella's late work, which is not an unimportant precedent in thinking about Iadevaia's own efforts, we might say that the problem here is one of letting work make its own place, rather than "its own space". And this might prove harder than one thinks if 'place' is taken to mean that which is circumscribed by cultural values and tropes of every type and kind, and most especially, with regard to 'every type and kind' of art practice. This is the territory in which Iadevaia's works might be 'placed', and it is also how his art practice finds its purchase in the contemporary moment — by negotiating the hyper-reified conditioning of sensibility through various forms of purposeful divestment, disjuncture and indeterminacy. It is also through such practices that we find the cinematic mode of production transformed from something rather mundane and automatic into something rather autocratic and even dare we say, sublime.
Bio: Raymie Iadevaia was born in Newport Beach, California. Recent exhibitions include, Boom 2012 at d.e.n. contemporary in the Pacific Design Center, West Hollywood, Protostellar at Studio Serrano, Los Angeles. In 2006, Raymie was a selected artist in a group exhibition in Sierre, Switzerland, after a three-week residency at Ecole Cantonale d'Art du Valais. Currently Raymie is a candidate in the MFA Program at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.
Michelle Carla Handel / Cole M. James: I DO NOT DENY THEM MY ESSENCE
Michelle Carla Handel
Handel's sculptural works are engaged in a grand theater of anthropomorphic gestures. One might even say that her works are caught up in a series of dialectic relations that alternate between the lumpen and docile, and the active and erect. Often dominated by fleshly tones and textures, her organic forms are known to elicit a wide range of bodily responses, from pleasure to discomfort, and even a certain sense of playful innocence. But what belies their weighty corporeality is a certain psycho-sexual charge that depends not so much on non-referential means as it does on the articulation of pre-symbolic memes, i.e., those types of forms which are not easily identified within the confines of language but which populate our affective capacities for understanding nonetheless. As such, the types of partial objects that make up Handel's growing oeuvre often participate with notions of becoming, mutation and entropy. Yet if we were to stake a claim on indentifying a type of language that would be complementary to her work, it would have to be something like the pleasures accorded to dialogic indetermination. By creating forms that have an enigmatic status, her works simultaneously invite and defy qualitative associations, acting like something of three-dimensional Rorschach test.
But for all their earthen and naturalist qualities, Handel's forms have not abstained from the use of color. When a chromatic flare appears in her work it often serves to highlight the tension between the natural and the artificial, the biological and the cultural, or material reality and its simulation. In this regard, Handel isn't shy about letting you know her works are informed by a interest in psychology and the kinds of supernormal stimuli that are regularly exploited by the culture industry, such as our sweet-tooth, our sexual urges, and the natural functions of desire. Even more important however, are the many ways that these notions connect with something that subsists beneath our experience of exteriority — something which isn't properly unconscious, but which isn't altogether different from the emotive capacity of our organs. This is, perhaps, why many of her sculptures could be mistaken for organs without bodies, or organs that are bodies unto themselves.
In this regard, Handel's sculptures could be placed in opposition to Deleuze's critique of Freudian psychology. One might even argue that her forms return us to an innate awareness of the 'other' site of consciousness — a kind of inner space who's inexplicable effects collude in the production of our outward emotions. If you've ever experienced real organ pain, even on a minor level, then you know it has little to do with the function of repression or signification, but moves far beneath such registers, having no less a profound effect on our senses and our emotional well-being. In this way, Handel's truncated forms also resist a Lacanian interpretation by delving into the space where symbolic identifications are first acquired. They are, for lack of a better word, something like 'gestational figures' that demarcate an originary lack of identifactory means. Furthermore, this lack of ascription is directly related to the trauma of imposing signification on any form whatsoever during early development.
If we take this interpretation to its natural endpoint, then Handel's sculptures seem to stand the Freudian-Lacanian nexus of interpretation on its head by giving us a world of forms that rely on a deeper resonance between the inner space of material interaction and the exterior space of perception, such that no form is ever truly reducible to its 'other' — be it linguistic, material, representational, abstract, etc. From the same vantage point, it's also worth mentioning that no form is ever truly free of such systems of codified understanding either. But this split between physiological and logic interlocution is exactly what Handel's works seem to problematize. Much like the paradoxes that adhere to the philosophy of mind, where subjectivity is irreducible to its biochemical processes, Handel's sculptures return us to a philosophy of the body, such that we are not just our innards or our emotions, but an interaction that transverses the space between abstract materiality and the feelings it engenders.
In other words, her works fall beyond the trinity of Freud-Lacan-Deleuze (Oedipus, revisionary Freudianism, and Anti-Oedipus). As such, they create a demand for a new type of interpretation, one that is perhaps a bit closer to the works of Jenet and Pigeat. More to the point however, they reflect the two greatest insights of contemporary brain science: (1) that physical and emotional states are hardwired in the same part of the brain, and (2) that most of what determines subjectivity takes place in early childhood development between the ages of one and three. Following such insights, Handel's works seem to jack directly into a pre-symbolic matrix of meaning that aims to reveal something about our most intimate emotive responses — responses that even we resist knowing. But in what does this consist, or how do such feelings subsist beneath the thin vernier of language? Handel's organ-like sculptures point to the fact that pre-Oedipal relations constitute the very conditions by which we will be given over to the experience a symbolic world, not to mention that we are condemned to be given over to worldly signs through fragments that constantly force us to renegotiate our symbolic assignments.
Or, to put it somewhat differently, the polymorphous quality of her forms point to the denatured space of subjective assignment, which is to say, to the demand of culture to make things signify vis-a-vis occultation. And yet, Handel's use of an informal or abstract aesthetic resists this urge by highlighting a space of contingency that is always already implicit in the making and unmaking of meaning — or the formalization and naturalization of signification as-such. In this way, Handel's works ask us to engage with a world that is one step removed from either cognition or signification. In fact, they point toward a wholly different entre into understanding inter-subjective relations and different types of becomings. They do this by operating under the sign of affective perception rather than linguistic or material assignment, and they remind us that the contemporary moment is no less circumscribed by the metaphysical problems of attribution than by our own innermost feelings, which might ultimately prove to be one and the same thing.
Bio: Michelle Carla Handel was born in Las Vegas, Nevada and raised in Houston, Texas. She received an MFA in Fine Art from Claremont Graduate University in 2011. Recent Los Angeles exhibitions include a group show, ‘Constructing Fantasy’, at the the Beacon Arts Building; ‘Hungry Me, Tender You’, a two-person show with Josh Atlas at RAID Projects; inclusion in BOOM, GLAMFA, and Co/Lab in 2011; solo show ‘Strange Skin’ at WEEKEND; and two-person show with Eve Wood at Garboushian Gallery. She also curated 'Odd Ghosts and Unlikely Dancers', a two-person show featuring works by Phyllis Green and Bessie Kunath on exhibit at WEEKEND Gallery through September 2012. Currently her large scale sculpture, ‘Big Yearn, Let Down’, is on display at the Torrance Art Museum.
Cole M. James
The paintings of James are stringent and sensual, abstract but not entirely non-representational, and quite political while still being irreducible to the political dimension. So how are we to account for such paradoxes? First, her paintings are constructed in one go. They are not reworked, worked over, or struggled through. In this regard, they demand of the producer absolute virtuosity and commitment, as well as a prolonged stage of contemplative planning and numerous studies. But James's rigorous aesthetic is itself, composed of lush materials of every kind that glitter and dance across the surface of her canvases, which is to say, they are as stringent as they are sensual — almost an absolutist model of abstract expressionism.
Second, James's paintings are undeniably abstract, but her selection of forms often points back toward naturalistic referents, such as tree branches, figures, fruits and the like. More importantly however, they often display the structure of a loose knit anthropomorphic mobile, which supports many different regimes of material identification: craft and kitsch, figure and ground, nature and artifice. With just a glance at James's work, we are quickly reminded that early twentieth century abstraction often consisted of pictures that had been abstracted from nature, or that pointed back to the feeling of a naturalist referent. Even though James's paintings work against this type of pseudo-naturalism, they still engage with the same problematic by pointing to the artificiality of such constructs, both at the level of materiality and subjective 'expression'. In this way, one can say that her works are abstract without being non-representational, or rather, that they problematize the presuppositions that attend such distinctions in the first place.
Third, her works are political without overtly announcing themselves as-such. In this regard, they fall well within the idiom of abstract expressionism while still being anti-reductionist, anti-essentialist, anti-'all-over', anti-truth to materials, and even anti-expressionist in the sense of avoiding any allusion to Jungian archetypes or existential angst. We might even say that James's paintings present us with a content that is irreducible to the individual or a given program, but which is nonetheless circumscribed by concerns about how identity is constructed through painting and its various modes of presentation. This is what makes her work political in a way that exceeds the traditional category of 'political' or 'activist' art. Her paintings are more about the epistemological conditions of reception than ontological arguments related to presence, authorship or fixed meanings.
Such a reading only provides us with some initial insights James's art practice. A more intimate relationship with her works reveals a highly selective use of materials and a diverse ecology of references. In James's imagery, colors are treated by name, and there is a meticulous cataloging of every type of product that goes into each piece. More often than not, her color choices tend to consist of those cast off or discounted colors that inspire the feeling of chromatic dissonance or an aesthetics of the disabused, and even of outright rejection. Even more important are the small moments in her compositions when the natural and the synthetic find themselves abutted, producing a relation where one texture or color is implicated in the production or identity of another. In fact, one might even say that her overall project is that of creating a self-othering or hyper-differentiating modernism.
In such an oeuvre we are confronted with an allegorical model of abstraction that relies on the politics of the démodé in standing over and against the bias's associated with the mythos of heroic painting. In fact, we might say that James work could serve as a model of subversion that operates within a strictly demarcated field of interventions, creating a space that relies on valorizing the counter-memories of a tradition that is perpetually forced to the fringes of established taste and cannonization. In this regard, her use of disparate patterns, prefab decorations and a variety of framing devices point toward abstraction's forbidden pleasures, and in so doing, her paintings ask us to examine how we think about the production of aesthetic difference.
Or, one could go a step further here and propose that her works aim to deterritorialize aesthetic experience by providing a space of contradiction that upends the dialectic oppositions proposed by the history of abstract painting and its attending structures of valuation, be they class based, gender biased, institutionally sanctioned or otherwise normatively constructed. From such a perspective, James's art can be seen as resisting the dominant narratives of abstract painting by repurposing the affective qualities of perception, and in so doing, her work allows for a new understanding of how identity functions within the field of image production.
Bio: Cole studied Philosophy and Fine Art at Cal State San Bernardino before attending Claremont Graduate University where she received a MFA in Painting & Installation. She has received the LBGT Graduate Fellowship, Outstanding Minority Graduate Fellowship, Alfred B. Friedman Grant, Walker Parker Artist Fellowship, Mignon Schweitzer Award, and the Cal State Innovations in Painting Award. Some of her most recent exhibitions include a solo show at the Robert V Fullerton Museum and as well as several group shows in Los Angeles, New York & Seoul Korea.
Eric Schott / Jayson Ward: Tessellated Flow
At first glance Schott's paintings appear to be quite straight forward, insisting on an extreme clarity of both design and intent. Here there are few traces of the hand, even fewer of improvisation, and a kind of brute repetition that is hard to contest. But on a second take we find something else reveals itself. The patterning in Schott's systems is not pure repetition, but a repetition with differences, mirroring effects and optical twists. Both restrained and self-conscious, Schott's work is not just an extension of traditional geometric painting, but something else altogether.
In fact, his work takes more from Art Concrete than his So Cal forerunners. In this regard, his non-objective approach to image making is not necessarily related to notions of the absolute, essentialism or even Op-art for that matter. However, his pictures do engender a type of looking that is slightly accelerated from the norm, bouncing the eye from one side of the canvas to another through discrete shapes, vertices and graphic pathways. And one would be remiss not to mention that the reductive nature of his work is more conceptual than his Ab-Ex forerunners, relying on discrete reversals in logic, a semblance of game theory, and inverted geometries. And his particular vision of 'the absolute' in painting is paradoxically related to the fragment, producing what feels like slices of a bigger system yet unknown.
In other words, Schott's particular form of hard edge painting is constructed around producing a resonance with ages past, or even a looping effect that returns us to contemplating the presuppositions that have structured abstract painting over the course of the twentieth century. The grid, systems logic, reduction, and even a quality of virtuality all permeate his oeuvre, but in the sense of forming pictures that have a mixed or hybrid constitution. Not bound by the ethos of any particular school of painting, manifesto, or the rhetoric of auto-didactic measures, Schott's balanced coloration and active geometries invite us to look longer and to commune with his pictures by seeing an image of abstraction's non-linear history through rectilinear means.
Bio: Eric Schott, a native of southern California is a painter engaged with contemporary hard-edge geometric abstraction who completed his MFA at Claremont Graduate University this spring, and his undergraduate studies at California State University, Northridge where he won the Bensen Painting Award in 2010. In addition to his solo thesis show in February he has been involved with groups shows at Andi Campagnone Projects, the dA Center For the Arts, 50 Bucks Gallery in Pomona, Sam Maloof Foundation in Alta Loma, and at Objct Gallery in Claremont. Recently, he was awarded the Karl and Beverly Benjamin Fellowship from Claremont Graduate University.
The paintings of Jayson Ward are a series of sharp contrasts. Crisp geometric forms rendered quite delicately, well-known places depicted in the abstract, and naturalistic colors placed in a virtual space are all hallmarks of his art practice. In so many ways his paintings are about a kind of implacable quality that can only be described as a kind of virtual impressionism. Starting out from satellite imagery and elevation mapping programs, Ward has generated a new form of landscape painting that relies on a sense of simultaneity, topological reduction and optical filters. In this regard, his particular approach to landscape painting is set over and against the traditional dictates of local, mood and atmosphere.
Originally more concerned with mapping techniques and the notion of abstract painting as a kind of cartographic process, Ward's recent work has taken a turn toward radical reduction and an elegant simplicity of means. A deft sense of touch has replaced his formerly plastic aesthetic, a new dedication to the painterly act has replaced his earlier collage work and a broader dialog around the geo-political dimensions of image making has replaced more hermetic and/or local concerns.
In many ways, what is now most central to Ward's art making practice is picturing the technological sublime. In a time where the landscape is surveyed by armed 'predator' drones, eye in the sky surveillance and every other possible means of rendering the world in 'real time', the common condition of humanity has become that of a watched thing. What is usually missed in this dialog is that such a transformation of visual information also implies a new series of commitments in how we think about the problematic of landscape painting. Ward's paintings make us acutely aware of how dramatic this shift in perspective can be because his images are produced from a view that stands far above the ground, or rather, his paintings give us a new way of thinking about figure-ground relations in an age of naturalistic abdication.
Bio: Jayson Ward has degrees in both Geography and Studio Art from the University of North Carolina and the University of California Irvine. His work has been selected for exhibitions by such art world luminaries as Sarah C. Bancroft from OCMA and the critic and curator Juli Carson. He has shown at Catalyst gallery, The Twelfth Floor Gallery and Autonomie. He is going to be in a group show curated by Natalia Lopez that deals with Antarctica and topology this coming Fall.
Painting on Edge I & II
Painting on Edge is a small survey of new trends in Hard Edge painting, or what might be better called, painting with edges, lines, stripes and bands. Unlike the ideologically bound practices of modernism and postmodernism, the work in Painting on Edge shows a new openness towards the fabulation of Hard Edge painting without a readily identifiable ethos. If there have been three high moments in the history of Hard Edge painting so far — its founding here in California, its mutability as a program of making from late Ab-Ex through Minimalism and its eventual critique by Neo-Geo — then today we see an entirely new set of sensibilities at play in the genre.
This is perhaps best represented by the artists in this show that openly mix the gestural and the graphic, patterns and process, and systems and topology. While all of the works in this show attempt to rework the geometric tradition in one way or another, there is nothing dogmatic or orthodox about their approach. As such, the artists in Painting on Edge are not just challenging traditional boundaries, but their work sits on the edge of many boarding discourses, caught somewhere between essentialism and transcendentalism, power and design, a rigorous application and the production of aesthetic delight. At a time when cultural production carries so much baggage from the twentieth century, the artists in Painting on Edge show us another way to travel light in heading for places unknown, where the journey of making is a delicate balancing act between absolute precision and unlimited permissions.
David French / Melanie Moore: The Unbearable Lightness of Form
French's work is informed by a deep engagement with Baroque forms. The fragment, the ruin and dynamically twisted shapes permeate his entire oeuvre, which is a kind of grand theater of psychosexual anthropomorphisms. The seamless fabrication of his sculptures echoes the Baroque fascination with virtuosity while his choice of synthetic golds, royal purples and saturated reds allude to the power of inorganic objects and class politics.
Implicit in French's folding and curvilinear shapes is a different kind of story about the base matter of creation and the play of creative contingency. The spiky abstractions of blowfish-like forms, swirling organic motifs and hard earthen topologies all hold equal sway in French's art practice. Over the last few years however, he has become more engaged with the rhetorical devices of prestige. In such a move, the formal aspects of Baroque aesthetics are married to the politics of the present by evoking the privilege accorded to high-end commodity forms. Some of French's most recent works have made use of rapid prototyping techniques that create the feel of a techno-Baroque aesthetic, or what the theorist Norman Klein calls an Electronic Baroque that evades all traces of the human touch.
This shift in French's work charts a path that is as much about the evolution of forms as it is the politics of cultural production. Caught between seduction and simulation, his works point to a history of forms and colors that take as much from pre- and post-modern art as they do the ethos of high modernism. By combining computational and industrial fabrication techniques with a radical sensualism, French's work makes us rethink the potential of material embodiment in a way that is as rare as it is beautiful.
Bio: David French was born in England and earned his MA in Fine Art at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has exhibited his work in Tokyo, Brussels, Istanbul and Los Angeles. French has been commissioned to create work for public projects as well as private homes. He was presented with a commendation for the Public Art Project of the year by Huntington Beach's Allied Arts Board. His work can also be seen this month at D.E.N. Contemporary in the Pacific Design Center. He lives and works in Los Angeles.
The work of Melanie Moore revolves around themes both organic and cosmic, formal and natural. Hers is an evolving art, one based on the germination of hidden and secret processes. As a sustained meditation on macro and micro-logical processes, Moore's abstract paintings often resemble cellular mitosis, embryonic growth, or the nebulous becomings of celestial bodies. Everywhere we find evidence of divergent permutations, sudden mutations and the slow gestation of trace forms in the process of unfolding.
Moore's work was previously invested in time-based processes and dissection of abstract forms. She achieved this through different strategies of taxonomy, often painting on multi-layered transparent panels that could be recombined to form a single work. As a virtual vivisection of gestural spills, pours and selective interventions, theses early works subdivided action painting into specific acts by highlighting the temporal dimension of gestural imagery. Over time, these additive strategies gave way to a dialog that was more overtly concerned with the rhetorics of display and disparate knowledges of application. This gave her work a new sense of complexity and a certain distance from expressive models of abstract painting that are still very much in vague today.
Most recently however, her art practice has begun to capitalize on the power of singular forms and iconic images. Often highlighting just one or two floating forms, and sticking to a reduced pallet dominated by grays, black and silvers, Moore has chosen to focus on those elements which have become the hallmark of her artistic process. These qualities might best be described as a subtly of touch, a deft sense of compactness and an intimacy of scale appropriate to the work. Dynamic, delicate and amorphous, her paintings evoke an art of wonder — one which is focused on the natural world around us as well as those worlds that regularly escape perception. This is both the nature of their purchase in the present and their enduring contribution to the idiom of abstract art.
Bio: Moore received her Masters in Fine Arts from Claremont Graduate University and her B.A. in Studio Art from the University of California, Irvine. She has recently shown in "All the worlds riches" at 2325 Artist Space, "Speculative Materialism" at Andi Compognone Projects and "Habits of Mind: Armory Fellows Show" in the Waterworks building at Colorado One. She works and lives in Los Angeles.
Max Presneill / Scott Marvel Cassidy: You Sunk My Battleship
The works of Max Presneill are about the contradictions of time, space and culture, or rather, they aim to problematize how these notions can be 'pictured'. Or, to be a bit more concise, his practice as a painter is a kind of discourse on the post-historical condition. Not only is his oeuvre composed from images that are culled from different symbolic traditions, but his process involves recomposing and decomposing various genres, idioms and techniques, add infinitum. Ravens and the Sphinx, Capitan Kirk and a Tyrannosaurus Rex, Billy the Kid and Prometheus, all dance across Presneill's canvases, not so much as the main attraction, but as strange attractors — mediated and remediated until they are subtracted from their original referent. As such, they are a type of meditation on loss, missed encounters and the irreducible quality of doubles, déjà vu and twin-effects.
One would be wrong however to assign his pictures to the status of being Sysiphusian myths, allegories of labors lost, or as being metaphors about the existential condition of 'man'. Surely, these might have some place in thinking about Presneill's works, but what is much more incisive about his practice as a painter is the sense of uneasiness that one encounters both in his aesthetic choices and the enigmatic quality of the characters he chooses to engage with. In sampling from the history of painting, the internet, magazines, personal effects and hallucinatory affects, Presneill's works chart a space between popular motifs and high art by way of personal inflection, diagrammatic selection and perpetual resurrection — the eternal return of the same as different — and occasionally, as a kind of radical in-difference.
In fact, his use of mythical characters and readymade motifs is not so much a way of identifying with archetypes as it is a means of highlighting figures in transition — or the space between artistic translation and the opacity of signifiers. In this regard, Presneill's allegories are nothing less that orchestrated catastrophes. At once prescient and contemporary, they are idiograms of a type of retro-futurism; a detourned history; or even a detoured narrativity that constantly subtracts itself from the coordinates of easy accessibility. Even his autobiographical works are a collection of so many memento mori — images that are as much about the passing of time as they are a kind of time that refuses to pass, of time at a stand-still, or time as the pile up of history. One might even say that everything which once seemed to make for comfort, and which presents itself as a well-curated and knowing construction in Presneill's paintings is not necessarily that. Rather, they are pictures which pull away from you the closer you get to identifying their historical markers; they pull away a step further when you think you can trace their lineage and context; and they take on their full reserve and enigmatic splendor when their most oblique aspects occult themselves from easy adequation or identification. In this way, they produce not only the trace of living in a post-historical world, but they also enact it by heading for a destinations unknown — a future imperfect.
Bio: Max Presneill is a Los Angeles based artist and curator, originally from London, UK. As an artist he has shown throughout the world including New York, London, Amsterdam, Istanbul, Sydney and Tokyo and is represented by Durden & Ray, Los Angeles, as well as the Garboushian Gallery, Beverly Hills. Besides the show at Autonomie his work can be seen in solo shows at the New Bedford Art Museum in Massachusetts, from May 15th, and at the Garboushian Gallery opening on June 29th, as well as at the Hong Kong art fair in May with Gallery Lara of Tokyo.
Scott Marvel Cassidy
The works of S. M. Cassidy are something of an essay on the totemic powers of objects and observation, seclusion and signification, artifact and artifice. His paintings often have specific narrative allusions as well as a specificity of execution that belies his love of observational painting and real objects. Many of his works are composed of collections of one sort or another — objects both aged and ruined, flawed and banal, nostalgic and fantastic. In such arrangements we are always alerted to the inherent timecode of outmoded things, and even of how our life is constructed around the world projected by things. In this regard, Cassidy's art practice seems to call to a future antérieur by engaging with the remains of the day.
Paintings of screen shots from the computer, sculptures of cassette tapes and cast records, reworked drawings of geek culture and ironic caricatures all collide in Cassidy's oeuvre as a series of idiosyncratic narratives. Yet his images also partake of that which we know all too well — star wars toys, album covers, cowboy boots, etc. — which can all be taken as signs of the everyday, of Americana writ large, or are something like a catalog of mass artifact. Yet what is most striking about his work is how these images are feed through a specific set of choice distortions that echo both worlds lost and maybe even a world yet to come.
There is an undeniable tinge of melancholia and obsession in Cassidy's techniques, but it is of a nature that serves to inform his subjects all the better. In a time of art that aims to be overtly self-reflexive, and sometimes even comically so, Cassidy's works serve up something a little more accessible and perhaps even little more authentic. His pictures are an act of delicate preservation grounded on an ethic of irrepressible investment and desire. Everywhere in his paintings, drawing and sculptures we are confronted with Cassidy's deepest interests, all of which are activated by his dedication to the descriptive act itself. Caught between so many parallel narratives, Cassidy's works set out for the past by addressing those objects of the present that still have a conflicted sense of presence. Such works are a rare insight into a world that has become all too transparent and readily consumable.
Bio: Scott Marvel Cassidy has shown most recently shown his work at Las Cienegas Projects, Schmidt Dean, Anna Meliksetian Projects and Circus Gallery. He was in LA Weekly Biennial and has done residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, Me.di.um., Yaddo and The Macdowell colony. He currently lives and works in Los Angeles.
MAX PRESNEILL - PAINT LIKE AN EGYPTIAN. E S S A Y B Y G R A N T V E T T E R.
...the symbolic work of art is always more or less limitless.
From Lectures on Fine Art
(c) Egyptian Temples
Hegel is also the thinker of irreducible difference. He rehabilitated thought as the memory productive of signs.
Part I: Writing before the Letter
All the old paintings on the tomb,
They do the sand dance, don'cha know?
If they move too quick (Oh-Wayo-Oh)
They're falling down like a domino.
'Walk like an Egyptian'
The present state of art cannot therefore be defined as neo-eclectic or as neo-romantic. What is happening is a much more radical and decisive shift, which I would define as 'the Egyptian effect'. The tendency to collapse the ancient and the new into a single temporal dimension, arranging them alongside one another and leaving the resulting contradiction wide open, was indeed typical of Egyptian civilization. Hence the impression of enigmatic synchronicity, and almost of a completion of time, that ancient Egyptian art inspires.1
Enigmas: The Egyptian Moment in Society and Art
Max Presneill makes art like an Egyptian, or rather, his works are those of a certain type which promotes an Egyptian effect. But what do we mean when we say Egyptian effect? Is it that his works have the status of being hieroglyphs — existing somewhere between the abstraction of linguistic characters and the rendering techniques of representational art? Or, is it that his paintings fall out of a properly 'readable' context by attempting to sign the thing-itself in an era obsessed with the discursive aspects of art? Or, is it that his paintings bring together a number of visual tropes that operate like a kind of impersonal iconography — or the allegorical language of western culture writ large — or sometimes, written quite small?
Could it even be that Presneill's pictures function like pictograms inasmuch as they rely on myth and narrative, everywhere colliding the symbols of modernity with their pre-modern and postmodern counterparts? Or, is it that his paintings present us with a field of graphic representations rather than reflections; that they treat style as a type of codex rather than a condition of expressivity; or that they everywhere evoke symbols of a double nature?
And is what we call the Egyptian effect really just a way of underscoring the gap between a thing and the formal language that enables its representation — the invention of a space measured by degrees rather than dichotomies? And does the dance of signification in Presneill's work issue from the multiplication of 'characters' that operate like figures in the twofold sense of the word, i.e., as partial objects?
While all of the above certainly play an important role in understanding how the Egyptian effect is at work in Presneill's art practice, it is probably best expressed by his activity as a scribe of sorts — everywhere juxtaposing one idiom against another, one figure against another, one way of making against another — add infinitum. In this regard, a trace of every modern pictorial language is at play in his oeuvre: Impressionism, Expressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Symbolism, Surrealism, Abstraction, etc. However, what is important about their appearance in Presneill's imagery is not that he adheres to the ethos behind any of these movements or 'schools', but that he selectively transforms their motifs into a hieroglyphic language of sorts. Invested in creating a space between semblance and resemblance, Presneill's unique form of modernist Egyptification revolves around the notion of art as ideogram, grapheme or even a certain morphological function. But we would be wrong to see his work as engaged in addressing a single period of artistic production, or enacting a single operation for that matter.
Afterall, the motif's that appear in Presneill's paintings reach far beyond dictatorial forms of modernism. Glimpses of Baroque chiaroscuro, Trans-Avant-Garde graffiti, Mannerist distortions, Neo-expressionist cartoons, Gothic line work and Simulationist affects also play a prominent role in Presneill's recombinant compositions. His is a picture of history in motion, played out through so many still frames, where each cut from the reel is presented as a discrete pictorial event in itself. And yet, because the motifs he selects have been so thoroughly deterritorialized — chronologically and synchronically — they appear as things to be deciphered, or as images that stand at a double remove from what they signify. Another way of saying the same thing is that all of these stylistic inflections never come to the surface in total. Instead, they only appear in Presneill's work in order to remain submerged, retreating into the construction of a secret language that is as much about the antimonies of the contemporary moment as the ciphers that make interpretation possible.
But here again, we must be a bit more concise in order to capture how the Egyptian effect is a central dispositif of Presneill's art practice. While he is certainly an adept scribe it is not because he can imitate different pictorial languages; and it is not because he plays with signs in a self-reflexive manner; and it is also not because he works with complex and sometimes monumental themes. All of this is readily apparent.
Rather, Presneill's work takes on an Egyptian register because it is comprised of an endless array of pictograms that are only readable from the end of history — or from a time that appears closed-in on itself through so many defunct teleologies, lost dynasties and errant systems of belief. The shear duplicity of mixed motifs in any one of Presneill's public exhibitions exceeds the ethos of exclusivity associated with all the little fiefdoms of modernism and postmodernism, where each school holds a position of prominence until such a time as their forcible abdication. Running counter to this turn-style logic, Presneill's art practice should be understood from a perspective that is eternal. But this is not an eternal that exists outside of space and time, but rather, a form of dwelling in the eternal present through the exacting work of cultural cryptology.
This is perhaps best exemplified by what Presneill refers to as the use of an 'indicated aesthetic', where painting operates more like a system of notations than a series of long-form expositions. Such an outlook is made manifest not only by the fact that Presneill's work is composed from an expansive glossary of visual languages, but also through the many ways in which his pictures highlight the enigmatic nature of all signification vis-à-vis discrete juxtapositions, dramatic transpositions, and jarring forms of bricollage. Using an array of sampled styles and oblique allusions, Presneill's projects act like a form of lucid dreaming — capturing impressions from a world caught in endless forms of transit.2 And yet, this form of hybrid pictorialism also offers us the opportunity for recognizing that all translation is interpretation, that every inscription draws its content from its context, and that behind every glyph resides a thing that resists being pictured.
As such, the particular problem that belies the Egyptian effect, and Presneill's work in particular, is not just the wild proliferation of pictorial systems that can be used to indicate objects, but a total absence of any qualitative system of value that might allow one way of working to be privileged over another. The renowned philosopher of aesthetics, Mario Perniola describes this 'Egyptian turn' in cultural production in the following way:
The Egyptian effect is not the consequence of any lack of newness, nor does it result from the realization of what was announced in the past. It is related to the impression that nothing is any longer allowed to take exclusive possession of time, or to establish with present time a relationship of mutual belonging. Time is completed because it no longer has either a clearly defined artistic will or a formal identity from which it cannot be separated. Completed time relativizes the entire artistic universe, transforming actuality into chance event and repertory into inventory.3
But one should note that Perniola is not saying that such an endeavor has anything to do with 'cultural relativism' or a lack of meaning. Instead, the Egyptian effect has to do with a pile up of meaning; of everything being all-too-meaningful; of every meaning being absolutely about its place within a system of signifiers rather than absolute embodiment, pure presence, or an internal logic. At best, the Egyptian turn might be described as a defacto transcendental condition, such that its crisis of conjecture is also its condition of possibility. At worst, it is an attempt to preserve fixed meanings over and against the electronic tower of Babel — or the cross-cultural effects of globalization and new media.
Embracing the deconstructive impulse, Presneill's work establishes a path that inverts these two tendencies by striving to preserve a panoply of artistic idioms while still lightening the ballast with regard to how they function as a system of signs. While his objects share a resonance with the art of ages past, their very contemporaniety depends on engaging with a form of history that is properly out of time — or of a kind of time out of joint — and perhaps even, a time that is itself, after time. This conflicted status shows itself not only in Presneill's use of a provisional aesthetic but also in the fact that his characters almost always sit on a ground rather than in a space; that they gather together a minimum of means in order to produce a maximal effect; and that the specificity of their arrangement is what allows for their readability. From such a position, Presneill's work can be seen as an encyclopedic approach to art making that permits any motif to appear in bas-relief — or as a sustained engagement with the post-historical condition and all that it permits.
But this is not to say that the collapse of postmodernism is something Presneill celebrates uncritically. Rather, his pictures reveal a great deal of trepidation about the contemporary state of culture. But here we should also stop to ask, where and how does this show itself in his production? What are the themes that Presneill's work seeks to problematize? And how do we place an art, which is itself, about trying to articulate an implacable condition?
If we consider that our globalized world is best characterized by the continued acceleration of time, of things passing in and out of existence too fast, and of a certain feeling of saturated subjectivity, then Presneill's pictures appear to be a crucial effort to deal with the problem of (dis)orientation. In an age where trends having been replaced by what is 'trending', where interactions have been superseded by transactions, and where all activity is now interactivity, multi-tasking, etc., it can begin to feel as if the whole of existence has begun to take on a verb tense attributable to the endless valorization of epiphenomena. In short, we are becoming a culture of hieroglyphic techniques, from text messaging and viral videos to hyperlinks and sound-bite entertainment. Culture is now a whirling dervish of imagistic production unlike anything the world has ever known — and it is in this regard that 'repertory' has become 'inventory'; that simulation has lead to cultural fragmentation; and that our grasp of totality has been obscured by the endless play of (glo)banality.
If we take this as the background that Presneill's works are inscribed upon, then we can begin to understand how his images, installations and tombs of cultural artifacts attempt to stay, and even resist, the fluid nature of the moving image. By holding these pictograms still for a moment, and transposing them into a new medium or mediums, Presneill's artistic production subjects the tumultuous flow of data-consciousness to the eternal perspective of a historical continuum subtracted from any cultural idiom in particular.
But much like Egyptian sarcophagi, Presneill also introduces some personal effects into the mix which are meant to upend the parodic aspects of postmodernism by extracting the authentic from the iconographic. In other words, his way of arranging motifs is as personal as it is ceremonial — or rather, it is a ceremony that attempts to wrest a sense of the autobiographical from the flux of meaning attributed to the signifiers from which it is composed. By attempting to work self-reflexivity backwards, Presneill images imbue cultural art-i-facts with a trace element of meaning that is typically absent. Freely appropriating every type of cultural meme through an active process of subjective detournment is Presneill's way of providing a countersignature to the manufactured 'sign' value of the image. In this way, the entombment effect of spectacularized subjectivity isn't revealed to be a personage wholly covered over, but one that is only partially wrapped in the image-texts of mass culture, preserved by the ubiquitous values of the consumer age, and above all else, by a certain drive toward agelessness.
As such, we can say that Presneill's oeuvre is something like an attempt to grasp the present through the pre-sent, or that it is a reaction formation to the naturalization of remediated existence. At every turn in his work we see an endless negotiation with the invariable lightness of cultural signs and their infinite mutability; a concerted effort to channel the persistence of symbols and myths in a culture of unending recyclability; and a dedicated practice of reading history from the moment in which it takes shape. But in order to get a little closer to the Egyptian aspect of Presneill's paintings, it is better to look at the different trajectories his work has taken over the last decade or more, remembering all the while that the systemicity of Egyptian art is defined as much by its procedural presuppositions as the anonymity of its characters — two elements that are central to Presneill's art practice.
Although it may surprise those new to his work, Presneill's early paintings were largely abstract in nature. They were typically the outcome of a system of marking the canvas that always started with making a gesture, and then rotating the canvas ninety degrees, repeating the same action and so on, until the picture was finished. This continued until the canvas was entirely full, sometimes quite layered, sometimes less so. Existing somewhere between the early works of David Reed and the sensibility of Sean Scully, these process-based series tended to focus almost exclusively on the act of inscription, the effects it engendered, and the notion of engaging with the mark as a kind of personal artifact. This initial approach to painting, which married sign and geometry through the rigors of deliberate execution, can be considered wholly (neo)Egyptian in both its means and measure.
Over time however, Presneill began applying this same approach to figurative motifs and pop imagery — forcing found images into fixed orientations and structural organizations. This claustrophobic method of filling up the picture plane with different types of characters, was perhaps, Presneill's second great Egyptian operation. During this period myth and symbolism began to creep back into Presneill's work as well. Caught up in an explosion of new themes, this second shift welcomed the Golden Calf, the Jabberwocky, and the Minotaur in what can only be described as an allegorical parade of fractured fictions.
By contrast, Presneill's third act of Egyptification, and the turn which best defines his work today, is the result of having introduced a greater degree of play between the personal and the impersonal, process and improvisation, editing and intractability. In short, he has been developing a more occasional art — or a process that is much more dependent on engaging with images that resonate with the time of their production. Not only that, but Presneill sometimes makes use of a type of recursive gesture that keeps his work open to ongoing revisions and even last minute interventions — many of which take place right before the moment of an exhibition.
With this recent change of direction, the sense of systemicity that dominated his previous works wasn't at all lost. In fact, it was incorporated to an even greater degree by becoming subordinate to the motif. This new outlook ultimately allowed Presneill's pictographic aesthetic to become a time-based and site specific practice, where the issue of display is an ongoing negotiation between space, sign and time. In retrospect, these three transformations in Presneill's artistic production involved a journey from the architecture of inscription to the semantics of situatedness — or a move from the conscription of signs to the trans-crypt-ions of the scribe.
From this new point of departure, the occasion of production can be considered a rather exceptional state, and for the scribe, even an ecstatic one. As Perniola has noted, it is not that "of the improviser who in different situations always adopts the same scheme and the same formulas", but rather, "the moment in which the artist realizes that he is not at all the master of his own language. Occasion does not imply interchangeability and indistinction of situations, 'adapting equally well to all times,' but rather grasping the unrepeatable uniqueness of time."4 Certainly, this is the type of occasion which Presneill seeks in his work, one which relishes in the riddles of pictorial language, admitting the unmasterability of all pictography, but striving for an articulation which holds its promise nonetheless. In other words, the occasion is here marked by the paradox of a scribe without master or a manifestation without manifesto. As such, Presneill's imagery is not only composed of sampled languages, handed down through the ages, but rather, the becoming-other of dictation, inscription, expression or program vis-à-vis, their mutual interpenetration.
Dance Mummy... Dance!
Out of all of the aforementioned changes, it is important to recognize that this last transformation in Presneill's modus operandi is, by far, the most radical. First, because autobiographical references have been incorporated into the work, and second, because there is a consistent effort placed on coordinating them within a complex cartography of images that threaten to erase any sense of groundedness. To put it in deconstructive terms, his pictures play with the doublebind of stasis/becoming, intentionality/ephemerality, and automatism/selectivity. As such, an occasional art will always have a varied ontology — and in Presneill's work we might call it a vari-ontology — that operates through a principle of irreducibility. Mario Perniola has described this new outlook with regard to the Egyptian effect in the following way:
If the notion of occasion introduces a static, synchronic element into the experience of the present, the notion of inventory introduced a dynamic, diachronic element into the possession of the past. If the occasion severs the relation between present time and form, showing that a different way of ordering materials can shatter traditional unities (my emphasis). In this case too an Egyptian effect is produced...5
Much like Freud's description of the dream-work, we might even say that the valorization of an occassionist perspective makes Presneill's image-work into an allegory about the severed relation between time and (proper) form.
In much the same way that the Egyptian's viewed art as a "vast combinatory system in which high and low, male and female, light and dark, life and death, organic and inorganic never cease(d) to trade place(s) and to merge", so too do Presneill's compositions welcome the same principle of open access and internal conflict.6 In the last decade alone we can find appearances by characters as different as the Sphinx and Madonna, the Raven and Rasputin, Cleopatra and Medusa, Dinosaurs and Darwin, Turok and Billy the Kid, Valkerie's and Prometheus, and even Winston Churchill and Captain Kirk! It is this phenomena of retuning doubles and duplicitous source material that allows us to see how Presneill's art is circumscribed by the themes of resurrection and reanimation. As such, his pictures can be thought of as a virtual platform that mirrors the recent return of Tupac Shakur to the concert stage as a 'living' hologram. This polyvalent use of doppelganger forms allows for any figure or theme to be conjured up as the occasional subject of an eternally performative afterlife — creating the uncanny mummy dance of an underworld that only exists to entertain the over-world. In so many ways, the Egyptian effect is this opening of tombs that mixes the (post-)modern with the ancient, the living with the dead, and the hollowed with the spectacular.
Hieroglyphics and Hollography.
As such, the enigmatic quality of the hologram is not only a key to understanding how Presneill's works function, but the emerging art of hollography also allows us to take stock of the ontological status of his project. Afterall, it is important to note that in Presneill's art practice all of the past becomes mixed up with the present — skate culture, baby pictures, marathon runners, historical figures, ancient lands, myths from centuries past — all co-exist in various states of dematerialization and re-materialization. Paintings like Triad, Glitter in the Dark, and Pandom show us ghostly images of the artist and his siblings lost in an abstract local. Part Garden of Eden, part fairytale land, part psychotropic hallucination, these images evoke a space between worlds, or an effect of virtuality that issues from a quality of fluctuating finish. We can see this gap between the thing pictured and the work of 'picturing' in the contours of paintings like Earp, Cody, and The Kid — images that phase in and out of a painterly reality that owes as much to the works of Giuseppe Archimboldo as the Abstract Expressionists. One might even call them painterly holograms of a future antérieur, or images that operate without the substrate of a closed world or a secure horizon of meaning. Even the persistence of boats of passage in Presneill's paintings seem to point to the endless process of transitioning between worlds — past and present, geographic and imaginary, symbolic and personal. (see Monkeyboat, Untitled (boat), Drawing (boat), Enkidu (House), Raft Study 2 & 3, Ghost ship, Mirage, etc.).
And yet, Presneill's greatest Egyptian hollography, (outside of Carry on Cleo and Pale Rider), would have to be Raft — a macabre reworking of Gericault's The Raft of the Medusa that gathers together a group of pictorial archetypes that are confronted with the catastrophe of their own co-existence set adrift under an apocalyptic sky. At sixteen by twenty-four feet it is a painting on par with the monumental works of Sandro Chia, Albert Olhen and Francesco Clemente — only where Chia focuses on historical themes, Olhen on the intersection of abstraction and technology, and Clemente on the development of a personal iconography — Presneill collapses all three of these dimensions into one and the same project.
While these postmodern forerunners only hinted at the appearance of a full-blown Egyptian effect, we can say, quite unabashedly, that with Presneill's work it comes into sharp focus:
The Egyptian effect implies the shift from a European Aesthetics of Greek derivation to an aesthetics modeled on pre-classical and non-European civilizations. This involves a melting away of many oppositions, as for example, those between original and copy, authentic and spurious, function and ornament. Confronted with the dizzying multiplication of imitations that are indistinguishable from their originals, with the extreme variety of syncretisms that stake their claim to consideration in their own right, and with the expansion of the notion of function to cover even the psychological and emotional aspects of experience, the mooring of European aesthetics begin to work loose, exacerbating both disorientation and confusion. The notions of purity and authenticity seem to be submerged in boundless formal and conceptual promiscuity... This implies a profound overhaul of the very concept of art, the starting point of which might be provided for by a reappraisal of the art forms Hegel described as 'symbolic' (from the art of the Egyptians to the non-figurative art of the Jewish and Muslim sublime). Two apparently opposed critical outlooks can be seen to hybridize and blend: one focusing on the very latest developments in technology, the technical reproducibility of works of art, video technology and electronics; the other focusing on more emotional dimensions of experience and states of possession and rapture. Neo-eclecticism and neo-romanticism are basically rather inadequate formulations for these critical trends, the first of which seems to look to the present, the other to the past. For what we are really seeking... is the variety of experience and joy of a certain past, while what we look for in the anthropological past is a copy and a repetition of the present.7
In no uncertain terms, the Egyptian effect represents the final horizon of the post-historical drive — the deconstruction not just of a single genre or tradition, but the deconstruction of Tradition(s) with a capital T. As such, the critical function of Presneill's works would first seem to be a rather impossible one, or at least, it would appear to us as something we haven't really seen before. But what makes such a claim justifiable, especially in an age that continuously repeats the idea that there is nothing new under the sun, that everything has been done before, and that all is simulacra?
In order to answer such a question, it is necessary not only to look at a longer trajectory of art production but also the a priori conditions of 'critique'. If one thinks of impressionism as the deconstruction of academic finishing techniques; of cubism as the deconstruction of perspectival systems; of Fauvism as the deconstruction of naturalistic coloration; of Surrealism as the deconstruction of rationality; of Abstraction as the deconstruction of every representational bias; of Op-art as the deconstruction of stable subject-object relations; of Happenings as the deconstruction of art and life; of Conceptual art as the deconstruction of objecthood; of Minimalism as the deconstruction of expressivity; of Institutional Critique as the deconstruction of systems of valorization; of Feminist art as the deconstruction of phallocentric forms of domination; of Photorealism as the deconstruction of photography's supposed naturalism; of Neo-geo as the deconstruction of 'pure' geometries; and of Pluralism as the deconstruction of the avant-garde ideal tout court —— then, with Presneill's works, we are certainly encountering something altogether different. In fact, if Pluralism opens onto the first meta-deconstructive act, one aimed at a tradition internal to the Western canon (avant-gardism), then with the Egyptian effect we are experiencing the deconstruction of two meta-discursive categories8 — Western and Egyptian — as well as the systems of privilege and hierarchy that adhere to both. In this way we move from the either/or logic of avant-gardism to the or, or, or... of Pluralism to the Both/And of the Egyptian effect — something that is clearly present in Presneill's work.9
Semiology and Sarcophagi.
As part of this (meta)deconstructive dialog, we can better understand Presneill's project as an effort to render that which is immanently familiar uncanny; as a means of making western art and art history a thing unknown to us; and as a concerted effort at denying every form of confidence about what is constitutive of 'presence' in the present. In this regard, Presneill's work is a balancing act unlike any other, one which operates by "the confidence that anything can find its chance... that late and early are tactical rather than strategic notions."10 Indeed, his work might even be characterized as an art of utility — grabbing what is necessary in the moment in order to upend the fictions of the past. This rotary motion between displaced images and unmoored symbols might even be described as a practice of counter-archivization, or at least, as a retroversive impulse that haunts the supposed stability of every semiological and/or sarcophograpic order.
We could even go to the end, and say that this kind of neo-Egyptian operation comes very close to mirroring "the Egyptian myth, (where) there will always be an Isis to piece together the scattered limbs of Osiris."11 But much like the labor of Isis, Presneill's imagery also shows us that a metaphysical body can never be properly reassembled, i.e., that Osiris will forever be haunted by a primal lack, an unassailable impotency, and an improbable form of reincarnation. In other words, art after the Egyptian effect will partake of a wholly deconstructed nature, having been cut into a million little pieces, first by modernism, then by postmodernism.
And yet, only negativity and dissemblance can continue to provide a challenge to the logic of supersession and transcendence accorded to 'historical' cannonization. In our day, this challenge goes by the name of Pluralism, the post-historical condition, and even by the Egyptian effect, but this latest moniker includes one new twist. Rather than simply undermining the metaphysics of presence, the Egyptian operation becomes the sign of a profane act that everywhere attempts to return the metaphysics of pictorial grammar to the common vernacular of 'culture'.12 Or, to put it somewhat differently, the Egyptian effect submits the infinity of representational acts to the conditions of finitude.
But finally, how is all of these achieved? How is a negative or deconstructive function attributed to a work of art in a post-avant-garde, post-critique era? Or, what is still left to be challenged, i.e., what does the Egyptian effect aim for? In Presneill's works it consists of a Herculean effort to stack up representations at the same time that they threaten to come tumbling down; to challenge the last boundaries between cultural divisions; and to aim at cultural defamiliarization, decontextualization and defetishization in a global sense.
In other words, when it comes to the issue of aesthetic purity, good taste and pictorial mores of a given 'kind' or 'type', Presneill throws caution to the wind chasing after the hope of a kind of perverse inclusivity — an inclusivity implicated in every kind of difference — material, cultural, discursive, whatever. And this is a particularly difficult gesture in an era where the anti-aesthetic impulse has been all but naturalized. In fact, Presneill's works walk a very fine line between what we might accept as fine art or illustration, being both a bit too rough and unfinished to be mistaken for a commercial endeavor while also resisting the types of choices associated with the So Cal school of bad painting, the idiosyncratic figuration of the Bay area or even the Neo-expressionists. This too, is part of their enigmatic character, where we expect to find another infant terrible or a pictorial auteur, we are instead confronted with the problem of an Egyptian order(ing), where the writing on the wall is thrown back at us to be decoded.
Consequently, Presneill's paintings not only force us to question our own bias's about culture and taste, but they do this by moving between kitsch and coquettishness; an intimacy of reference and thematic dissonance; a tacit disrespect for formal constraints and an irreverent indulgence in pictorial pleasures. Yes, Presneill is still a provocateur in an age that has fewer and fewer such individuals, but he is also a very specific type of provocateur — one who relishes in the anonymity and the agency of the scribe. Alongside Peter Sloterdijk's recent reading of Deconstruction as the Egyptian moment par excellence, we can see how Presneill's oeuvre consists of "a radical semiology that would show us how the signs of being never provide the wealth of meaning they promise..." but also, that we may have no way beyond this doublebind.13
In fact, his images show us "how Egypt works in us: 'Egyptian is the term for all the constructs that can be subjected to deconstruction — except the pyramid, the most Egyptian of edifices. It stands in its place for all time, because its form is nothing other than the undeconstructable remainder of a construction that, following the plan of the architect, is built to look as it would after its own collapse."14 Max Presneill's work is also one such pyramid, a pyramid which challenges us to question the last undeconstructable remainder of Western metaphysics, or a cultural construct that is increasing built to look as it would after its own collapse.
Grant Vetter is the author of The Architecture of Control. He is also the gallery director of Autonomie and a board member of FAR (Foundation for Art Resources), a non-profit organization which has put on critical art exhibitions since 1977.
1 Mario Perniola. Enigmas: The Egyptian Moment in Society and Art (New York, Verso, 1995) 74.
2 As Perniola notes in "The Erotics of Transit", "The passage guaranteed by art is from the same to the same." While Perniola is here speaking about the transformation of Amor from a "savage passion" to a "peaceful art", how much greater is this description for describing our transition from avant-gardism to pluralism? This taming of the passions, "where the reader of the poem becomes and expert, (only to) find new loves" is also an apt description of the rotary motion that occurs in Presneill's work. Mario Perniola. Ritual Thinking: Sexuality, Death, World. (New York: Humanity Books, 2001) 67, 67, 67, 67.
3 Mario Perniola. Enigmas: The Egyptian Moment in Society and Art (New York, Verso, 1995) 75.
4 Mario Perniola. Ritual Thinking: Sexuality, Death, World. (New York: Humanity Books, 2001) 214.
5 Mario Perniola. Enigmas: The Egyptian Moment in Society and Art (New York, Verso, 1995) 76.
6 Ibid. 76.
7 Ibid. 77-78.
8 The use of the term 'meta-discursive category' here refers to the Western culture, which could be further broken down into premodern, modern and postmodern periods, and then further into specific eras, movements, etc. Of course, the history of the West could just as easily be broken up into the Ancient world, the Dark ages, Modernity and Postmodernity, or any other number of divisions. In this sense, meta-discursive is always a generic demarcation or an arborescent concept.
9 Or, to place it in Hegelian terms, the avant-garde is the negation of tradition, pluralism, the negation of the negation (the return of all tradition as equivalent), which is followed by a properly synthetic moment where all traditions are seen as equally deconstructable.
10 Mario Perniola. Enigmas: The Egyptian Moment in Society and Art (New York, Verso, 1995) 76.
11 Mario Perniola. Enigmas: The Egyptian Moment in Society and Art (New York, Verso, 1995) 76.
12 With regard to Presneill's work this could refer either to Agamben's use of profanation as making "a new use possible", or Patrick O'Conner's reading of Deconstruction as a phenomenology of the extra-mundane. Or, one could really combine these two readings in positing the idea that Presneill's art practice returns culture to a "common use" in the form of pictograms composed of a phenomenology of the extra-mundane. Giorgio Agamben, Profanations (Brooklyn: Zone Books, 2007) 87. 87. Also, see Patrick O'Conner, Derrida: Profanations (New York: Continuum, 2010).
13 Peter Sloterdijk. Derrida, An Egyptian: On the problem of the Jewish Pyramid. (Cambridge: Polity, 2006), 27.
14 Ibid. 28.
The Egyptian pharaoh was surely the first to give the human individual the structure of the measureless will to be that set him upright above the surface of the earth as a kind of luminous and living edifice. When individuals — long after the era of the great pyramids — have wanted to acquire immortality, they have had to appropriate the Osirian myths and the funeral rites that formerly had been the privilege of the sovereign... The existing pyramids still bear witness to this calm triumph of unwavering and hallucinating resolve: they are not only the most ancient and vastest monuments man has ever constructed, but they are still, even today, the most enduring... In their imperishable unity, the pyramids — endlessly — continue to crystallize the mobile succession of various ages; alongside the Nile, they rise up like the totality of centuries, taking on the immobility of stone and watching all men die, one after another: they transcend the intolerable void that time opens under men's feet, for all possible movement is halted in their geometric surfaces: IT SEEMS THAT THEY MAINTIAN WHAT ESCAPES FROM THE DYING MAN.
Visions of Excess
Obelisks Respond to the Pyramids
In the symbolist model of ancient Egypt, at least two concurrent, simultaneous levels are at work in any given instance. One is the study of Egypt as a civilization that existed in a factual geographic place and time, its peoples, mythology, social forms, its chronological unfolding, its monuments and artifacts, but this is only a backdrop, or support, for another Egypt, which might be called a quality of intelligence. This Egypt is outside of chronological consideration; it is rather, both an ever present and recurring possibility of consciousness.
Philosophy & Practice
Jason Ramos / Jorin Bossen: We're All Sensitive People
Ramos's practice as a painter is hard to properly categorize in a climate where self-reflexivity has been all but naturalized. Its not that Ramos's work attempts to skip over the postmodern condition — loosely defined as an inability to identify with the theater of representation — but that his pictures try to extract something of the personal from public image production. Of course, this notion itself, takes for granted the idea that all images now have a 'public' life of sorts that reaches from the digital family album to the new facebook timeline. In this regard, Ramos's work transverses the public/private dyad by imbuing all of his source material, whether digital or photographic, with a kind of subjective candor that emerges from the act of interpretation.
For Ramos, this occurs in any number of ways. It happens through the process of selection and editing, through living with images in the studio and by playing with the varied historical priorities attributed to picture making. While the above concerns are associated with any kind of image based art practice, for Ramos, painting is about evoking a kind of intimacy with the image that activates unconscious associations, personal mythologies and even the fleeting quality of the moment. As such, Ramos's pictures are a kind of open source event that digs into the history of mark making, everywhere conflating the strategies of impressionism and expressionism, realism and bad painting, bay area influence and Leipzig school techniques — all with an eye toward investigating the conflicted nature of contemporary life. This shows itself in Ramos's ability to shuffle through a heady mix of historical idioms — such as the group portrait, vanitas, and self-portraiture — while everywhere reinventing the terms and conditions of genre-based pictorialism.
Whether or not such a project is viewed as a way to personalized public referents and found material, or as a gesture toward publicizing a private pictorial world that is all his own, Ramos's images are an opportunity to engage with painting as a type of thinking that occurs through picture making. Toward this end, Ramos's new body of work plays with additive and subtractive processes, stark and wispy contrasts, the reversal of figure and ground relations, and the sharp division between natural and irradiated colors. His images are a kind of polyphonic investigation into materials and memory that only hint at a semblance of internal logic after the fact. Informed by the play between context and content, Ramos's pictures capture something of that ever elusive and uncanny feeling that Freud called the enigmatic, but which we also might call a poetics of the idiosyncratic.
Bio: Jason Ramos is an artist, a curator and a teacher. He maintains a painting practice at RAID Projects, where he also serves as proprietor and Director. He is also the assistant curator at Torrance Art Museum and part of ARTRA curatorial. He has shown in group exhibitions nationally and internationally and was formerly represented by the co-operative gallery initiative Durden and Ray.
The recent works of Bossen are not about nostalgia. They are certainly images from the past, and specifically from the cinematic past, but they are not romantic ideals. Of course, to say this means that they are not treated in a finished manner; that they avoid the typical tropes of illustration; and that they are not necessarily handled in a sympathetic manner. In this way, Bossen's practice as a painter is a rare blend of modernist simplicity and postmodern reflexivity, everywhere letting us know that the image is a construction that is itself, about another construction. The first of these gestures issues from a degree of unfinish in Bossen's work, the second, from the selection of a heroic modernist archetype — the American cowboy.
But the insights provided by Bossen's paintings, which place the construction of identity on equal footing with the construction of the picture plane, go far beyond being a hermetic proposition. Playing with a reduced pallet, a generic 'type' and a clarity of means allows Bossen to pin point something critical in the cultural unconscious during this election year. The cowboy is an allegorical figure that is writ large across the politics of the present moment, sustaining not only the mythos of Reagan (the actor), but also Bush Jr., and the failed campaign of Rick Perry. One might even go so far as to argue that the republican's inability to recapture the authenticity of the cowboy resulted in the recent political quagmire that beset the republican nomination.
And in many ways, it is this same notion that permeates the work of Bossen, which plays with the style of a cultural construction by reducing it to just that, a depersonalized image re-presented as the artifice of ideology. It goes without saying that Bossen's work enacts a return of the repressed by conjuring up the boogey 'man' of identity politics, but this is not to simply valorize male machismo. He has, in some way, made our appraisal of the masculine image that much more clinical by going one better than either Fischl or Salley, reaching out for a true zero degree of expressivity. But what remains truly significant about such an endeavor is that his paintings point to the lack of a substantive replacement for the ontological status of 'the masculine'. In this regard, Bossen's work is engaged in a type of pictorial anthropology that makes us question the tropes of yesterday while calling into question the representational forms that continue to over-determine the political present — and perhaps even, the problems of tomorrow.
Bio: Jorin Bossen is an MFA Candidate at Claremont Graduate University. His work has been exhibited in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and Washington D.C.. His artwork was recently featured on the cover of New American Paintings, number 53.
David Michael Lee / Michael Kindred Knight: Quitient Space
David Michael Lee
Known as an innovative curator, an influential art instructor and a notable figure in So Cal abstraction, Lee's work is informed by a myriad of influences, experiences and methodologies. Among his many bodies of work the Herb paintings stand out as an exemplary instance of Lee's commitment to working in a series, to his love of geometric abstraction and to his unique treatment of painting as a type of sculptural object and as an optical experience. Having developed out of a role of hemp fabric inherited from his father, and from which the series takes its namesake, the original impetus behind these works was to produce an elegant number of organic abstractions about growth and decay, permanence and transition. Beginning in greens and yellows applied to a black ground, Lee's earlier compositions suggested the use of a kind of flatten geometric space which could accommodate the traditional rules of perspective while calling into question the relationship of the viewer to 'nature', the nature of objectness and even the construction of objectivity.
Often composed from two or more horizons, the shifting dynamics of his falling and sliding forms suggest a conflicted sense of spatiality by highlighting the contradictions that adhere to perspectival systems and the experience of color. This is evidenced in the play of high key and muted tones, slick forms and rough grounds and the use of bevelled edges on a deep substrate. Experienced as interlocking or impossible geometries, or as an essay on the tension between structure and form, Lee's modular works suggest a kind of minimalist refrain, a non-essentialist take on the tradition of hard edge painting and a disruption of the Cartesian idiomatic. These three distinctive traits — as well as the floating quality of his shorn surfaces — problematize the sense of space attributed to the geometric tradition(s) that valorized flatness and the 'truth to materials'. And yet, neither an overdetermined program nor a reductionist ethos underpin Lee's work. Instead, we find a focus on absence and presence, the interchangeability of positive and negative shapes and a series of forced relations that is itself about forcing us to rethink our bodily relation to the activation of space and authorial intention.
Lee's newest works, which tend to project rich colors over a dark ground, carry off something of a neo-baroque sensibility while also returning us to a place of pure virtuality. In this regard, his most recent pictures are not so much a space of computational rigor as of punctured and paradoxical forms. One might even call them geometries of inquisition, not only for their implicit anti-Platonism but also because they expand our notion of geometric expressivity over and against the rhetoric of discursive positions. Afterall, Lee's work is dedicated to a kind of recombant aesthetic that valorizes both the power of the modular and the singular while letting the idea of the incomplete stand-in for a politic and a working method that resists all attempts at closure. While being indebted to the ideologues of design that extend from the Arts and Crafts movement to the Bauhaus to Art Informal and even certain members of American Abstract Expressionism, Lee's work still sets out for new ground in picturing an inbetween space of desire and dissonance based on the idea of the infinite as a place of instability, or of the absolute rendered in a manner that is irresolute. Such is the nature of Lee's contribution to how we understand the contested field of experience we have come to call 'the contemporary'.
Bio: Born and raised in Southern California, David Michael Lee had been active in the Orange County art community for the past 15 years. Before finishing his M.F.A. from Cal State Fullerton as a resident of Grand Central Art Center, he had completed his B.A. from Columbia College Chicago. Presently, Lee works as the collections manager for the "Phyllis and Ross Escalette Permanent Collection of Art" at Chapman University, where he also teaches drawing and design. He also works as the gallery Curator/Director for Coastline Community College's Art Gallery where he teaches courses in curatorial practice and art history.
Michael Kindred Knight
However inviting and accessible Knight's paintings might seem, to anyone who has encountered them in person, they are contradictory and complex pictorial events. At first glance they appear to be a unique marriage of postmodern syntheticism and modernist organicism — being as playful as they are analytic and as ironic as they are 'invested'. Upon a second take however, one quickly notices that these architectonic pictures are not so much about essentialism or parody. If anything, they present us with a series of questions about painting as an artificial construct or even as a dialogic design. One could even say that in Knight's last few bodies of work the conditions that frame the pictorial sublime have been transmuted into a kind of post-human space built on the use of artifice and the disruption of certain codes of mark making. Neither strictly landscape based, nor 'pure' abstraction, Knight's pictures inhabit an inbetween space that is as much about unhinging the relationship between sign and signified as it is undermining the logic of any given historical program.
If we were to attempt to define his painting practice in positive terms, we could say that Knight's pictures are genre bending — a dynamic re-synthesis of past idioms. Within Knight's works one might come across the pallet of Halley or Schutz, the lost horizon of Hodgkins or Mitchell, the geometric naturalism of Diebenkorn or Feitelson, the push and pull effects of Hoffman or Albers and even the subtle sense of light attributed to Scully or Guston. And yet, Knight's works are irreducible to these influences because they come from a place that is more informed by our experience of the present, and especially a present dominated by the feeling of oversaturation. It is an amazing trick which his works perform, being not so much a cartography of the landscape as a vivisection of art historical motifs and different compositional stratagems. In fact, in the wake of postmodernism, we might call his pictures temporal topologies or inerrant indices of a post-futurist, post-historical, post-avant-guard aesthetic. Afterall, Knight's pictures are not so much about deconstruction as reconstruction — but more specifically, a form of reconstruction that doesn't ignore all the sutures, scares and trauma of confronting the affective skin of history that is abstract art.
However, in Knight's new work something slightly more nuanced is emerging, something we might even see as being a little more cosmetic if we take the idea of embellishment to be a delicate science of integrating formal relations. Indeed, the cosmetic is not shallow, but a deployment of carefully applied techniques that make the play of revealing and concealing into a public affair. And in Knight's newest works, deft and delicate decisions abound, providing us with a greater sense compositional nuance, a greater degree of naturalism and even a gentler orchestration of the sense of passage from one form and color to the next. This is not to say that his pictures aren't rigorously indebted the plastic problems of painting, only that that the sense of plasticity that permeates his most recent works is just now verging on that forbidden territory of twentieth century abstraction — the construction of the beautiful as an entree into the sophisticated.
Bio: Michael Kindred Knight holds an M.F.A. in Studio Art from Claremont Graduate University and a B.A. in Studio Art from Western University. His work has been shown in several west coast cities, including Seattle and Los Angeles. Michael has been the recipient of numerous scholarships and awards, including the Claremont Graduate University's President's Art Award, the Karl and Beverly Benjamin Fellowship in Art, and the Walker/Parker Memorial Fellowship. He currently lives and works in Los Angeles.
Nick Aguayo / Marcus Perez: You do this to me and I do this to you
Aguayo’s work can be thought of as something of an essay on the function of the emblematic in abstract art inasmuch as his work consists of redressing the use of basic geometries, the application of bold colors and the deployment of various systems of arrangement. And yet, for all this, Aguayo’s work doesn’t resemble the feel of its modernist forerunners in touch, taste or program. There are no allusions here to essentialism, no remarks about the status of marks, and no determined effort to achieve the feeling of ‘organic unity’. If anything, Aguayo's work ossilates radically between a kind of neo-primitivism, a kitschy form of outsider art and the recent turn toward 'provisional' aesthetic experience.
However, it is also worth noting that Aguayo's engagement with the improvisational urge is everyewhere informed by his last few years of work which have largely consisted of making collaged paintings out of his previous paintings. In this regard, Aguayo's homespun use of bricollage relies on the permanent and unending recycliblity of idiograms — a strategy that seems to permeate mass culture at large. A key difference however is that his methodology feels more like a personal mix tape rather than a massified remix of abstraction's greatest hits. This shows itself in a certain sensitivity of selection, a deft sense of touch and even a longing for sentimental and authentic experience.
But does this kind of subjective approach to abstraction end up returning us to the site of a pictorial crisis greater than the problematic of modern experience, or even the impasse of postmodern painting, i.e., the end of any sense of teleos for ‘pure’ pictorialism and unmediated experience? And does Aguayo’s endless reworking of his own materials and emblmatic forms represent an even greater type of hermeticism than that which we might attribute to modern aesthetics or postmodern polemics? And if this is indeed the case, than his art practice might be rightfully called hyper-modern or even supra-modern — the example of an abstract art based on the idea of an exquisite corpse. Not painting as a zombie medium per say, but as the production of painterly events based on grafting together modernism’s remains through a cosmetics of conscription — or even art as the remains of the day or as what remains of self-invention and a certain will-toward-inscription posited as an intermmidable process of reinscription/deinscription. If we follow this line of thought to its natural end Aguayo's work appears not so much to be a type of painting about reappropriation as it is about self-appropriation; not so much about collage as it is decollage; and not so much about resemblance as it is dissemblance, transformation and the migration of motifs.
If these are the various trajectories at play in Aguayo’s work than his most recent shift in orientation also offers up another sweeping challenge to how we understand the idiom of abstraction. Aguayo has finally begun to make a new aesthetic out of his own vocabulary of interchangeable motifs. His recent works simulate some of the taped, torn and edited effects of the previous collage works, only such aesthetic ticks are now acknowledged as part of the process of making itself. One could even say they talk about the painterly process as a means of delimiting the pictorial field of exchange. Playing with this kind of auto-referential practice evidences something of a mixed display of the emblematic made banal, of timeless geometries debased or of a cartography of symbols set to work against each other. Such productive contradictions allow us a space of contemplation to think about the presuppositions of the present and the possibilities of engaging with a different form of aesthetic hermeticism. And yet, in Aguayo's work yesterday's imagery remains tied to the present, the instance and the artifact and as a means of demarcating the terms and conditions of contemporaneity.
Bio: Nick Aguayo received his B.A. from UCLA in 2007 and his M.F.A. from the University of California, Irvine in 2012. His work has been included in GLAMFA at California State University, Long Beach, The Armory Center for the Arts and INMO gallery. Aguayo's work was recently featured in New American Paintings # 97. He currently lives and works in Irvine, Ca.
Perez’s work presents us with a direct confrontation with the ground and/or the grund of painting. But this consideration of the ground is itself twofold, or rather, it is a dialogue circumscribed by a kind of slippage between foreground and background and the doublebind of a discrepant use of materials. In painting, the ground is afterall, a thing in-itself, an open substrate and a pourous breathing surface. And yet, the ground also refers to the act of preparation. To have or produce a ground is also to prepare a ground. A ground is not given. The ground is what gives itself as groundless, ungrounded, the void, or simply, the unmade.
With titles like "To give an account and another" and "And another still", Perez’s work also points back to the defining motifs of modernity — the elimination of the subject in art — and even the reduction of the world of visibility to its subjective traces. Such a radical pairing down of means leaves us questioning the values of modernism writ large, and especially the idea of medium specificity as a type of preparation, both for understanding the conditions of action painting and the active subject.
And yet, Perez’s pictures also seem to be about the idea of abstraction posited as a stain in the Lacanian sense of the term — as the thing which is at play in intersubjective (dis)identification — first by mimicry and second by entrance into the symbolic order, (two gestures which ultimately amount to one and the same thing). In this way Perez’s work can be seen as a kind of visual essay on the traumatic real, or on those conditions of suspended presentation that mark a gap in the symbolic order — a space that opens onto the event of subjective reflection. As such, Perez's pictures return us to the question of how we understand modern autonomy and its twofold determinations: 1) the autonomy of the individual from cultural conventions, and 2) the autonomy of the medium from its historical uses — only this duality is challenged in Perez's work because it is about the very inconsistent consistency of structuration itself.
Working with the ground as a preparation, or rather incorporating it’s preparedness into the active dialog of painterly presentation, allows Perez’s canvases to show us the stage where the abyss of freedom was played out over the twentieth century as a tabula rasa. Moving between extreme reduction and an uncanny sense of absorption, Perez’s works illicit a kind of visual questioning that comes after post-painterly strategies and before minimalist stratagems, but which feels informed by both in equal measure. If anything, his works are a reminder that the failure of the subject to coincide with itself, (both the subject of painting with its materials and subject of expressionism with authorial intent), reveals the very suture that strives to foreclose any discussion of the subject as-such. Rather, the subject of Perez’s works come close to articulating what Adorno called non-identicality by presenting us with a series of characters that actively distort the substrate (ground). This occurs not only through the introduction of a medium without preparation but also as a result of the warping of the fabric around the constituent elements of painting. In this regard, Perez's imagery disrupts the idea of autonomous art by presenting the mark as an act that both (pre)figures and fractures its own ground, ultimately pulling the terms of how we think about medium specificity right out from under us.
Bio: Marcus Perez recieved his M.F.A. from the University of California Irvine in 2011, and his B.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles. Perez has recently shown in Speculative Materialism: Abstract Art and Its Conditions at D-Block Projects and AC Projects as well as Nothing Comes from Nothing at La Cienega Projects in Culver City. He currently lives and works in Los Angeles.
Richard Galling / Chris Kuhn: Arranged
Rethinking Ritual Experience and Roman Aesthetics:Notes on the recent work of Richard Galling
By Grant Vetter (2011)
Galling’s new works are not necessarily ‘about’ the history of painting, nor are they ‘after’ history in the sense of performing a symbolic rupture, break or scission at the level of material means. They are not even what many art theorists now refer to as works that inhabit the post-historical condition. Although it is true that they play through the history of twentieth century abstraction, or rather that they play across it, substituting a surface effect for an ideological program, a texture for a historical model of ‘taste’ and a deft sense of touch for the parodic play of postmodern reflexivity, all this makes little sense if one is not familiar with Galling’s last few bodies of work and the changes that have occurred therein. These ongoing shifts can be loosely charted through three overlapping transitions.
One could say that Galling first entered into the practice of painting as a ‘portraitist’ of abstract forms. Over time he cultivated a selection of motifs that dissimulated other pictorial milieus, ultimately producing pictures that are internally at odds with the implicit logic of their own hermeticism. These new pictorial arrangements were often given over to discrete mutations, derivations and what might otherwise be called discrepancies that are diachronically and synchronically mismatched — images of a kind of systematic inconsistency. In short, his earlier works were not so much a foray into unrestrained hybridity as a farcical form of non-objective realism that took prior forms of abstract art as subjects of the present, and even as subjects of (re)presentation.
However, a second movement in his oeuvre began to emerge over the course of the last few years. His allusions to the past, to the play of sign and signifier in modern and postmodern painting, and even his dedication to the reproduction of abstract forms became a bit looser, for lack of a better word. This passage in the development of his artistic practice was not so much focused on the notion of slippage or indeterminacy, but instead, on the idea of pictographies that seem to float, not literally of course but optically. Galling’s works from this transitional period were more like an event of shimmering chromatic lattices spent across the production of so many pristine surfaces. This occurred not only because Galling often gessoed and sanded his canvases and hard board substrates until they took on the quality of pearlescent marble but also because the passing of time had engendered a certain sense of virtuosity in how he lays paint down on the canvas, sets a particular stroke and fixes the indexical quality of a rather supine material. Through series after series Galling’s imagery became both more subtle and fragile, like the surfaces of sixteenth century still life painting pushed so closely into the viewers space that they began to resemble an altogether depthless surface. In this period of experimentation Galling seemed more focused on hiding his considerable skill beneath the pleasure of affective qualities rather than redressing history with a capital H.
Yet in his most recent series of works (seen here) something new emerges entirely, and it emerges from the ritual of painting itself — even giving us an example of what the Italian theorist of aesthetics Mario Pernolia calls ‘ritual thinking’. But how are his works an example of this epistemological shift — how are they involved in courting a post-academic, post-avant-guard, post-paradigmatic play of signification? And how do these pictorial events present us with a model that ceases to ‘practice’ the fine arts altogether — if such a thing is even possible? Or, to put it a bit more simply, what is the status of the ritual act in Galling’s painting outside of its post-political, post-ideological function?
Of course, the answer here is not at all simple. Galling’s recent works speak about a break between sign and signifier in the history of painting that has become a condition of contemporary experience itself, and his works often achieve this by prohibiting a motif from becoming a mere replication (realism), a simulation (imitation) or a model of reenactment (program). We see this most decisively in the redistribution of colors, the interchangeability of painterly signs, and in the defamilarization of ‘types’ and ‘kinds’ of abstract symbols. In Galling’s work a decorative element from Matisse is not (re)painted in the same way as its original author, nor even in an ‘authorial’ manner, or even in an identifiably mannered way. Through Galling’s iconographic distortions a recognizable gesture is not negated or synthesized but instead remains struck-through while being left intact, or even slightly obscured as a model of painting imperfect. Galling’s work is not planned per say, it is not assuming the value of a given program, it is not even gesturing toward the fading horizon of twentieth century art. Instead, it is conjured — a type of painting that might be described as pure disidentification based on prior models of inscription without conditional apriori’s. In other words, Galling pictures rely on a practice of making that is dependent on the tools at hand, the relation between tool and hand, and the appearing of what appears.
Yet how is this type of process linked to ritual thinking? It is a kind of painting that follows the univocity of Roman aesthetic experience rather than the Grecian dichotomies of beauty/ugliness, truth/falsehood and real/fake. As Mario Perniola has noted, the ritual life of Roman culture “starts beyond the opposition of truth and falsehood,” everywhere producing works that aim for “a repetition so precise that it erases the prototype the very moment it preserves it.”[i] But most importantly, and with special regard for understanding the impetus behind Galling’s images, the art of Rome “offers the example of a ritual without myth” which reconnects to our contemporary moment in moving beyond metaphysics, and most especially the metaphysical presuppositions that subtend twentieth century art.[ii] If one needs further proof of this recent turn in Galling’s work then one need only examine the sense of otherness engendered by his adoption of the subterranean pallet of Lascaux — a move that is even more primitive than primitive in not making a fetish of primitivism as a school of thought. Instead Galling’s paintings are a kind of arche-writing meant for a ritual with no gods left to worship, but which emerges from the ritual act of painting nonetheless.
In fact, if Galling’s works teach us anything about the moment of contemporary painting we are living through — what the critic Terry Myers has elsewhere called an ‘indisciplinary moment’ — it is that we can practice the craft of paintings no more because there is nothing left to practice, no state sponsored academy, no pre-given formulas and no progressive argument on behalf of the teleos of painting and its given methodologies. In, after or before — or even betwixt and between — the post-post-historical condition offers us only this, a space in which to conjure the image wherein history is not absent but never fully present either. Instead, it is struck-through, struck-out, struck-down, posited as a cancellation destined for reruns, or perhaps the better comparison in this instance is that of a set of computer files that cannot be entirely deleted. In Galling’s paintings the history of art is only present in the ether — the trace of a past milieu cast against the indiscernible horizon of the present. In such a condition we all find ourselves searching for a new set of rituals to describe contemporary experience. Galling’s work is one such endeavor and also one to which we should all pay head, least we miss the passing of the present in the experience of the now.
[i] Mario Perniola, Ritual Thinking: Sexuality, Death, World. (New York: Humanity Books, 2001) 97, 98.[ii] Ibid. 104.
Elana Melissa Hill / Simon Hughes: Hypersurregionalism
Elana Melissa Hill
Hill’s art practice is an exercise in cartographic thinking and process based painting. Playing through the pictorial history of abstract means and representational meme’s, Hill’s particular brand of imagery is reminiscent of Turner’s turbulent seascapes but with a postmodern twist. In Hill’s work the hand of the artist is almost altogether missing, allowing weathered surfaces to congeal into inerrant forms of naturalism. This particular methodology departs from the environment itself — urban or natural — by literally capturing some of the textures, colors and various modes of inscription that issue from Hill’s open air studio. Even when she chooses to introduce a recognizable pictorial motif, like a palm tree or a city skyline, it almost always suggests a kind of visual slippage between the real and the artificial, the natural and the inorganic, a fullness of form and a flattened out silhouette.
As a mix of western modernism and eastern perspectivalism her hybrid compositions play across a broad spectrum of identifactory markers. Hill has described her images as “palimpsests of other’s imagined ideas”, as “an assembly of anachronisms” and as “huge living bodies where electricity, sewage, water, gas, humans and other resources are pumped through the dense flesh of cement, metal and dirt.” Caught between post-apocalyptic narratives, the visual tropes of sci-fi cinema and discrete topologies of the everyday, her layered pictures offer us a trace of the present as an image of the cultural imaginary.
Like some of the most challenging contemporary voices in landscape painting today, Hill’s pictures are a catalog of unstable and fluctuating ideas about local, and especially about image production in So Cal. However, her newest body of paintings departs from the cinematic format that has defined her last few years of production — a shift that has allowed her work to take on a greater sense of complexity with regard to improvisation, material impressions and the power of suggestion. As a fluid cartography of process, pentimenti and place, Hill’s paintings offer us an allegory of experience that reflects the fluctuating horizon of contemporary life. Whether seen as a mindscape or a landscape, such pictures are indelibly marked by the iconography of regionalism, or even by a kind of a supra- or hyper hermeticism that comes as much from Hill’s recent return to square shaped canvases as it does from her dedication to mapping a sense of passage through the denatured landscape.
Bio: Elana Melissa Hill holds an M.F.A. from Claremont (2011) and a B.A. from the University of Irvine (2007). She has recently shown in the "Emergent 12" at Object Gallery and "La Cosa Nostra" at Galerie Rheeway. Hill was the co-founder and director of Catalyst Gallery at UCI from 2005-2007 and is currently the program director of ReVISIONS of LA, the monthly drawing program at LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions). She lives and works in Los Angeles.
Through a subtle vocabulary of implacable aesthetic effects Simon Hughes has been examining Canadian themes, political myths and the natural phenomenology of his birthplace for more than a decade. While his production has often consisted of large scale watercolors, the practice of drawing and painting have also figured prominently in his approach to diagramming the social landscape of the great white north. Icy expanses, color streaked skys, native inhabitants and architectural models are all passed through a series of visual ciphers in Hughes work that are as charming as they are irreverent. Whether working to disarm our relation to indigenous politics or the presuppositions of modernism, Hughes's imagery suggests other possibilities than the traditional narratives proposed by the canon of American art history.
In fact, one could say that Hughes artistic practice is something like an imaginative psychogeography of urban tales, non-standard histories and alternative myths. Recently, his work has focused on rethinking the themes and discourses that adhere to American and Canadian modernism, although Hughes's treatment of these varied stratagems is subtly subversive, and sometimes, outright heretical. Hughes often restages the motifs of action painting in the slow and methodical medium of watercolor — reducing the iconic gestures of 'high art' to a pleasant, if not, diminutive size. If this weren’t already paradoxical enough, Hughes even invites the occasional naïve collaboration, further undermining any sense of the grandiose or the heroic. In so doing Hughes's pictures ask us not only to rethink the dominant dialogues of North American art, but they also serve as an example of dia-log-ic pictorialism that takes logs and lodges as key motifs in a new form of regionalism.
Yet what is often missed in these mixed cartographies is Hughes’s focus on the productive use of kitsch. His work unhinges the central themes of modernism not so much by their treatment or thematic double coatings as by the transmutation of pictorial motifs into another world — and even into the order of the commodity divine. Modernist cubicals for indigenous people, popular stickers placed inside works about medium specificity, and collaged psychoanalytic imperatives are all imposed on the frozen symbolism of the Canadian landscape. This enigmatic and minimal series of references often seems to congeal into a form of cartoonified colonialism — providing us with images about social appropriation and geopolitical expropriation that are still very accessible. Perhaps one could even see Hughes’s images of ‘the great white north’ as something of a metaphor for the great white washing of Northern American history — its peoples, its myths and even its varied modes of existence. In this regard, Hughes work carries a sympathetic tone toward the politics of indigenous peoples by making modernism into a children’s book of sorts, or a fairly tale gone awry. Undoubtedly, Hughes's oeuvre could even be seen as a running commentary of sorts on the conflicted status of intercultural aesthetics: European and American, American and Canadian, Canadian and indigenous, indigenous and commercial. Such a heady mix of themes requires some reflection, but in Hughes's work the hyperbolic mix of characters, motifs, and cultural thematics always proves to be as pleasurable as it is rewarding. That is perhaps the joy we find in entering a topsy-turvy of hypersurregionalism.
Bio: Simon Hughes lives and works in Winnipeg, Canada. He holds an MFA from the University of California, Irvine and a BFA from the University of Manitoba. He has received grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, as well as the Manitoba and Winnipeg Arts Councils. His art practice encompasses painting, drawing, film and video. Recent group exhibitions include the Canadian Biennial: It Is What It Is at the National Gallery of Canada and RE:Cycle at the Sweeney Art Gallery , University of California – Riverside. Simon's work is currently on view in Sète, France as part of My Winnipeg, a touring exhibition organized by La Maison Rouge in Paris.
Gabie Strong: The Exegesis of Entropy
Gabie Strong’s work has a breadth and range that is hard to summarize in a few short sentences. Over the course of the last decade she has produced a large body of photographic works that challenge the unconscious acceptance of military motifs as a naturalized part of the American landscape, she has been engaged in rethinking critical issues around architecture and architecture education, and she has expanded the boundaries of radical performance/sound art with the collective Lady Noise. However, in her most recent body of photographs Strong has achieved something that is unique even within her own oeuvre, she has managed to make the post-urban landscape into a image of socio-psychological necessity. Her treatment of the everyday, the banal and even the abstract, have come to stand in for what Slavoj Zizek sees as the crisis of western culture — an inability to properly mourn the west as an Empire in decline. Strong’s subtle cartographies of texture and place, image and imagination, mythos and materiality, all contribute to creating a sense of psychological unease around zones of trespass and operational congress. But what is especially uncanny about her imagery is how such places can be made to seem inviting, natural, or even quite accessible.
Her overture is a kind of exploration of limited places of access that are supposed to safeguard cultural traditions, constitutional promises and the security of the nation state. And yet, in Strong’s work, they produce a palpable sense of melancholia, a tinge of regret and loss, and even a moment of thoughtful repose that issues from the failures of American exceptionalism. While Strong's work always presents us with a series of furtive pictures of the present, it is much more likely that we are looking back on pictures that are ‘about’ the past set in the present tense — images birthed ex nihilo from the futurity of a world gone awry. This kind of recursive gesture mirrors the writings of the French philosopher Paul Virilio and the retro-futurism of texts like Pure War — where destruction by automation and the drive toward automaton consciousness are envisioned as the final destination of instrumental rationality.By courting a kind of productive ambiguity, her discrete topologies of the denatured landscape work to dismantle the binaries of urban/rural, realism/abstraction and poetic/documentary forms. Playing with a sense of contradictory fictions and real simulations, Strong’s investment in place can only be described as a complex topology of tropes that resist easy identification. Her specific brand of iconography resonates with the speculative fictions of Octavia Bulter and Philip K. Dick while picking up different theoretical concerns from Henri Lefebvre, de Certeau and Foucault. Everywhere in Strong’s work, we can see intangible allusions to the psychodynamics of power and space; conflict and place; action and trace.
Strong’s work is perhaps the first step in helping us toward understanding the conflicted and interlocking crisis’s we face today — a photographic Kubler-Ross method of negotiating the de-militarized landscape and its various forms of capture and conscription. The question is whether or not we will have the wear-with-all to work through the implications of Strong’s pictures — to confront the five stages of mourning that are so intimately tied to a military-industrial-complex driven by means rather than ends. This is perhaps what is captured by the title, the Exegesis of Entropy — our common need to resist the forms of social control all around us that have gotten out of control — the endemic acceleration of perpetual catastrophe: economic, militaristic, social, geopolitical, etc. Such a project highlights the conflicted status of the contemporary moment as well as providing a critical model for understanding the power of documentary fictions
Katie Herzog: Literaturewurst
The projects of Katie Herzog are actively engaged in rethinking contemporary forms of information distribution, alternative models of archivization, the traditions of librarianship and how artistic interventions communicate both inside and outside the confines of the fine art world. Her most recent project, Literaturwurst, takes up a process of appropriation that was originally proposed by Dieter Roth, but with a contemporary twist. Unlike Roth, Herzog will be taking requests from the general public, rather than her own tastes and measures, in an effort to remake the edible book as a delicacy of absurdist aesthetics. Challenging the politics of literary representation and judico-legal inscriptions, Herzog will be soliciting title requests which she will retrieve on-line for book titles to be downloaded and repackaged for a different kind of consumption. (Submit requests at: email@example.com)
Whether her book sausages are seen as seasoned writings, food for thought or nourishment for the mind, Herzog’s works redress the functionality of copyright laws as a series of expropriative restrictions. In an age where the ‘general intellect’ has been subsumed by big capital, Herzog’s performances present us with a different set of preparations for offset printing — where outmoded economies of exchange can be transformed into new forms of artistic and textual perceptivity. As libraries are transformed into media centers and hard-bound books are displaced by e-readers, might not all texts soon become displaced subjects — or even subjects without a literal place, i.e., an ensemble of disembodied literatures? Can we think of Herzog’s works as gesturing toward a different means of imbibing literature, or honoring the text as a form of transubstantiation — or even creating a new means of embodying the performative as an instance of ingested utterance?
In counter-distinction to the last major Literaturwurst project, which was a collection of 20 volumes of Hegel’s life works rolled into a series of book sausages, Herzog’s (de)commissioned texts return us to the Benjaminian notion of the outmoded, i.e., of the general commutability of terms based on an immanently historical medium in decline. Or, perhaps her project takes up another key theme from Benjamin’s overture — the notion of a dialectics at standstill — where new regimes of knowledge distribution and design have yet to emerge from the fading light of the literary age. Or, following on the irreverent attitude of any number of modern and postmodern interventionists, (Dadaist, Actionists, Fluxists, Situationists, etc.), Herzog’s work could be seen as acknowledging the mystical moment of sovereignty which takes real knowledge to be non-knowledge, unknowingness, and even transcendence. Thinking about textual appropriation in the form of a sausage is even something of a dietetic metaphor for the machinations of dialectic digestion — a post-historical allegory about repackaging (art) history’s ruins for the anthropocentric appetite. In short, Literaturwurst gives Hegel’s movement of the Spirit a material twist, a movement from below — and even a case of theoretical indigestion, historical reflux, and a touch of aesthetic heartburn. This is the horizon of aesthetic consumption against which such projects announce themselves, not only as a moment of levity, but also as a radical engagement with the confines of the present as always already implicated in the pre-sent.
First Performance: Opening night, October 6th, 7:30pm-9:30pm.
Second Performance: Ciclavia Bicycling day, October 9th, 10am-3pm.
Third and Final Performance: Closing night, October 29th, 4pm-8pm.
You can give Katie a book title of your choosing at one of the above performances at Autonomie or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. It can be any title, and a few websites are listed below to help facilitate the process. You can also choose any title beyond those listed on these sites. There is no cost and you can retrieve your book sausages at the closing reception in October 9th between 4pm and 8pm.
Hollis Cooper: Invirtuality
The paintings and installations of Hollis Cooper are invested in the haptic and the optic construction of space in a way that privileges neither while questioning both. Her compositions act as a recursive loop that joins the digital and the painterly in a series of complex mediations between memory, found materials and innumerable acts of aesthetic transduction. Cooper’s works remind us that ‘the virtual’ is not just a hypothetical construction, but that we encounter the production of virtuality all around us as a series of visual tropes, cultural memes and rhetorical devices. Much like her immersive environments we find ourselves encircled by the digital aesthetics of cinematic seductions, scripted spaces and technologized environs — or what many theorists now refer to as a culture of remediation. By folding different digitized spaces together — spaces from internet chat rooms, videogame backgrounds and various forms of theoretical architecture — Cooper’s work engages in a kind of radical geometricism that points to the instability of ‘the virtual’ as a well defined local. In fact, her painterly installations insist upon a type of shifting presence that is determined by the interplay of the viewing situation as well as the orchestration of technological motifs, nexus effects and (de)constructed systems of representation.
One could even say that Cooper’s hyperbolic vivisections of architectural and computational space show us how the virtual is commiserate with Deleuze’s interpretation of the term —where the virtual is conceived of a series of potentials within the real that are irreducible to the structures that condition their appearance. Rather, Deleuze provided us with a vision of the virtual as a paradigm of compossibilities that unfurl and unfold all around us in anti-systematic, anti-linear and anti-teleological ways. Such a notion of mixed topologies; of visual events taken as so many forking paths; and of the type of dynamicism that issues from the (neo)baroque theatrics found in Cooper’s imagery could all be thought of as allegorical effect of the anti-Cartesian urge — or even as a model of Deleuze’s devout anti-Platonism. In many ways Cooper’s artistic practice could be characterized as a type of cartographic cataloging that takes emergent properties and proliferating mutations as its given subject.
In her most recent works however, even these pictorial anomalies find themselves displaced by so many generative derivations — giving rise to a spectrographic language that can only be described as Baroqucoco — or as embodying a hybrid disposition toward the use of different motifs and the logic of embellishment. Cooper’s newly extended vocabulary is not so much about the artificiality of architectural systems as it is about capturing the texture and trace of vituality in all of its various incarnations. Such a cacophony of visual paradoxes makes us question how we think about the structuration of space while the phenomenal complexity of her works asks us to activate our perception of the living present in order to map its constructed measures as naturalized artifacts. This is perhaps, what it means to be in-virtuality, or within an aesthetic experience that subtracts from the known what we think we have always already known before.
Bio: Born in 1976 in Jackson, Mississippi, Hollis Cooper grew up in New Orleans and Houston before moving to New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and finally California. She received her undergraduate degree with high honors from Princeton University, a Post-Baccalaureate certificate from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and an M.F.A. from Claremont Graduate University. In 2006, she was nominated for a Joan Mitchell Foundation MFA Grant Award by the CGU Art Department, and in 2007 was selected for the Drawing Center's Viewing Program in NYC. Her work has been featured/reviewed in publications such as New American Paintings, Art Papers, and Alarm Magazine, and has been included in shows in galleries and museums throughout the United States.
Nina T. Becker / April Friges: Erasing Traces
Nina T. Becker
Becker’s art practice often revolves around the themes of absence, mourning, trauma and the irreducible quality of time. In her most recent series of photographic works she introduces us not only to the trappings of the cinematic mode of production but also to the apparatus of capture associated with economimesis (the aesthetic presuppositions of political economy). Both enigmatic and formless, the rooms depicted in this suite of images are known as ‘psyches’ or ‘coves’. Spread throughout the Hollywood infrastructure, these types of places are regularly reconfigured to accommodate simulated fantasies and special effects props. The illegibility of their local, their uncanny position as non-descript places and the evacuation of Cartesian coordinates works to undermine any sense of temporal and spatial specificity. Instead, such images confront us with the traumatic real of remediated culture, i.e., with the non-place of pure vituality that acts as a substrate for the projection of commercial desires. In this stark and surreal presentation of the repressed order of production we find that the obscene core of remediated culture is also a real place; that it can be visited; that it has a texture and location — but that it is still a place without a proper name. And yet, Becker’s photographs provide us a fleeting glimpse of an 'open space’ that highlights the difference between systems of symbolic meaning that circulate within the domain of white-cube-like production. That is the nature of their strategic intervention into the space(s) of the cultural imaginary as well as their enduring contribution to how we understand the contemporary moment.
Friges’s photographic practice is everywhere informed by different economies of experience: economies of habitation, of liquidation, of transference and of transformation. Her previous series have focused on creating documents of suburban compression rather than urban sprawl, of calling forth factory memories rather than factory production, and of situating homes in transit rather than homesteads in foreclosure. In each of these projects, as well as her newest series of works, Friges’s engages with the ethic of what remains, i.e., with the specificity of architectural forms and how they are informed by so many points of social interlocution. However, in her most recent body of work she also gives us a portrait of structuralist photography turned on its head — not so much documents of a style in time but of architectural motifs that are out of time — expired, conscripted and repurposed structures. In such a series of photographs we are made to question not only what forms subsist beneath the willful transformation of a familiar food chain but also what persists in an economy of disposability, decay and redistribution. Functioning as a subtle cartography of the commonplace, Friges’s images allow us to investigate the temporal division of before and after through so many indices of visual and structural displacement. Through varying degrees of indexical similitude we can locate a subject that is almost indiscernible at first glance — visible only through a few architectural ticks, instances of mixed or remodeled signage and the discrete attenuation of franchised building caught up in a process of erasure. That the structuralist idiom has to be rethought in an economy of accelerated consumption seems obvious, but that post-structuralist stratagems could be posited alongside socio-economic concerns, historical concerns, infrastructural concerns and even the process of enculturation — that is a decided challenge to the carrying capacity of the image. Friges’s photographs certainly serve as the high watermark of such an enterprise.
Alison Rash / Chris Trueman: The Suspended Literal
Alison Rash's paintings and drawings juxtapose radically different motifs from the history of abstract art such as geometric patterns and gestural marks, formless illegibility and opaque inscriptions, linear elements and dynamic negative shapes. Psychological intuitions, systemicity and the meaning imbued in everyday objects serve as a jumping off point for her recombant compositions. Rash's open sensibility, both playful and rigorous, reminds us that genre based discourses like craft, geometricism and action painting are not necessarily mutually exclusive endeavors. Her specific form of abstract pictorialism negotiates an in-between space of webbed meanings and networked sources that not only demands time and contemplative reflection but also resists commodifying style at the cost of substance. The composed conviviality of her most recent body of work challenges us to rethink the presuppositions of automatic writing as an archetypal methodology - releasing us from defining the aesthetic unconscious in retrograde terms.
Alison Rash holds an MFA in Studio Art from Claremont Graduate University, an MA in Education from Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology and a BA in Art from Pepperdine University. Her work was recently shown in Los Angeles, Tokyo and Milan. She was awarded the Walker/Parker Memorial Fellowship and Claremont Graduate University Fellowship and was a Dedalus Foundation Nominee. Rash lives and works in Los Angeles.
The works of Chris Trueman collide motifs from the history of abstract art with more contemporary forms of mark making. As a vivisection of gestural, architectonic and graphic elements Trueman's visual mash-up's present us with the irreducible feeling of serendipity and deja vu. The visual paradoxes in his work often consist of pushing deep space forward, adding a palpable sense of dimensionality to gestural marks and making accidents appear planned. These types of dialectic contradictions are informed by the presuppositions of modern and postmodern art while courting a type of hyper-self reflexivity that exceeds the conditions of twentieth century abstraction. We see this evidenced in Trueman's newest body of work which mixes the look of stencils, sprayed techniques and taped off passages with a reversible sense of figure/ground relations and somber color harmonies. Trueman has described this recent transformation in his work as issuing from the use of "equilibrium canceling diagonals", "slippery images" and "provisional" stratagems.
Chris Trueman graduated with an MFA from Claremont Graduate University in 2010. Recently his work was included in the exhibitions: "Speculative Materialism" at D-block Projects in Long Beach and "About Paint" at Carl Berg projects in LA. Trueman has also shown his work extensively in exhibitions at venues in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and Milan, Italy. While at CGU he was the recipient of the Ann Peppers Foundation Fellowship, a Claremont Graduate University Merit Fellowship Recipient and received the faculty recommended Dedalus Foundation Fellowship Nomination. Trueman’s work was included in the 2010 New American Paintings MFA edition (87).
Ashley Landrum / Nano Rubio: The Levity of Translation
Landrum's practice as a sculptor relies on mirroring and moire effects that activate perception through shifting layers of allegorical information. Her sculptures are often constructed using metallic scaffolding, painterly substrates, fabricated surfaces or any number of welded materials. These items might be super-added to shimmering fabrics, delicate textures and taught systems of suspension that invite a type of looking that is simultaneously pleasurable and restricted - or even pleasurable in its restrictions. Moving between the discourses that surround transversal painterly spaces and deconstructed sculptural affects, Landrum's work offers us a contained interaction that isn't overtly about its status as-such. Instead, her pieces play with a mixed genealogy of historical and contemporary precedents that challenge the ways in which we consider the sculptural object, its phenomenological precepts and its epistemological comport. The fluctuating boundaries of Landrum's works evidence a rare instance of complexity that exceeds the common conditions of historical measure and dialogic interlocution - a sure mark of their purchase in the present.
Rubio's abstract paintings unfold a logic of performative designs and gestural actions that display an incongruent topology of time-based inscriptions. Often reading as different lines of code - linear, scrapped, squeegeed and imposted - his works operate as a virtual catalog of conflicted cartographies. Playing with stark oppositions between light and dark space, rich and muted color, and theatrical figure/ground relations, Rubio's aesthetic program courts a distinctive neobaroque sensibility centered around issues of translation and transference. By working with an expanded vocabulary of non-traditional tools Rubio's images produce forms of misidentification that renew the radicality of process-based work through fracture and virtuosity. Such paintings represent a profound mediation on the dialect relation of self and systemicity, affect and dictation, performance and interruption. In such an inquiry, every form of visual refrain marks a new relation to systems of information display that extend from the programs of seventeenth century painting to the digital worlds of today.
Absent Work: New Pieces by Stephen WaltersOpening: Dec 4th, 2010. 5-7pm.Commonspace, 2226 Whittier blvd., Los Angeles, Ca, 90023.Press Release:The paintings of Stephen Walters can be situated somewhere between the work of Daniel Buren and the notion of painting as sign, and the performative practices of Yves Klein and the idea of painting as trace or residue. However, Walter's unique contribution to the discourse of contemporary art has been to marry the effects of naturally occurring phenomena with abstract painting in a way that expands the trajectory of process-based art. A brief summary of his influences would have to include the formal strategies of the Surface and Support group, the rigorous conceptualism of Richard Jackson and the illusionistic inventiveness of contemporary painters like Tauba Auerbach and Ryan Sullivan. The work of these artists and others like them opened the horizon for Walter's to negotiate a space between systemicity and entropy that challenges us to rethink what it means to make a picture about the 'natural' world. His most recent series of paintings, attended by the addition of an obstructive mid-century block wall sculpture, might even be called sun-prints or nature-screens of a sort.Stephen Walters: Desert Prophet in an Age of Deserted Profits
It is remarkable that the English word desert, which denotes a place, also bares no linguistic difference from its verb tense which means to desert or to leave. It is a word that simultaneous signifies both being and non-being, place and placelessness. In this regard it is unlike the word prophet who’s audible twin refers to that other great metaphysical activity of our times, the divination of profit. The recent works of Stephen Walters can bee seen as taking something from each of these terms as well as their doubles.His recent abstract paintings, which are based on allowing the natural processes of the desert to slowly transform cotton duck canvases, allow Walters to act as something of a vanishing mediator. While coming well after the heyday of ‘end game’ polemics in painting Walter’s work still seems to function as an extreme example of the postmodern obsession with the death of originality and autonomy. But as Roland Barthes noted long ago, the death of the author is also the birth of the reader – and if this is indeed the case, how are we to interpret Walters use of faded grids and folded forms? -As an anti-metaphysical outlook on the passing importance of the grid in control societies (contra Peter Halley)? –Or as a memento mori of abstraction’s heroic and essentialist past (contra Mondrian and Malevich)? -Or is this well-trodden discourse of the end of painting merely a jumping off point for an eco-friendly (post-) postmodern perspective based on an increasing awareness of the passing of time, of natural processes and of our implied impact on the world around us. Certainly the dialectic of forces at play in Walter’s desert paintings consists of suturing these elements together without providing any easy resolution. In fact, it would seem as if his paintings are able to slip in and out of these paradigmatic prisms while working hard to inhabit a new set of contradictions.Walter’s high contrast silkscreens of photographed statements scrawled on the rock formations not far from his Joshua Tree studio seem to function in a number of similar registers. If the marked sayings inscribed on these barren places have come to mean anything important to us today, it is as an index of the anti-cosmopolitan urge to be timely; to be all too contemporary; to be “with it.” What was written or graffitied on these large stones and rocky formations was meant to last for some time – it was written as a contemplative text, as a journey text, as desert prophecy – and as such it is a kind of writing that hopes to have a longer life span than the spasmatic tweets of our cacophonic twitter-minded culture. So what are we to think of Walter’s stark sepia toned pictures which make the captured texts feel detached from nature’s stilted surfaces, almost creating a virtual or transcendent space that seems to defy perspectival laws? Is it that in relocating these works/words to the city that the language of the desert begins to act as a screen between the viewer and the cosmopolitan values associated with urbanization? Is it the concrete image of a type of discourse which isn’t meant for the fast rotation of exhibition scheduling and the profit driven cycle of commerce? – or is it a blunt cry against the machinations of hyperbolic capital? I think it’s safe to say that Walter’s work attempts to court some, if not all of these issues, through the idiom of structuralist photography placed in the service of locating a type of language that stands in for the big other of commercialism.As for his sculpture of walled-up bricks taken from the period of California modernism located between Wright and Eichler, (those other two great prophets of the desert), how are we to interpret its arrangement and position amidst these other works? Does its singular presence provide a window onto the meaning behind the other elements in the show or is it simply another model of mid-century modernism in ruin? – Or is it trying to get at something else altogether? These concrete blocks, stacked precariously one on top of the other, originally functioned as decorative elements rather than structural supports in as much as they are not solid cinder blocks through and through. Their rectangular outside is culled into an organic interior shape often used for garden brickwork or as a supplement to walkways. But by being stacked up on their sides we are left to wonder whether or not it is a monument to aging design or the fragility of our own notions of good taste and style. While Walters varied works actively interrogate the presuppositions of twentieth century art in a way that is rewarding and sometimes overtly intellectual, one would be wrong to assume that they give up all their meaning in that register alone. These desert works, or deserted works as the case may be, are evidence of an everyday shaman who specializes in understanding appearances - who transforms the mundane into the otherworldly - and in seeking a new turn of mind also introduces us to the incomprehensibility of mystical experience.
Bathing in the Divine Afterglow of Postmodernism: The Paintings of Sarah Cromarty
Everything in Sarah Cromarty’s works speaks about the paradoxes of a language divided against itself. In the current landscape of theory her paintings bring to mind a term coined by Zygmunt Bauman, the Liquid Modern condition.[i]It’s not that I am proposing that Cromarty’s works are trying to reclaim something of modernism or inadvertently replicating the logic of global commerce, it’s that they comment on these phenomena by providing a strategy of intervention that disrupts both modern and postmodern models of sampling with a new integral relation between disparate elements and past forms. Her meticulous collage-like strategy of riffing off found imagery with the addition of painterly embellishments stands at a curious divide between self-conscious irony and whole-hearted sincerity without courting a faux criticality that would simply highlight the bifurcations between images, textures and motifs.
Instead, her work issues from elements intimately tied to the collective unconscious of contemporary western culture(s) and the vernacular of Americana in particular. The fermentation of her pictures relies on beginning with reproductions of imagery as disparate as idyllic vacation scenery, irksome isolated cabins, mysterious caverns brimming with spelunkers and ominously deserted beaches. Then, through a process of selective editing, reconstruction and painterly improvisation these spaces are transformed into pictures of a waking dream-life that has more in common with writings of Thomas Pynchon than Marcel Proust. Both the means and the methodology employed in this process result in pictures that are unbound from their source material in unexpected and surprising ways, creating neither an afterlife for painting nor an undead painting but something definitively other, an alter-modern pictorial practice of sorts.
In her overture the feeling of the uncanny is elicited through encounters with wild life, the open desert and troubled Turneresque sunsets which always seem to carry the feeling of coming before or after a disturbance that remains concealed or just out view. This strange mix of themes, equal parts melancholia, romanticism and carnival, makes it impossible to attribute a proper name to such pictures. There are deviant processes at work across Cromarty’s dynamic surfaces; subtractions, edits, scraps and porous additions of every kind —all of which fall well beyond the historical techniques of academic painting, and even outside the purview of a readily identifiable idiom such as Expressionism, Symbolism, Fauvism, or Post-impressionism —even though something of each of these schools might appear in her pictures at any given time. If this wasn’t already quite a feat in and of itself, Cromarty’s unique vocabulary of working methods manages to pull together a vast array of different approaches to painting that challenges how we think of reappropriated material to the degree that she has dropped the cold self-reflexivity of postmodernism for the warm embrace of subtly manipulated materiality mixed with the ambience provided by proto-manufactured pictorialism, i.e., kitsch imagery. And yet the most striking quality of Cromarty’s works is that they always surpass their source material by eliciting something of the divine and exotic, delving into the irreality of a glorious night sky, a mythical encounter, a shaman-like symbol or an enchanted waterfall set off against the spectacular colors of a secluded rain forest. More than any other element it is this haunting quality that imbues Cromarty’s pictures with something especially distinctive, a singular quality that sets her work apart from much contemporary painting.
But what are we to make of such allusions? Are they simply an attempt to indulge in escapism; an obvious play of images designed to tug at our heartstrings and our hidden sympathies; or a lost rhetoric of bourgeois fancy? A second look at her selective interventions reminds us that Cromarty navigates these spaces with a deft hand and that what appears easy has only been made to look so at the expense of many learned years of painting practice. Cromarty’s pictures ask some tough questions of their viewers —what are your fantasies? Your places of rest and joy? And do such spaces even still exist in our commodified world of prepackaged leisure experiences? Most importantly however, Cromarty’s pictures beg the question as to whether contemporary culture now sits at the end of postmodernism or at the beginning of something else. Undoubtedly, the images she traffics in provide no easy answer, andanswers are not what Cromarty is seeking anyway, these are all journey pictures, process pictures, or problematized pictures of one sort or another. And while the rich painterly qualities of modernism and the rhetoric of postmodern sampling both remain active in the construction of Cromarty’s image world, it is their unforeseen fusion that provides a model for something new, like the doubled sign of perfected mimicry matched with a theatrical sensibility that leaves all the seams turned outward. Here, there is no good name for what such works make one think and feel, rather, they reveal that the fate of painting in the twenty-first century is much more open than previous generations of artists would likely admit. Painters like Cromarty create works that are challenging enough to remind us that we have moved well beyond the need for such reductive modernist mantras as ‘medium specificity’ and the hip ethic of chic citationalism that defined the postmodern era. Painting that avoids such polemics is bound to produce a new audience, ultimately opening up a broader horizon of possibilities for image-makers everywhere, and surely Sarah Cromarty’s work is already well on the way to making a significant contribution toward such an endeavor. The strength of her pictures consists in her ability to reconstruct a retro-futuristic fable from the ruins of western culture that collides the complex iconography of the past with the conflicted status of the present in a way that these simple words struggle to convey, but even in their wake I feel all the better for having given it a fair attempt.
[i]Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Massachusetts, Polity Press, 2000). Cromarty’s themes seem to mirror many of the observations Bauman has made in recent books such as Liquid Love, Liquid Fearand Liquid Life. The selective nature of her mashed-up images evokes the instability and crisis of historical understanding; of catastrophic disaster; and of displaced populations and forgotten individuals. If there is another book that circumscribes the philosophic nature of Cromarty’s pictures it would have to be Norman Klein’s The History of Forgettinginasmuch as her work might be thought of as a kind of meditation that resembles traveling through one of Klein’s tours of places and things that no longer exist —“non-places” that call up the conflicted space of cultural memory and the politics of preservation.
X-PULSION: PAINTING AS PROXY ACT AND ACTION
Artists in the Show: Michael Diaz, Chris Kuhn, Caroline Hubbell, Ryan Eckert, Megan Johnson, Thomas Knight, Larry Madrigal, Brandi Read, Chloe Torri, Mary Williams, Lester Monzon, Rema Ghuloum, Maysha Mohamedi, Laurie Nye, and Jacob Melchi.
One can be expelled for plagiarism, for breaking rules, for unusual behavior and for nearly anything that the reigning authorities find contemptible. In the art world this could be critics, institutions, or the general public. Even painting itself became an object of contempt during the 60s and 70s when it was largely declared to be a "dead" medium. Its most recent rap on the knuckles came in the wake of zombie formalism, when the artworld decided that a certain kind of made-to-order, or made-too-easily formalism, came to prominence in the marketplace almost overnight due to the precarious practice of "art-flipping" --- something that was a highly speculative practice at best. This school of "drop-cloth" abstraction was quickly expelled from any place of enduring relevance in what was the largest quantifiable loss of auction house value in the early 21st century. It constituted nothing short of a radical expulsion of value, form, and gesture taken for content.
Nevertheless, painting has continued on in different states, re-inventing itself with each new decade, usually under the guise of so many “returns”, be it under the moniker of "a return to figuration", "a return of the real", "a return of beauty", etc. Or, sometimes painting sneaks into the limelight through the auspicious use of neo’s, such as neo-expressionism, neo-geo, etc. But what continues to define painting beyond these various programs and strategies is the many different ways that it can be both an object by proxy, creating other realities into which the imagination can venture, or that it surfaces can rely on creating an impact on the viewer through acts or actions, essentially relying on paintings tactile and affective qualities in order to elicit a response. It goes without saying that much of the best painting today and historically, is often some amalgam of these two approaches.
Nevertheless, it is between these two poles that the debate about painting --- both figurative and abstract --- has continued on for more than a century, with one side favoring the optical qualities of the medium while other side has placed a decided emphasis on painting's potential to act on our sense as a haptic experience. For most of the 20th century, being in one camp or the other could result in being expelled from the reigning zeitgeist. The figures that worked in the inbetween spaces however, like Phillip Guston, Joan Brown and Lydia Benglis, all ran the risk of having their career run out of town by the critics, or simply exiled from relevance. It's no exaggeration to saw that, at times, they lived under the constant threat of expulsion.
Eventually this ethos broke however, and painting was expelled from the dictates of "high modernism" and the equally critical era of "high theory" that punctuated the end of postmodernism. Painting today continues to flourish by way of its alliance to a kind of permanent disobedience. In fact, a short list of expulsions is the only thing that gives us a sense of the space of paintings changing commitments: first, painting was expelled from "standard formats" at the end of modernism; than it was thrown out from "the wall" during much of postmodernism, often spilling out onto the flooring pushing up against institutional confines; with the passing of time, painting even ventured further away from purely painterly qualities vis-a-via the many sculptural propositions that were incorporated into painting practices during late postmodernism; and finally, painting was expelled from the strict confines of "medium specificity" to freely mix with other genres, and so painting began to venture out into the world at large through site specific projects, hyper-textual references, and cross-disciplinary practices during the era of high pluralism. This is the short history of paintings violations, infractions, and revolutions, all of which have no implicit teleology save a vast and growing diversity of memes and themes.
As a result of this short genealogy of painting in the expanded field, we can say that painting takes its place in the world as an object of emblematic identifications unknown. It is that sublime endeavor which stopped serving the academy so long ago that it barley knows how to identify with authority, despite what many critics might have you believe. Painting no longer courts the term “high art” anymore than its competing genres, and it is rarely accompanied by manifesto’s, the establishment of new ism’s, or even a foundational sense of the supposed limits of the medium. If anything, painting is now a thoroughly delimited object of inquiry.
Another way of saying the same thing is that painting has finally been thrown out of the artworld so many times, that its status might best be described as a series of repeated “expulsions” from different critical frameworks and epistemes, and it might be that this rather vexed state of affairs is actually what gives painting an enduring purchase in the present. Thus, the works on display in Expulsion: Painting as Proxy Act and Action are not visual expositions in any traditional sense, but rather, they play with the notion of an "aesthetic of explusion" that might best be defined as what circumscribes the ever expanding world of sense-making after the great debate over "proper" painterly sensibilities and proxy acts for painting that constituted paintings many misadventures in 19th and 20th centuries.
Artists in the show: Hannah Irene Walsh, Paige A. Turncliff, Lisa Von Hoffner, Rachel Goodwin, Mario Munguia Jr., Madison Pennisi, Daniel Funkhouser, Mary Williams and more artists TBA.
It seems as if there has always has been a belief in two worlds, that of the seen and the unseen, of the visible and the invisible, of the known and of the occult. But contrary to the subversive overtones that are used to conceal worlds of experience beyond that of everyday consciousness, occultation simple means “hidden”. It is not, by necessity, a nefarious or otherwise dubious connotation to say that something is simply concealed. Quite the opposite in fact. For those artistic initiates and creative seekers who want to go into realms heretofore unexplored, the term occult alludes to any process that allows something which was previously obscured to be brought out into the light of understanding, or of re-evalation posited as revelation. In this way, occultation is very close to what the esoteric writings of Martin Heidegger called the ontological-primordial play of concealing and revealing, or of bringing something "into the light" in two distinct senses, i.e., of things revealed in both the outer and inner worlds of experience.
The notions of cosmology and cosmogyny are intertwined in a twofold conundrum of ontic and ontological experience as well. Afterall, many of the great occult traditions share a singular notion about the "Ontos", which is that of “the sacred marriage”, or of having traits of both the male and the female in oneself as the ground of being prior to any division, be it biological, cultural, etc. Sometimes this “sacred marriage” is called the “transmutation of the elements” in alchemy, the going-under of “dark night of the soul” in psychology, the discovery of “the philosopher's stone” in philosophy, and so many other names throughout the world's many esotic traditions. Cosmology and cosmogyny might also be viewed as one such dichotomy, placed somewhere between representing the "generative" and "gestational" principalities that are always already married within all creative acts. Afterall, both of these "genus" conditions are still being theorized today in relations to all of existence, without either term holding any sense of primacy.
In other words, the fusion of opposites which is often characterized as the "supreme occulted truth", or really as an occulted axiom that aims to overcome the originary division of forms, is itself, something that is paraded around as the highest grade of the mason, the guru, the magnus, and the master who has "attained" the deepest non-dual insights. But today, science too is after the truth of what brought the universe into being before dualism. By contrast with the ritual and material practices associated with the occult arts, we can say that all outward, exteriorized, or reified dogmatic truths focus on the opposite goal, i.e., that of heightening the antagonism of identifications associated with good and evil, light and dark, and difference as-such. This is what caused both Nietzsche and Crowley to condemn modern reigion as the birthplace of "herd morality", "reactive consciousness" and the inversion of life affirming values.
But where is this most obviously on display in our culture today? Sadly, it is in the larger than life mythos created by misogyny, for which Cosmogyny could offer a much needed corrective. Even our modern religions still seem to miss these rather obvious exclusions and hierarchies in having created a series of godheads who are often absent any female counterpart, be it Yaweh, Allah, Buddha, etc., and by proxy, they also lack any gestative element in their allegories of creation. This makes them all-or-nothing religions, or "all-is-One" systems of belief without any remainder, suppliment, etc. The ancients however, rarely made this same mistake. They tried to keep extreme misogyny somewhat separate from cosmology. In fact, in many of the pre-modern traditions the gods tended to be many, plural, and even diverse in their interests within the same cosmologcial constallation.
The uncanny parallel here with the rise of modern art and modern monotheism is that both belief systems became essentialist, acting in a neo-fudamentalist manner by eliminating everything but “the truth to materials” and the “truth of the text”; the rhetoric of “purity” and the rhetorical devices of conversion; the teleological drive toward flatness and the flattening out of all the gods into the one “Father who art in heaven...". Of course, Freud had already noted this tendency in his book Moses and Monotheism, which is to say that creative story-telling has underwrit the whole of modern culture... religion included. Consequently, the notion of Cosmogyny as a progessive outlook is premised on upsetting forms of absolutism and in rethinking the supposed place of the “Father who art in heaven..." with "the Father who Art...", a rather malignant cultural meme based on self-sufficiency in being a vision unto-himself, for-himself, and by-himself for all eternity. In other words, monotheism is both a postulated absudity and a logical paradox: the creation ex-nihlo of an ultimate subject who appears from nowhere but govens all.
Here it is important to mention that the artists involved in Cosmogyny do not represent the first serious attempt to point out these aesthetico-ethico-religious contradictions. Rather, their work is informed by an important tradition of sacrilegious contestation that is intimately wed to aesthetic contemplation. Afterall, this twofold tendency of modernism and monotheism to be exclusionary, elitist and thoroughly fundamantalist is not something that was lost on the many modern artists who recognized that the will toward strict absolutism, cut off from embracing the full spectrum of human experience, is itself the real tragedy of the modern age. It forms the chasm of a symbolic deficeit we are still trying to cross today, with great gains and loses all around us.
First evdienced through the vast influence of theosophy on everyone from Mondrian to Kandinsky; the “spiritualist” obsessions of the Surrealists; the new age visions of Hilma of Klint and Malevich; the darker intimations of artists like Felicien Rops and Austin Osman Spare; and even Josephin Peladan’s Salons of the de la Rose + Croix; all of this circumscribes the origins of the avant-garde not as an advancing perspective, or an obsession with “the new”, but rather, as reclaiming and integrating the past, including the influence of wholly anti-modern tendencies. In other words, art also had the "sacred marriage" that is germane to creative acts hidden, occulted, or masked during the rise of modernism. Because of this, there is and continues to be two modernisms --- a concealed modernism and a revealed one --- or rather, a modernism about advancing "visionaries" and a modernism that is about the play of revealing beyond what the eyes have to offer vision.
In our contmeporary moment however, Cosmogyny picks up where these modern traditions left off, bringing radical aesthetic practices into the 21st century through the use of alters, pin-ups, puppets, paintings, plays, appropriations, and projections both real and imaginary. One can see the work in Cosmogyny both as response to our current religious and political pressures as well as an occulted conflict between our illusions of morality and identity. Adopting certian postmodern strategies like parody and pastiche, we can say that a heightened sense of self-awareness informs much of the work in the show, and that humor is often used as a tool of disarmerment in rethinking the ontic-ontological divide of representation.
But where Cosmogyny exceeds and even challenges these postmodern prescendents is in its effort to reclaim the battelground of desire. One could even say that it is romance that forms the crux of the collective project that is Cosmogyny, and which substantiates its varied pictorial cosmologies. The desire for the other, "the Other", the One, Ontos... all of this is stood on its head by the work in Cosmogyny. Instead, dualism, division, and the duplicitious are all made to pay dividens throughout the aesthetico-politico stagings of Cosmogyny as a newly minted vision of Dante's Divine Comedy, albiet, in the form of childern's theater, a detourned video lounge, cheeky characterizations of the art press and much more. It is an exhibition of amor, of the artist's loves, and of endless consumation against the prejudices of consecration.
So please Join us for a night where the theater of existence will be dramatized on the one evening where all of culture takes part in the play of inverted symbolism, inerrant archetypes and irreverent masquerades. Help us celebrate Halloween, that other word which also carries an occulted meaning hidden within it's etymology --- where the supposed “hollowness” of the parade of carnivalesque figurations --- is actually donned in order to let the inner deamon of us all out to play in the world for a bit. Like all forms of festival wherein the unspoken aim is nothing less than letting the Jungian shadow-self mingle with our everyday personas, so too, the opening night of Cosmogyny invites the transmutation of all forms, both the sacred and the profane, the beautiful and abject, high art and mass culture.
The Fate of Landscape Painting
Artists in the show: Laura Spalding Best, Cam DeCaussin, Camila Galofre, Sarah Hathaway, Travis Ivey, Megan Johnson, Virginia Katz, Jonathan Marquis, Abbey Messmer, Emily Ritter, and Devon Tsuno.
Landscape painting has always been tied to the question of fate. The pastoral landscape was comforting, conquered and subdued, signaling that the fate of humanity was in a position superior to that of nature, or ultimately, that is was closer to being in a pictorial dialogue that reflected the benign hand of a benevolent godhead. In contrast with this explicitly religious outlook, the experience of standing atop sublime vistas or facing nature's most extreme forces eschewed perspectives that threatened the safety of the human subject, and were often depicted using pictorial motifs associated with trans versing unimaginable distances. It is no coincidence that this interpretation of the landscape rose to prominence at the birth of the Enlighten, when humankind traded the picture of creation with a caretaker for so many images of paradise lost. Of course, these were strictly pre-modern notions of our fated condition of confronting the landscape, largely because it was taken for granted that there was no other means of natural habitation, save that of struggle. In fact, there was no way around the landscape as a fated relationship of tumult and toil until the invention of trains, planes and automobiles. As a consequence of these modes of transportation, along with widespread industrialization, the genre of landscape painting lost its perceived relevance as our relationship to the environment became one that was defined by greater and greater degrees of distantiation over the course of the last century.
After being exiled from relevance for more than a few generations, landscape painting has made a rather triumphant comeback by embracing the themes of earth-art, land-art and eco-art, but transmuting the central concerns of these genres into pictorial dispositifs. Once again, we are trying to picture the landscape, but not as caretakers or conquers. Instead we are confronted by the landscape in its aggregate and interconnected effects. Which is to say, that what was assumed to be inert matter has now become increasingly active and what was thought of as a bounded material has become a dynamic form of earthen animism. In short, it seems that since we've displaced enough of modernism's by-products into the atmosphere and the ground below, planetary life has now entered into a reactionary phase, or even a classic reaction-formation, with regard to the irrevocable inheritance of the modern era.
Or, to go one step further, one might even say that we now live in the period of Gaia-in-revolt or even planetary anti-modernity if you will. Indeed, we might only be experiencing the first rumblings of the consequences that have come about by way of ignoring our interventions and accelerating investments into the literal and figurative idea of the landscape. Modernism was, afterall, defined by thinking about the concrete reality of materials put in service of a set of increasingly abstract pictorial conventions, which is to say, it abandoned the means to think about the x an y axis of representation with any degree of genuine complexity. Flatness and anti-illusionism became the call of the day, and postmodernism was only just beginning to recover the depth of field we once had, or a farsightedness which, when abandoned, also represented the loss of depth associated with our cultural concerns about the landscape. And so, in the early 21st century, we still find ourselves waking up from a kind of cultural slumber with regard to the problematic of creative-destruction and cognitive dissonance that defined the modern era tout court.
But the artists in The Fate of Landscape Painting bring a renewed look at the landscape without any sense of productive or painterly indifference. The work of Travis Ivey plays with the dichotomy of romantic naturalism and constructed aerial views by assembling pictures from discarded commercial goods as well as traditional materials. Camila Galfore gives us a picture of the landscape painted in ghosted contours, combining the orthographic feel of eastern landscape painting with the techno-vibrancy of our contaminated life-world. Devon Tsuno provides the punctum of picturing the landscape by passing it through saturated chromatic scales cast against so many iconic motifs. Abbey Messmer paints with a method that is part dreamscape, part improvised reconstruction --- where the place of the human subject is put in question --- especially with regard to the feeling of a well-defined Cartesian space. Cam Decassin's paintings are perhaps even more telling in this regard, as they often hint at a post-Hopperesque world, one where what's left of the nuclear family is otherwise occupied indoors, or wondering amongst the constructed naturalism of suburban sprawl. Sarah Hathaway's more expressionistic approach gives us pause to reflect on the last vestiges of a world without us, where affect and effect make up the boundless play of beautiful and conflictual forces. Both Virginia Katz and Jonathan Marquis's works explicitly confront the themes of climate change by marshaling the ability of art materials to highlight how environmental conquest is circumscribed by both entropic and accelerationist tendencies. Emily Ritter's installation points to how the problems of accumulation, degradation and debris can be made into a literary corpus, or a exquisite encyclopedia of the ruins of the day based on using rhetorical devices of display.
Together, these artists address The Fate of Landscape Painting in a different manner than their premodern or modern predecessors. They come not to bury the dead presuppositions of modernism but to exhume its exhausted remains, and possibly, to retrieve the potential of a genre cast aside for almost an entire epoch. They come to resuscitate its lost potential, and to make its fate into something more than what the logic of post-industrial capitalism and planned obsolescence might allow. In fact, in their able hands The Fate of Landscape Painting has a brighter future for foregoing the retrogressive tropes of démodé romanticism and instead, facing up to the demands of the day, or what many now call encountering the catastrophic condition that is comprised of living in the age of the anthroposcene. This term, which denotes an era forever marked by human impact on the carbon record gives us the contours of a new turn in the logic of the epoch, where the appreciation of creation and the abandonment of "mankind" have been replaced by examining the consequences of our collective impact today. Thus, the work in The Fate of Landscape Painting is a harbinger of things to come, and questions the viewer to think deeply again, and not just about the value of an image, or a genre, but the values of western culture in total. And because of this, The Fate of Landscape Painting still has a bright future today, tomorrow, and for many many years to come. It seems, that for this generation, it is even fated to be so.
Emily Ritter: Habitual Consumption
Emily Ritter's work is performative, accumulative, and subversive for engaging in a politics of anesthetization around what many people would consider to be an act or actions that are habitually associated with the greatest degree of disinterested feelings, i.e., the regime of disposable objects. And yet, the idea of the "disinterested gaze" is exactly what the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant considered to be most germane to the act of aesthetic contemplation. It is here that we find Ritter's work performing something quite unexpected with regard to what Jacques Ranciere has termed 'the aesthetic unconscious', or even Jameson's notion of the 'political unconscious', especially if we take them to represent the place where praxis and dissensus meet. Splitting the difference between Jameson's and Ranciere's terminology involves looking at the place where unconscious actions break with our encultured consensus trace in order to produce a new kind of critical import, one which becomes operative at the very moment that we are overloaded by cultural by-products that are perpetually produced "on-demand".
Indeed, it is here, where Ritter's earlier series, like "Wildly Captive", act in a transversal manner that crosses figurative cartoons with a kind of literal carbon footprint, or rather, a creative carbon-handprint, in the form of a culturally legible art practice that is also a means of socio-political praxis. Thus, "Wildly Captive" enacts a type of cultural commentary about anthropocentric positions in the palatable form of cartoon-like imagery, where consensus emerges from the ease of consumption associated with comic book iconography while what is depicted evokes a general feeling of disensus with regard to how we see the world around us. Ritter's next series goes a step further in adopting serial imagery for "Consumption and Cycles" that points to the many ways in which we are pressed to contemplate the repressed, not only in the form of imagining the recyclability of the self in a culture awash in product-branding, but also in the fact that it is getting harder not to see the face of our species as the poster child for a terminal mode of economic production. In this series, it could be said that humanity holds the general space of product placement and above all, we are the warning label for the environment.
In contrast to these earlier projects Ritter's more recent work places the theater of her own waste on display, allowing the series entitled "Habitual Consumption" to break the disinterested spell of consumer driven dilettantism by way of Brechtian means. In this instance the routines of daily life become the fourth wall that we all must break-through in order to change our relationship not only to the environment, but also to consider the possibility of life becoming art, or of a new arts of living... or at the very least, of how to enact the very real art of conservation and attending considerations. To put it another way, aesthetics here is a measure of our "interested" contemplation rather than our "disinterested" behaviors; it is a matter of thoughtful acts rather than careless actions, and it depends as much on the categories of aesthetic contemplation as it does consumer motivations. And all of these concerns are held out before us in a series of objects of irreconcilability, which, when taken together, are something like Ritter's collected editions of memento mori, with each new volume being about not just about the idea of death, but of the death-drive associated with living life as-if we inhabit a disable life-world.
In this way, the artist's own books of consumptive accord, or rather, the gathering together of these pages of (un)natural discord, hold our attention at the edge of what we could comfortable call the commercial gaze. As documents they have a structure that is not wholly unlike that of flip-book style animations, but what they animate is an active consideration and condensation of the very pace of consummation that goes hand-in-hand with living in the era of "all-too-late" capitalism. And yet, what they seek to address is how the consequences of capitalism getting to any "later" stage in our economy of overproduction, without coming to terms with addressing the realties of externalities may come back to haunt us on a global scale. Whether or not we can reverse what many consider to be one of the unfortunate outcomes of ends-means rationality, of endlessly fulfilling supply-and-demand, or even of continuing to encourage permanent growth as a "naturalized" dialectic of capitalist revolutions is something that will be fought over in the coming years on the terrain of both aesthetics and politics.
What might be missed in such debates however, is that the philosophy of disinterested aesthetic pleasure was birthed alongside Adam Smith's idea of the "invisible hand of the market", and that the major inward turning metaphor of both Kant and Smith is one of blindness to our acts and actions. Kant, afterall, produced a transcendental philosophy related to a blindly thinking about pictorial means-without-ends while Smith produced a blinded thinking about thinking of means-as-an-end-in-themselves, where the (un)natural by-product of self-interest is staged as the hero in a story about socio-economic development that stretches from living in the state-of-nature all the way to our present capitalist system. Of course, both of these outlooks now appear to be something like unconscious defense mechanisms against having to consider the real world outcomes of capitalist competition. Creative-destruction is not a blind man’s game, but thinking about it along the Kantian-Smithian axis has certainly proved to be a blind man’s bluff, or much more simply, it is the kind of double-blind contradiction that Ritter's work actively seeks to expose.
And it is from this perspective that her projects place us on the flipside of capitalist accumulation in the form of producing "flippant" texts of environmental expropriation. But they are not at all flippant in the sense of being a joking gesture or a coy refrain. Instead, they are objects of contemplation in as much as they try to introduce us to a wholly new sense of object relations who's antecedents of interpretation resonant more with the philosophies of Klien and Kristeva - or of the effects of the partial-object and the affects of melancholia - rather than any overarching sense of release into the realm of "purely disinterested" pleasures. Or, one could go a step further and say that Ritter's objects are a perfect rejoinder to all of the Object-Oriented philosopher's who have had a tremendous influence in the humanities in the last decade with regard to rethinking our relationship to the environment and nature writ large, alla Timothy Morton, Levi R. Bryant, Graham Harmon, et. al.
And it is from rethinking the relationship between these these contemporary perspectives on art making that Ritter's Object-Oriented books could be said to disorient our well-regulated cartographies of consumption. They do this by placing a new categorical imperative on us of the kind that Kant could not have imagined, because it is imperative to read and retrace the impetus behind our ecological impact as the outcome of so many "interested" parties. In this way, we can say that Ritter's work is an artistic practice that gives us object that functions as a type of picturing - a picture that is equal parts diary and display - and which allows the "unthought" to emerge into the field of so-called "disinterested pleasures". This is not only how Ritter's work picks up where Kant's third critique never thought to go; or how she has taken the remains of the day and turned it into a serial measure of object relations that address the leading concerns of our time; or even how Ritter has done all this through the lens of self reflexive-critique split between questioning the agency of one's own actions and the act of aesthetics becoming an agent-for-change. Rather, her project operates across all of these valences and more.
This is because the real twist in her oeuvre is that her works are a documentary trace of "casual" consumption rather than "motivated" buying; or they focus on "disposable" interests rather than consumer "pleasures". As such, Ritter’s works underscore what remains truly "unthought" in the consummation of consumption given over to us as both what allows us to buy and carry products home, as well as what lives on as the by-product of our everyday culture of convenience. In this way, her art practice acts an anthropological record of our consumer civilization, and most especially of the kind of waste that is generated at point-of-purchase sales, transit kiosks, or even just packaging in general.
As a consequence, Ritter's record of debris-via-domesticity begs its viewers not to become docile consumers of "disinterested" measure. In fact, one could say that with each new project Ritter manages not only to measure the losses and gains of Western Civilization, but to take a more interested approach to thinking about the so-called "civilizing impulse" as it applies to the cultish status attributed to impulse-buying. After all, capitalism was set up alongside the ideology of secular materialism, where being up on the latest trends or participating in the most recent "fad" is its own kind of cultural communion. Only nobody counted on how the near religious acceptance of what goes with the Eucharist of sales has yet to find any transubstantive equivalent in the modern world, save maybe, recycling. And so, the possibility of this very division between fallen base materials and redeemable, recyclable, and reusable matter might one day qualify what is considered to be defining difference between cultural by-product and culture-as-such, ultimately inverting the Kantian paradigm from what has no use value to what created endless surplus value.
Cast in this light, one could even say that Ritter's most recent series, "Infertile Obsolescence" represents the event-scene of our generation with an even greater emphasis placed on the weight of our everyday actions. Afterall, Ritter's critique is undoubtedly at its most poignant when she intertwines the idea of both planted and planned obscene, or of planned obsolescence as an idea which is perpetually implanted in us, by conflating the two in the form of a collaged aesthetic that challenges the disinterested gaze of profit and exchange absent any concern for environmental accords. Indeed, Ritter's true radicality lies in this: that her work is the kind of artistic practice that we hope to see taken up by a new generation of artists with the same seriousness and level of commitment, where rethinking everyday praxis involves picturing our acts and actions on the "world-stage", and that this might becomes a central concern not only in art, but in all forms of cultural production. If this is indeed the chasm we have to cross today, then Ritter's work is certainly showing us a way to turn the tide against the 18th century version of art as the disinterested play of the faculties, and what a greater concern might look like for what comes out of our factories. Thus, Ritter's interventionist approach has profound implications for how we think about the unconscious drives of western "development", where art can has a significant role to play in consciousness-raising about the entire chain of production beyond the product itself. Hers is a project that sketches a genuine way forward in reclaiming our collective planetary futures, a contribution to art that is itself, of no small measure.
Jonathan Marquis: Earth Eaters
The works of Jonathan Marquis stand out as having a rather singular quality about them in the arena of contemporary art today. Whether drawing is mobilized as a documentary form, or abstraction is utilized as a type of process-based realism, or even if the dynamics of installation art appear to be motivated by the naturalism of the world outside the wide cube, one could still say that the diversity of methods associated with Marquis's art practice demonstrate a kind of virtuosity that is rare in the field of cultural production. But more importantly however, is the fact that when one walks into a gallery space composed by Marquis's works, one not only gets the feeling of being in a total work of art but even of becoming part of the composition itself. And, it is usually the composition of a living work of art, often made of porous materials that serve as a composite picture, or even a type of "picturing" of analogous operations at play in the world all around us.
All of these considerations are often held in a state of tension that can be attributed to colliding a series of historical notions about how art functions in the expanded field of praxis and meaning production. There is first, the idea that in Marquis's work, we encounter something like the image of the journeyman, which is to say, evidence of a skilled craftsman in many different mediums. In this regard his work is the very best of what working in the "post-studio condition" represents today, i.e., that of being an artist who not only uses form in service of content, but who's selection of materials becomes content, rather than merely remaining part of an art practice that is defined by genre specific limits. The second sense in which Marquis is a journeyman is that the word itself carries a heavy set of connotations by being linked with terms that are as diverse as manufacture, technical know-how, and even specialization. You will see this kind of interplay exercised between mediums amongst Marquis's most challenging exhibitions, where every piece acts in service of creating deeper connections, always without any one piece stealing the show. And the third sense in which the figure of the journeyman might be said to apply to Marquis's selected motifs is in how his aesthetic inclinations place us within worlds of meaning and making that rehearse art historical themes from the last few centuries without being reducible to their original referents.
By drawing new associations out of familiar structures through so many time-based operations, Marquis's works aim to take us on a journey past the world of abstruse reifaction and toward a confrontation with the real contradictions of our contemporary life-world. That is most in evidence in Marquis's oeuvre where art often functions as record of acts and actions; of time spent and journeys made; of trace elements and material enclaves --- all of which are coordinated in a way that helps us to rethink the gallery space as a place where the conditions of history are circumscribed by varied and even conflicting notions of aesthetic experience. Touching on different times and places, Marquis's work engages with the period of the Enlightenment as he negotiates his way through working with the vistas of the sublime; from abstraction Marquis samples the best strategies for making from both the monumental and the provisional; and from video art it could be said that Marquis's working program underscores an attenuated sense of suspended passage that is defined by the split between the slowness of natural time and speed of cinematic temporality.
Beyond these particular instances of genre specificity there is the way that Marquis's use of medium specificity upends the confines that are regularly attributed to both object and producer. This is most decidedly on view in Marquis's work when he engages with the rather Kleinian desire to have an audience ingest the elements of art production, only he moves beyond the horizon of formal interactions established by Yves Klein's patented blue, which was used as an object to drink, to get dunked in, to manufacture and finally, to polemicize. Instead, Marquis's critique of consumerism hinges on the creation of a "Glacier Icecream" that carries the enfolded meaning of creating a shared space between subject and object as well as its obverse, which would be a kind of subjective utterance, or a provocation for the "i" to scream about being asked to ingest the remains of one of our most valuable natural resources.
Or, we might look to how Fontana's focus on the incisive power of the cut in the canvas --- a cut into the real and against representative measures --- appears equally inverted in Marquis's work. Whether by wounding the imagistic real in the form of discrete snippets, or floor to ceiling slashes in digital prints, or even the aggregate effects of wounded and scratched surfaces atop a material substrate, Marquis wants us to closely examine the various substratum that organize our all to often closed and seemingly complete conception of what is going on in the world today. In other words, he wants us to scratch, tear and puncture our way to the real... by any means possible. And, of course, to overlook the presence of Flavin's iconic mode of illumination, which often sits adjacent Marquis's leaned, balanced and otherwise sliding material bodies in the gallery space, would be to miss both their dynamic interplay with, and across, other bodies in the space of the exhibition as well as the intertextual play of allusions to the atmospheric changes going on outside.
And yet, what seems most essential to the way that Marquis work operates is in understanding how the discourses which once traded representational means for medium specificity in the twentieth century can be reclaimed in the twenty-first without having to abandon the varied histories associated with aesthetic achievement. That is to say, while the twentieth century saw the greatest proliferation of personal forms of expression, maybe ever, during the modern age, they were in large part a kind of collective acting-out over and against the brutal process of sublimation associated with industrial labor. Juxtaposed against this background, the twenty-first century appears to be something like a period of ablation, or an era where the melting away of our illusions about the expropriation of body, the self and the environment has finally thawed, along with the pursuit of the "the new" in art. If anything, this is our cultural sea-change and Marquis is one of the most interesting expeditionary artists trying to cover this once hidden territory as the very moment that it emerges as a new ground level paradigm.
As such, his inversion of the visual tropes of modernism and even postmodernism for that matter, both of which still hold to authorial intent or its subversions as the status quo of criticality in art production, are here put in question vis-a-vis Marquis's working program of viewing the senses as a form of extraction that is co-extensive with the very act of perception itself. Thus, we can say that to depict perceptions, or to transpose our deepest intimations about a subject is always already a shared act in Marquis's work, just as his oeuvre can be considered part of a new generation of artists that have taken up the charge of rethinking the consequences of phenomenology beyond Husserl and Ponty's deductions. This post-anthropocentric view is one that places the object's we encounter in strange exchange without perceptive privilege, or what many now call a more object-oriented approach to understanding the flat ontology of roles we all share in an interconnected world. We are all now, for lack of a better word, active-agents in a world of shared consequences.
And of course, Marquis is fully aware of these consequences in relation to living in one of the least sustainable climates in the continental U.S., where our growing cities have become "heat-islands" and our mountain preserves might not just be a national reserves of sorts but, ultimately, what preserves our nation in the end. Thus, we can say that Marquis's work addresses both the peaks and valleys of art history as well as what it means to live life in the afterglow of peak oil, with so many growing valleys left dry by erosion and rapid climate change stretching out before us. Visualizing this new notion of "the catastrophic sublime" that imagines living in a world without us is one of the monumental task of our times, and Marquis's work does not shy away from the need to rethink such relations, whether they revolve around the dialectics of earth and self, consumption and subsumption, organism and cosmos. We are afterall, now living within the horizon of a global village this is just as much about being in dialogue with the fellow villagers as it is the globe we live on. This is becoming the dominant paradigm by which we are all fed, nourished and kept alive on the small blue planet that we inhabit together somewhere in the backwaters of the Milky Way, as so many Earth Eaters.
In the past few decades there has been a lot of discussion in abstraction about the unmonumental, the provision and the ‘new casualism’ of ZoFo (Zombie Formalism). By contrast, the works included in Abstract Miniatures ask us to question how abstraction in a minor key can be more opulent, dynamic and complex than the iconic forms of high modernism. Like looking through a microscope at, Abstract Miniatures aims to see how can the smallest gestures open onto a larger set of theoretical and conceptual concerns, such that a reduction in scale is not conflated with a reduction in meaning production.
As a survey of the very best abstraction here in Arizona and California, Abstract Miniatures also acts as a snapshot of a generation of critical formalists with a diversity of interests beyond simply being invested in abstraction for the sake of abstraction. References to the history of art and culture are at play as much in the works in Abstract Miniatures as narrative devices, process based systems, re-appropriative acts and conceptual programs.
Thus while the works in Abstract Miniatures are certainly smaller in scale it does not mean that they are necessarily equated with the fragment, the piece-meal or the unfinished but rather, that a smaller painting can open onto a larger world of concerns by implication and intimations. As such, this survey is an entre into thinking about scale not as a restriction but as a way of reframing the discourse of abstraction by being hyper-attentive to the valances of preparation, perception and the intentions of artistic production.
NASTY WOMEN / NOISEY WOMEN / KNITTING WOMEN / NAKED WOMEN
Artists in the show: (Nasty Women) Ashley Czajkowski, A. J. McClenon, Kristen Schneider, Hannah Irene Walsh, Malena Barnhart, Regan Henley, Sammie Aasen, TBA, (Noisy Women) Aesthetically Sound, Althea Pergakis, Chelsea Claire, DJ [Sin]Aptik, Jessica Dzielinski, Elizabeth Parsons, Erika Lynne, Gabbie Washinton, Lana del Rabies, (Knitting Women) Audra Carlisle, Chelsea Lyles, Emily Longbrake, Molly Koehn, Shannon Ludington, Stacey Kampe, Shannon Ludington, and Chelsea Lyles, (Naked Women) Briana Noonan, Charissa Lucille, Kit Abate and Sirrena Griego.
Join us at Fine Art Complex 1101 for our contribution to the Nasty Women exhibitions happening across the nation when we host Nasty, Noisy, Knitting, Naked Women on inauguration day, January 20th from 6-10pm. This all women line-up of experimental sound artists goes well beyond industrial, aggrotech, EBM, power noize, rhythmic noize, punk, metal and goth to create soundscapes that are unlike anything you’ve heard before. The mix of video artists included in the show are among the most challenging and provocative artists working in the Valley today. The selection of photographic works from the founding members of the arts magazine Femme Fotale are showing pieces that are inspired by their newest issue about the nude, entitled Leafless. All of the groups are supported by the performative knitting action of members from the Fiber Arts Network which has come together to collaborate on the women's initative to knit pussy hats for the inauguration protests as well as our happens here at Fine Art Complex 1101.
Running counter to the all-too-predictable noise of Republican rhetoric, this sister show to exhibitions being held across the nation seeks to make the unheard heard, to upend all conservative expectations, and stand out against the background of silence that has accompanied many of the egregious statements made about women this past election cycle. While experimental sound art is known for being a bit of boys club, the sound artists in this show embrace an open politic to the shared interaction of sound, space and the affective capacities of the body. By contrast, the video works included in the show examine the cultural biases, expectations, and the implications of what it means to be a "women" in the early twenty-first century. The photographic exhibition in the main gallery provides another point of access for thinking about issues related to the female body, beauty, nature, strength and vulnerabilty. Between the two sound stages there will be a listenting lounge where kniting and works from an open call by PHX SUX will be on view.
In the spirit of equality all the artists in the show will be given equal time and space to perform, and all donations for the evening will go to Planned Parenthood to help support the fight for women’s reproductive and health rights across the nation.
Parables of the Virtual
Artists in the show: James Angel, Lori Fenn, Tovah Goldfine, Mike Jacobs, Lily Montgomery, Dewey Nelson, and Ben Willis.
Since the publication of Baudrillard's Simulations and the rise of simulationism in art we have come to accept virutality not only as part of our culture, but also as an increasingly important part of e-commerce, dating, information networks, systems analysis work, scientific projections, health care diagnostics, etc. In other words, we almost no longer know where the virtual ends and the real begins because they are mutually implicated in every aspect of design, art and culture. But just because we are well past our entre into dialogs about the virtual, and nearing its supposed high point with what scientists call the moment of the singularity, this doesn't mean that its naturalization is something we should accept as the status quo. In fact the relations between the virtual and the real are always shifting, or as Deleuze said, the virtual is a line divided by points, and each of these points represents the possibly of a growing divergence with the actual, making potentiality the hallmark of what we call virtuality today.
And it is in this spirit that we examine the works of seven of the valley's most prolific purveyors of virtuality in film, video, dance, performance, painting and sculpture. Whether addressing the submersion of the figure in denaturalized settings, patterns, geometries, or cinematic distortions, Parables of the Virtual seeks to ask questions about how representation functions at the crossroads of concrete referents and immaterial references, both of which are bound by so many different projections of a future anterior to our own, and which seems to have become wholly self-generating as well as infinitely reproducible the world over. The virtual is, afterall, that common substrate of interactivity in all of its given forms, making it the central dispositif of globalization.
As such, some of the works in Parables of the Virtual look at the dissonant effects of the production and reproduction of iconicity while other pieces play with the symbolic import of more traditional forms of sign, system and meaning production. Figures and the idea of their disappearance play a central role throughout the exhibition as does the intensification of artifice, color and technological colonization. Genres as different as figuration, abstraction, landscape painting, video art and printmaking are brought together in an effort to understand how artists are pushing those mediums to the edge of their legibility, ultimately playing with mixed media or the post-medium condition as a 'status' that is generally representative of the paradigm of virtuality in art production today.
In other words, Parables of the Virtual proposes that a leveling of medium specificity may also create a conflicted sense of reciprocity between everything real and its mirror image in another medium. Thus, the idea of living a simulacra existence and of the categorical imperative to dive head first into irreal worlds of ever greater depth and complexity is what is at stake in thinking through the implications of contemporary aesthetic experience. Regardless of whether such developments are actually a sign of genuine progress, or simply a symptom of infinite degradability, escapism and diatribes about the utopian impulse, they are now part and parcel of the culture of connectivity. As such, the artists in Parables of the Virtual are addressing some of the central concerns of aesthetic experience today. Despite how conflicted the terrain is that surrounds the idea of the virtual, or how overwrought the debates have become about affect and experience, what the artworks in this exhibition offer is an update to the discourses around dematerialization set forth by Arthur Danto in the eighties, and which continue to gain momentum even today, not to mention the many projected futures we call tomorrow. These images and discourses are not only pictures of a doppleganger reality, but in fact, they are religious experiences of our projected transcendence beyond the human condition. That is why they might be called so many Parables of the Virtual.
Lisa Von Hoffner: Afterglow
The works of Lisa Von Hoffner enter the discourse of fine art by producing a very conflicted notion of space, or rather, they gain their critical purchase by playing with affective delights, subverting bodily pleasures and upending historical references. But how do these seemingly impassable contradictions show themselves in her work? The first, and perhaps most obvious way, is evidenced in how Von Hoffner collides motifs from Opt-Art, the Light and Space movement and Neo-Geo with figurative elements from the baroque period, mainstream illustration and what one might refer to as a 'glitzy' Vegas aesthetic. The second critical element in Von Hoffner's project is that it provides us with a sense of aesthetic distance about themes that have held a place of prominence in the western canon for centuries, such as the idealization of beauty, proportion and mathematical design. This can be seen in the many ways that her figures are 'posed' in various states of undress, moving through her circular framing devices like so many archetypal muses spotlite on stage, and in particular, on a highly artificial stage that reveals the conventions behind the scopophelic impulse. Third, the gestures and compositional choices Von Hoffner makes aim at a critique of pop aesthetics and the drive toward the commodification of form, and especially of forms that are both naturalistic and abstract. Her work does this by exploring the hermeneutics of desire, the encircling of visual entrainment, and the rhetorical use of adornment. In other words, Hoffner's pieces address the idea of style-as-such, or the codification of genres, schools of thought and even certain rendering techniques, ultimately creating a panoply of visual paradoxes that issue from a sense of unlimited permissions.
But whether Hoffner's figures are given to us in the act of applying makeup, pealing off their clothes, wandering through virtual environments, or simply challenging the politics of presentment, all of Von Hoffner's images ask questions of us. This is because they are engaged in a dialectics of revealing and concealing, of shimmering surfaces and artificial inlays, of radical abstraction and uneasy realism, where we are left to decode the implicit connections between dissonant categories of form. And the proliferation of these hybrid constructs, which even extends to how Von Hoffner has reformatted the gallery benches, all seam to beg the question: has digital realism subsumed naturalism, and is this condition progressive to the point of erasing the corporeal realities of the body, not to mention the use of more traditional pictorial techniques associated with the conventions of painterly embodiment?
As a response to this much larger set of issues we can say that Von Hoffner's interventions appear to lean in the direction of a kind of self-reflexive repose that makes us stand back to examine the uses and abuses of the figure as both a sign and symbol. This is not only because her format of choice is that of a circle, which is a hermetic allusion to the ouroboros, to cyclical entrapment, to self-devouring tendencies, and to what Freud called the dialectic relationship between repetition and compulsion. And, this isn't just because Von Hoffner often adorns her exhibits with faux teardrops and neon encasements that recall the lurid draw of red light districts the world over, not to mention the pain and alienation suffered therein. And, it's not just because Von Hoffner uses arrow-like geometries to point our attention skyward as well as toward the floor below, ultimately equating the space of the gallery with a kind of materialist purgatory built on examining the drives that circumscribe the libidinal motivations associated with pictorial representation and the re-appropriation of bodies, desires and the dialectics of display. Of course, Von Hoffner's work provides us with a foray into all of these realms of experience, but what is unique to her project is that she does this by playing with so many in-between states where the entire exhibition space is equally activated and wholly resplendent with dancing points of light, feverish chromatic intensities and skin, skin and more skin.
And yet, throughout all of these pictorial passions, the real question put forward to us by Von Hoffner's project has to do with understanding the growing levels of abstraction that the female body is subjected to in the early twenty-first century. This is perhaps most directly on display in Hoffner's abstract works which function like glowing gold and silver surfaces, or even as broken mirrors and interlocking puzzle pieces, all of which allow us to reflect on the condition of the artwork in terms of what Melanie Klein referred to as the function of the 'partial object'. And in Von Hoffner's work these partial objects are spread out everywhere, on the floor, leaning against the wall, and even staged within the trappings of theater decor. But more importantly, these material referents point to their psychological correlaries, which is to say, to the piecemeal construction of the psyche as a metaphor for objects relations that include the self, the other and expropriation of intersubjective relations.
Not only that but the halation of glowing neon lights, which attends the abstract works as well as the figurative pieces, only points to the further fetishization of art and the body in the early 21st century. Of course, all of this makes us think that when we enter an exhibition by Von Hoffner that we too are slowly becoming subjects of the 'geometric condition' and the sense of values accorded to capitalist measures, which are anything but equatible. That is because her paintings comment as much on the return to figuration today as they do the neo-aestheticism of the late eighties and 'the return of beauty' in the early nineties, when art became an industry of projected future earnings marketed to the collector class as a way to diversify their portfolio options. In fact, one could say that Von Hoffner's paintings offer us a kind of immanent critique of those commercial conventions as well as the more traditional themes that have dominated figurative painting for the last few hundred years.
In this way, Von Hoffner's work points to how the body is perhaps more deeply encoded and overcoded with sign systems, markers, tags, etc., than at any other time in history, and that one of the best ways to understand this phenomenon is through the historical conventions associated with figurative painting. This is because, we are all, in one way or another, constantly inserting our own image into social networks of every imaginable kind, be they work related, for dating, for documenting our day, our likes, our dislikes, our chat room appearances, our blogs, etc. We are all becoming curators of our own image as an object of our personal history, which we paint in rather broad strokes by transforming the record of our lived experiences into the digital footprint of our lives. Rendering a likeness is now a real-time event just as using a filter or making a few adjustments to the image has become a post-painterly practice. Thus, we can say that if the age of mechanical reprodcution allowed the image to become a 'carbon copy' of its former self, engendering a loss of aura, than Von Hoffner's work functions as a paradoxical attempt to bring the singualrity of the image back to a place of prominance by embracing technology, ultimatley juxtaposing what Walter Benjamin would have called an outmoded meduim with the most advanced techniques of the digital age. Only the form of the auratic that Hoffner's work addresses is not just specific to our time but it is transhistorical in the sense that her work embraces thinking about how the female form has often been depicted emerging from a lumnious ether, from disrobed and otherwise disarmed subject positions, or simply how the feminine body has acted as a palette and a surface for so many patriarchial projections.