Friday, October 30, 2015

Lots With Little

Exhibition Review

JOSH SMITH “Sculpture”
September 11 – October 31, 2015
New York

Doing something unexpected has become expected of Josh Smith since he first made the infuriatingly egotistical yet ingenious move of painting his own name.* By repeatedly finding new ways to challenge the public, he has built up a contemporary legend rather than an easily pinned down body of work.

Smith’s current exhibition at Luhring Augustine Chelsea features painted works on cradled plywood rectangles, whose mainly white surfaces are marked by skittery lines of graphite. Most of them have splotches of color from ink, watercolor, paint pen, or grease pencil. Earlier marks have been painted over in white (or erased), and the surfaces are artfully scuffed and smudged, which adds to their richness. Several of the smaller works show a delicate pattern of vertical cracks all over, as if they had been left out in a barn for some time.

The initial impression is that these redo Cy Twombly’s drawings, especially those of the 2000s, like the spiky Sesostris series. What color there is matches Twombly’s palette: reds and violets, a touch of green or turquoise. But Smith’s pieces also have the wide-open white fields and sparse, simple delineation of Miró’s mid-1960s paintings, and Smith’s vertical or angled linear marks sometimes resemble birds or insects.

The artist doesn’t give you much. There is an almost perverse reserve in his laying down only a few, skinny, countable marks on each surface. Yet somehow, maddeningly, the pieces work. Though they remain ciphers, they manage to create space and to suggest movement using limited means. Their complex textures are engaging. The scale is satisfying.

The twenty-two works in the exhibition (ranging from 32 x 26 inches to 63 x 51 inches) are a perfect fit for the gallery space, distributed according to size in the various rooms. Not easily distinguishable at first glance, the works are more compelling together than any one would be alone, as was also the case with the monochromes Smith showed as part of his double New York exhibition in 2013. Here you sense that the artist may have created many more of these works than are on view. 

The first paintings I saw by Josh Smith were on plywood panels, 5 x 4 feet, hung on the wall with washers and screws at the New Museum in 2009. Smith later made works with the same dimensions but on canvas, perhaps having been encouraged by his gallery to create what collectors understand as “paintings,” namely works on canvas with stretchers, which can be sold for more money. In the current exhibition, each of the works, on plywood mounted on foam, is framed in a white shadowbox, and the checklist gives a thickness for each (2-1/2 inches) in addition to its height and width. Hence the title of the current exhibition, “Sculpture.” One can imagine Smith saying, as he showed his new batch of panel paintings to the gallery director: “This is what I have been working on lately. So call them sculptures.”  

--Jeff Frederick

* The “name paintings” build abstractions around the absurdly obvious structure of the letters of the artist’s own name. Their unconstrained self-aggrandizement taps into something primal, both in the making and in the viewer's reaction. They are graffiti as a protest of the baldest and most desperate kind against death.

Images: all works Untitled, © 2014, 2015 Josh Smith; courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

You Had To Be There?

Full installation view, "Return to Problem," 2015
Image courtesy Reena Spaulings Gallery, New York

Exhibition review

ED LEHAN, “Return to Problem”
May 17 - June 14, 2015
New York

Ed Lehan’s “Return to Problem” exhibition at Reena Spaulings has ended, which makes this writing timely. For most of the show’s run, words were required to access its primary focus: opening night. 

Lehan created an installation: a dropped acoustic-tile ceiling over most of the exhibition space, and his carefully scrawled word “experiencer” on one wall. During the opening, he served mojitos from industrial buckets on the gallery’s already raised wooden floor. After opening night, visitors encountered just the leftover, off-Minimalist stage set. The air was lightly scented by undrunk mojitos, prompting the question: what happened at the reception?

Mostly the usual: talking and drinking. The show’s economic critique – no framed works to buy! – was conventional; the Relational Aesthetics dynamic was familiar. But Lehan’s mojito fest closely resembled Rikrit Tiravanija’s Thai feasts. It also recreated Lehan’s installation of the same show in London,* where he lives, and recalled “The Opening” exhibitions by Merlin Carpenter, Lehan’s colleague and friend from art school, one of them even at Reena Spaulings (see this excellent review of Lehan’s show). Was this really just another (conceptual) art reception?

What was this experience about? What is an experiencer’s role? What kind of fun was this party? Asking these questions must have been part of the evening. Let’s explore some answers through unexpected precedents. 

The low-ceilinged space suggested Floor 7½ in the Spike Jonze / Charlie Kaufman film, Being John Malkovich (1999). A chute from this floor leads into Malkovich’s mind, where many visitors share one character’s refreshed feeling: “I knew who I was...everything made sense.” Soon visitors get ejected alongside the New Jersey Turnpike. The Reena Spaulings stage set similarly proposed an alternative reality. Lehan wanted his word “experiencer” – plus the alcohol of opening night? – to nudge visitors beyond our tired Marxist roles of producers/consumers of culture, toward a “crisis” (“What are we doing here?”) and heightened awareness (the same question, in another key). Then we got ejected alongside Canal Street.

But experience is not always coherent, or uplifting. In Remainder (2007**), the hit novel by Lehan’s compatriot, Tom McCarthy, a rich, amnesiac everyman tries to restage situations where living had felt "fluent and unforced. Not awkward, acquired...I wanted to...feel real.” The plot turns exquisitely, intensely chilling as the man increasingly controls his reenactments and loses control. Lehan’s repetitions could likewise be traps as easily as springboards. The dropped ceiling evoked decades of generic institutional/office spaces (and a Richard Serra installation), but it didn’t necessarily help visitors see Lehan’s resistance to artistic uniqueness. His clue, “experiencer,” supposedly named his new role, but it could have been his command to us. I love multivalence, yet I wanted a more revelatory chute into Lehan’s mind.***

The exhibition deepened when I talked with the gallery’s representative. Visitors at the opening probably gained from their fun conversations, too. Lehan’s scrawled word invited us continually to “Return to [that] Problem”: what’s going on? Such dialogue is an excellent model for viewers engaging with art.

-- Karen Schiff

Buckets of moldering mojitos, and wall with Ed Lehan's handwritten "experiencer," 2015
Image courtesy Reena Spaulings Gallery, New York

* Lehan claims that the London exhibition was markedly different, perhaps owing to the characteristics of the space and the sociopolitics of drinking mojitos in Hackney. The New York gallery features peeling paint, red Chinese writing in the far windows, a windowed door high in a wall. In East London, mojitos are the yuppie drink which signals a decline in that neighborhood’s bohemian art culture. Beyond these distinctions, local cultural assumptions about the genre of the gallery exhibition itself most likely made Lehan’s work read differently in the two locations.

** McCarthy wrote Remainder in 2001. After enduring publishers' rejections, it was first printed by small presses in France (2005) and England (2006). It sold well in museum gift shops, then gained wide popularity and critical acclaim following the Vintage edition in the U.S. (2007).

*** Did “experiencer” indicate Lehan’s optimistic belief in a non-capitalistic reality? Was he cynically infusing the notion of experience with a fiction of escape? (How) is his decision to hold an exhibition, where the lowered partial ceiling imprisons visitors as subtly as any ideology, itself a complex gesture of hope? Do Lehan’s anti-narrative, anti-aesthetic repetitions (merely) fill McCarthy’s (and Simon Critchley’s) prescriptions for art, in section 14 of their “Declaration on Digital Capitalism” (Artforum, 2014)? Perhaps Lehan’s “crisis” is exactly about wrestling with these questions.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Muscular Atmospheres

Rebecca Salter, Untitled AG14, 2014
Mixed media on muslin on linen, 18 x 20 inches
Image courtesy Howard Scott Gallery, New York

Exhibition review

April 13 - May 23, 2015
New York

JOHN ZURIER, West of the Future
February 13 - April 18, 2015
New York

Soon after entering First Light,” Rebecca Salter’s new exhibition at Howard Scott Gallery, I started questioning my standards for abstraction. Salter’s grey, atmospheric canvases have such a consistent vagueness that I wondered: did their consistency make them strong? Or did their vagueness make them weak?

My real questions lurked deeper: why do I value “strength” itself, and what is that? Clearly I wanted Salter’s paintings to avoid the pitfalls of “zombie formalism,” and to be as tight and strong as the writing we aim for on Wallscrawler. But when is abstraction visually “muscular”? How could I assess this quality in artworks that look...soft?

In this exhibition, variously sized rectangular paintings suddenly seem to dissolve into deep chasms. Diverse greys and indigos accumulate into sometimes gloomy fogs. (Salter lives in London.) Spatial ambiguities emerge from scrims of painted gauze glued over the canvases, and because of shadowy spots that punctuate the lighter grey atmospheres. Up close, some spots have hairy edges, like the stray threads that cling to some rough contours of the applied muslin.

Roughness also appears in idiosyncratic details such as an off-center water stain in Untitled AG14. It permeates the off-kilter grids that structure the paintings’ ethereality. Salter creates geometric fields by folding her materials, overlapping wide lines of thin pigment, and (as in Untitled AG25) extracting threads from the fabric at irregular intervals. 

These techniques aerate the dense markmaking from Salter’s earlier work at Howard Scott and in a two-venue retrospective in New Haven. Throughout, her layered glazing of materials reveals her years of ceramics training in Japan, and her subtle gradations of dark tones echo her experience as a printmaker. If fields and grids aren’t your taste, you might see the work as esoteric tie dye. With time, the paintings gather steam -- build muscle.

This phenomenon reminded me of visiting John Zurier’s recent exhibition at Peter Blum Gallery, West of the Future.” At first the show looked like vacant neo-expressionism, but soon a sensibility surfaced. A bright atmosphere filled the room. It turns out that Zurier had been moved to represent the “soft” summer light of Iceland’s northern Skagafjörður region...just as the work in Salter’s First Light was inspired by the return of daylight at springtime in the Lofoten Islands, in northern Norway. Knowing these frameworks helps to identify these paintings’ underlying pulses, and to name the drives that keep them from being merely formal explorations of material effects. 

Inner compulsion distinguishes “muscular abstraction” from a “zombie” mimicry. Purpose cannot simply be declared in a press release; it must be palpable in the artwork. For artist and architect Maya Lin, “a strong, clear vision” emerges from a white-hot impulse. Expanding on that insight obscures it; paring down again allows it to reveal its elemental power.

A strong motive does not require articulable content or political injustice; it can manifest in a feeling or a mood. Salter abstracts a shimmer from murkiness. First Light beckons like a quiet buoy in Chelsea.

-- Karen Schiff

Rebecca Salter, Untitled AG25, 2014
Mixed media on muslin on linen, 43 x 59 inches
Image courtesy Howard Scott Gallery, New York

Friday, May 1, 2015

Exhibition Review: TRUDY BENSON "Shapes Of Things" LISA COOLEY

Trudy Benson, Re: Composition, 2014
Acrylic and oil on canvas, 77 x 80 inches
Image courtesy of the artist and Lisa Cooley, New York.

Exhibition review

April 4 - May 3, 2015
New York

Trudy Benson’s “Shapes of Things” promises to be one of this year’s ten best shows of new paintings.  The exhibition of nine works on canvas, six medium-to-large (the largest is 76 by 108 inches) and three small, at Lisa Cooley gallery, shows Benson moving in a new direction with profundity and skill.

Benson’s earlier canvases featured an accumulation of wide, obstructive planes, often with figural geometric objects anchoring the centers. These works dealt in super-saturated color, borrowing garish 1980s graphic motifs, specifically early MacPaint software effects.

The new paintings are more airy, open, and provocatively incomplete. Painted elements build up into layers of screens. The initial impression is of black and white paintings with one color added. Upon further inspection other colors may appear in scattered pockets.

Because of the openness of Benson’s intersecting systems, the buff color of the raw canvas becomes an important part of the palette. As one title reveals, the works are “Tan Grams”, a reference both to the color and to the tangram, a Chinese puzzle whose flat, moveable geometric pieces are evoked by Benson’s forms. Beyond the black, white, and tan, Benson’s colors are mostly intense: the unnatural green in “Thoth” could come from an overeager environmental group’s logo. The use of primary colors and graphic motifs give “Re: Composition” a strong affinity with Mondrian or Miró.

The airbrushed doodles of the initial, background layer of the paintings, in black or sienna, are another new element. These spindly jottings, sometimes looking like single-cell organisms or chain mail, are blurred at their edges, almost bleeding into the canvas. While reminiscent of Michael Williams’ graphomanic airbrushing, Benson’s underlayer marks are urgent and insistent, as though they have some news to impart. The airbrushed passages feel like the riskiest part of the works because they are so nakedly present. 

Over these, with plenty of space peeking through, are larger stenciled shapes, parts of which are masked off and rolled over. Linear slabs of paint are laid on so thickly that furry peaks stand up in them like frosting. Over the rolled passages, piped lines are extruded directly from the paint tube, into drawings that form frameworks or diagrammatic figures. In “Thoth” the lines create a cartoon beast who may be the Egyptian god of writing, a man with the head of an ibis.

Benson’s complex imagery feels sincere, as if there is a real need for these paintings to exist. The new work may demonstrate a greater sense of art historical consciousness, yet Benson’s paintings refuse to take themselves too seriously. In “Banana Phone,” a flat, white shape is banana-like, and airbrushed coils could be the phone cord. “New Shapes”, with its widely looping black and white paint, salmon slabs that look like pool noodles, and a two-tone setting sun, humorously recalls the graphics of the popular 1980s television show, “Miami Vice.”

New Yorkers are lucky to have Trudy Benson working and showing in our midst.

--Jeff Frederick

Trudy Benson, New Shapes, 2015
acrylic, enamel, and oil on canvas, 80 x 77 inches
Image courtesy of the artist and Lisa Cooley, New York

Why Wallscrawler?

       Are you a rockpiler* or a wallscrawler**?     – Joseph Roeder

Welcome to Wallscrawler, a gazette of pithy exhibition reviews and commentaries by visual artists. When a show (or some other art event) compels us to write, we will strive to deliver muscular substance in 500 words or less.

The past few years have brought a welcome proliferation of online sources for writing about art. Now that writing is often one of many competing obligations in an artist’s incessantly multimodal practice, these sources sometimes suffer from hasty editing. At the same time, many practitioners insist that the only way to produce high-quality work is to commit either to the visual or the verbal, so artists who write are expected to fail.

We offer an alternative perspective: we are grounding this project in our visual practice, as dedicated studio artists who happen to have an affinity for language. Writing helps us see our artwork more deeply, and our art-making helps us perceive the exhibitions we’re re-viewing. So, in this era of the “post-studio,” we dare to advance another paradigm: that of the expanded studio.***

Further, Wallscrawler’s debut coincides with Robert Storr’s forthright critique of many contemporary art writers, in a Yale University radio interview. This is the latest in a spirited series of dialogues about criticism, from panels at the annual College Art Association conference to debates in DUMBO. These developments affirm our conviction that individual, principled voices can have enormous impact.

We aim to post about the most consequential work we see, not to write about our friends. We labor for thoughtful rigor without “artspeak” or hype. We expect to focus on contemporary abstract painting by living artists. We do not accept advertising.


* sculptor or other 3D artist
** painter or other 2D artist
*** Our term nods to the persistence of Rosalind Krauss’s influential essay, “Sculpture In The Expanded Field,” October, Vol. 8 (Spring, 1979), pp. 30-44.