Monday, February 9, 2009

Plastic Art

Now on view at the Whitney is a smart little show by curator, Carter E. Foster called Synthetic, all about the introduction of new media--namely acrylic paint--in the 1960s. It's only fourteen pieces from the permanent collection on display on the second floor, but it's very tightly controlled and nicely done. Here are some of my favorites.

Frank Stella, Gran Cairo (1962, synthetic polymer)
--Image courtesy
I really like this period in Stella's career, a bit more than his late works which to me seemed to get a bit messy. When I stare into the center of this canvas, my brain wants to see in perspective, like a series of different colored apertures extending back into space to a vanishing point. His use of color facilitates this because he runs through the color spectrum, from indigo to red and then reverses it back to indigo. The color spectrum is a pre-existing phenomenon with its own physical characteristics, outside of this painting. Since he goes from indigo to red and back again not once, but twice, he's setting up a pattern of movement that one would expect continues past both the outer edges of the canvas, and further off into the distance, past the conceptual vanishing point. There's also not a single visible brushstroke; the applied paint is extremely flat, increasing the impression of pictorial representation as opposed to the physicality of the paint.

A few moves draw a sharp contrast to this, though. First of all, in between each of the bars of color he's left the raw canvas exposed, drawing attention to the fact that this is, indeed, paint on canvas. He's also left visible the pencil lines that demarcate the bars, again calling attention to the process rather than the resulting image. Another aspect is that the canvas is perfectly square, and therefore intimately connected to the forms of the image. The squared off bars of color are virtually inseparable from the physical object of the canvas onto which they've been painted.

Roy Lichtenstein, Little Big Painting (1965, oil and synthetic polymer)
While Lichtenstein really was one of the first artists to venture into Pop, only to be overshadowed by Warhol a couple of years later, and I respect his innovativeness, I've never been a huge fan of his comics work. This painting, however, is just brilliant. To represent the act of applying paint with a brush as a graphic symbol, but executed in paint, is working on so many different levels. It's like two mirrors facing each other, their reflections going on into infinity. What's interesting about it, also, is that some of Lichtenstein's brushstrokes are visible in this piece. There's this complicated conflict between seeing the real brushstrokes that make the painting a three-dimensional object and the fact that they have to disappear in order to see the symbolic representation of brushstrokes, which is conceptually thoroughly two-dimensional. This would be far less interesting had he painted, for instance, an enlarged photorealistic image of brushstrokes. The fact that the symbolic brushstrokes are cartoonish amplifies their complete two-dimensionality.

Lynda Benglis, Contraband (1969, pigmented latex)
--Photo courtesy artnet. This is not exactly the same version on display at the Whitney, but conceptually, they're indistinguishable.
The title of this piece is probably very telling. The most interesting thing about this, in my opinion, is that the medium hasn't been applied to a surface object. Rather, the medium is the one and only object. Is that what the "contraband" is? A medium that should have no place in the oil-dominated traditions of painting? Or is it a woman creating artwork in a male-dominated field? In this way, the work becomes the most intimate expression of the artist, herself, and her relationship to the exigencies of her field. Is the canvas a phallic symbol in and of itself, upright, rigid, penetrating the gallery space and staking aggressive claim to its embracing wall expanses? Doesn't any work of art do that, including this one, staking claim to a part of the floor? It's laid down flat, prostrate, and can be removed at will. It speaks of a certain weakness or at least fragility in the sense that paint applied to canvas has made a permanent mark that cannot be removed. This is especially acute next to the piece by Morris Louis, whose washes of color have soaked right into the canvas, becoming one with it. On the other hand, if one approaches the gallery floor as the "canvas" onto which this medium is applied, then there's a great strength in its flexibility. This piece is not attached to one canvas, but can stake its claim to any space, anywhere with equal success.

Chuck Close, Phil (1969, synthetic polymer)
--Image courtesy smag.
This is Philip Glass, the Minimalist composer, for anyone who wouldn't recognize him. The two of them had been good friends after meeting in 1964; the photograph was taken four years later. Glass composed A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close in return. The Metropolitan Opera, incidentally, incorporated Close' portraits into their launch of Glass' Satyagraha, which is beautiful, and showed a bunch of them in the Schwartz Gallery.

Glass was unknown at the time, and Close says he didn't want to be painting famous people like Warhol was. With this one he really becomes one of the first Photorealists, because it was about the conflict between the sharp precision of the photographic image and the free expressiveness of the paint used to replicate it (or lack thereof). I actually find some of his later work to be more interesting, because Close to the paintings, it's so impossible to determine what the image is; you have to step back a few feet. But proximity is a central theme for all of them. With this one, since it is such a relatively undistorted translation of the photograph, I tried to slowly pull back until I'd gotten far enough away from the piece that I could no longer tell that it was paint applied with a brush. It's in a smaller room, and with my back against the opposite wall--possibly twenty-five or thirty feet away--I was almost far enough, but not quite; certainly the knowledge that it is a painting clouds my perception of it. I couldn't really get Close enough to this canvas that it wouldn't read like the gigantic image of Philip Glass, which is quite different from my experience of his other works.

Nonetheless, Close's work addresses beautifully fundamental aspects of painting: the nature of seeing, perception, representation, and interaction with the works. One has to have a very specific and guided locational relationship with the work, as a body in space, as a figure/ spectator in the gallery environment, in order to find that transitional moment between the physical painting and the subject it represents.

Next to the Chuck Close was a piece by Joe Zucker called Merlyn's Lab (1977). It's chunks of cotton soaked in synthetic polymer and stuck onto the canvas to create a sort of chopped up landscape. It's just downright ugly and I don't want to talk about it. Yes, I realize words like "ugly" have absolutely no place in discourse on art. I thought for this show a much better choice than the Zucker would have been an artist I discovered many years ago at one of the Fifty-Seventh Street galleries. His canvases were huge and he used the most enormous globs of, I believe, acrylic paint. So enormous, they looked like they'd been squeezed out of a paint tube twenty times larger than normal. His colors were fascinating and many of the paints were iridescent or metallic, in colossal textures; the globs stuck out from the canvas nearly three or four inches. It was like a close-up view of an abstract expressionist painting blown up to a much larger scale. It's been a long time since I saw these pieces, and I couldn't find the artist in my files, but his work was amazing. If anyone knows the artist to whom I'm referring, please refresh my memory.

Peter Halley, The Acid Test (1992, synthetic polymer)
I really loved this one. This image doesn't half do the piece justice, the colors are so disturbingly vivid that it's almost painful to look at it. Each block of color appears to be on its own individually stretched canvas, and then perfectly, precisely assembled together like a puzzle. The two largest fields of orange and blue have a nubbly texture of Roll-a-Tex. The surrounding panels are entirely flat and uniform.

Halley's work would seem to be about flows of visual, aural, or narrative information and how that information is disseminated, collected, and processed. A very narrow and extremely simplified vocabulary of industrial, architectural, and electronic symbolism is treated to complex color relationships to describe uniquely specific ways of seeing and emotional reactions to what is being experienced. It's an unfortunately convoluted way to describe what he's doing, but his work is a bit difficult to categorize. In this piece, the two largest "cells" are open entities with a good number of "conduits" flowing from and around them. The colors are somewhat exuberant from his palette. Considering other titles of his works like Nirvana, Stairway to Heaven, and Beck, my best guess is that, in addition to the obvious LSD connotations, this refers to the Canadian rock band, Acid Test who toured with Nine Inch Nails and appeared prominently in the film Highway 61, which was released right around the time he started work on this painting.

Cory Arcangel, Super Mario Clouds v2k3 (2003, hacked Super Mario game cartridge)
The most recent piece in the show is a fantastic addition because it's basically a medium that couldn't even have been imagined in the 1960s or earlier. Arcangel hacked the first Super Mario, giving this a delicious Lo-Fi quality. While quite a bit more peaceful and serene, it very much reminds me of circuit bending, which is what happens when uber-nerds take way too many drugs and discover their old toys, or the sounds of Ate Bit, who've created entire EPs using only a Gameboy. Wonderfully full-circle about the inclusion of this work, in a very Pop sort of way, these clouds are much like the background music of Super Mario, which has permanently and inexorably seared itself into most of our brains. One look at them and I imagine 99% of museum visitors instantly recognize where they've seen those clouds before.

©2009, Ryan Witte

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