lundi 23 février 2009
R.H. Quaytman (Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York)
Chapter 12: iamb
This series use the motif of a painting lit by a lamp as the foundational image around which the other works coalesce. With the context in mind - a commercial gallery -, the subject turns back to painting itself and, specifically, its relationship to the blind spot. Like actual vision, Quaytman’s paintings have a blind spot, whether it be from a light source in the picture, an optical illusion, a trompe l’œil effect, the absence of color in a black and white photograph, or the picture in plan. This recurring ‘absence’ enables the works to activate one another, yet it also often shifts the axis of legibility between neighboring paintings. While the paintings can suggest an alternate position for the viewer’s body moving by the picture, or, further, literally repel vision through optical static, they ultimately affirm their own autonomy. While it can be said that they are made to influence flow from one picture to the next, no single painting suggests what the next will be. Each work allows the viewer to look at and into it, to focus from near and far, to see it as part of a group or in isolation. In the end, the picture always actively refers back to the painting itself, and then out to all that surrounds it.
For a period of three years – until May 2008 – R.H. Quaytman acted as the director of Orchard, a collaborative artist run gallery in New York's Lower East Side reconciling the divergent narratives of movements such as institutional critique, Kontext Kunst, and the legacies of Latin American and Eastern European vanguard practices of the sixties and seventies. It is perhaps then fitting that her artistic practice reconsiders critiques of the autonomous art object wherein the idea of painting serves as a model for the larger discursive meanings of art. Her use of wood panel as material support and her frequent grounding of the picture plane in photo-based silk screening, underscore the perceptual, perspectival and durational experience of painting as an assessment of the larger social, historical, personal and architectural contexts in which her work appears.
The paintings in R. H. Quaytman’s exhibition are cerebral, physically thought out and resolutely optical. They engage painting on every level in a restrained way; they also engage one another. Most involve silk-screened motifs that refer to some combination of light, lamps and subtly Op Art patterns of superfine concentric circles, quietly pulsing grids or tiny black and white checks. Some paintings depict other paintings in the exhibition. Some depict light sources that actually seem to obstruct vision. Everything seems once removed, seen through something else: the addition of a layer of sparkling diamond dust; a graduated shift in pale colors; trompe l’oeil strips of wood grain. The viewing experience is deliberately destabilized. For example, it takes some time to determine if the yellow shading across the surface of a checked painting is inherent or a reflection from the yellow painting next to it. Ms. Quaytman’s work combines the photographic procedures and recycled motifs of appropriation art with the physical eccentricities of formalist paintings or, perhaps more accurately, specific objects. Although her paintings aren’t especially small, they have the careful precision and delicacy of miniatures. It is as if they are trying reduce the processes of both making and looking at painting to the smallest unit of measure and experience possible, a place where atoms of light and matter merge.
In 1939, R.H. Quaytman’s grandfather and great-grandfather were driving back from the New York World’s Fair when they were suddenly crushed to death by an oncoming train. The accident was caused by a malfunctioning railway light. Much later, Quaytman tracked down the story in New York newspaper The Sun and used it as the basis for her 2001 exhibition at Spencer Brownstone Gallery, ‘Chapter 1: The Sun’. The reaction is characteristic: hers is a deliberate practice with a strong sense of the past (all four of her parents were artists) and of community (she was the director of the collaborative artist-run gallery Orchard for three years). Likewise, the tragedy, with its flickering lights in darkness, attests to the nature of Quaytman’s metaphorical systems, in which vision and disappearance, or blindness and insight, are inevitably intertwined. These elements - the complications of tradition, an intimate and opulent solar weave - are significantly elaborated in ‘Chapter 12: iamb’ at Miguel Abreu. The paintings, all silkscreen on wood, derive from a very simple motif: a painting lit by a lamp, from which comes the idea of the blind-spot. Sometimes the theme is fairly literal - four are titled Chapter 12: iamb (2008), each depicting a painting and a lamp - but there are also formal variations on the theme: sometimes the bulb yields a fuzzy circular glow; sometimes a halo, from which soft light falls; and in one case the verticality of the lamp and painting is dramatized by a tall acidic streak against the otherwise subtle palette. In paintings like Chapter 12: iamb, (lateral inhibitions in the perceptual field) (2008), no lamp is depicted, just a shimmering grid: the blind-spot here is optical - the viewer is unable to bring the grid into focus, not without flickering and ghosts. On the other hand, Chapter 12: iamb (Fresnell lens) (2008) does not emphasize the disruption or inconsistency of vision so much as the sparkle of revelation, achieved with a sprinkling of real diamond dust. The more one looks, the more intricate and self-referential Quaytman’s theme becomes. Motifs, even whole paintings, reappear: Chapter 12: iamb, (lateral inhibitions in the perceptual field) (2008), for example, is vertical. In another painting, however, one sees that first painting again, only rotated 90 degrees and framed by a white border. In Chapter 12: iamb (blind smile), it is again rotated, marked by lamplight in the upper right corner, and held aloft, or at least cryptically pointed to, by a shirtless bearded man (Dan Graham, actually). The addition of two smaller, hand-painted oils from another, earlier series increases the complication. The first, Chapter 2: Lødz Poem—Caption b (2002), literally points towards the paintings that follow; Limbo of Vanity (2003) reiterates the solar metaphor with its concentric circles above a black field, painted with spinel black, an ultra-absorbent pigment invented for the stealth bomber. The big blind-spot here is painting - a question, or void, that one can only circle around: painting as (absent) father and bright and blinding sun. Quaytman has emphasized the absolute centrality of painting to her development as an artist, her desire to ‘maintain and simultaneously disrupt painting’s absolute presence’, as well as the medium’s ‘arrogance’ and ‘ego’, its foundational and even prophetic efficacy. Even when working as a photographer, Quaytman had painting on her mind - or, more precisely, she picked up the camera as a path towards painting, to better ‘understand the symbolic space of painting.’ It is therefore fitting to evoke an image from the history of painting: Quaytman’s motif - the painting lit by the lamp - recalls Georges de la Tour, who attained, with candlelight, and especially the effects of a hidden or obscured candle, an art of occasionally elfin abstract delicacy, as well as a reverential quality that is never histrionic. With ‘Chapter 12: iamb’, Quaytman could be said to achieve much the same thing.
The two characteristics that according to grammarians define the meaning of the pronoun, ostension and relation, deixis and anaphora, have to be completely rethought here. The mode in which these characteristics have been understood has determined the theory of being, that is, first philosophy, since its origins. —Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community. It’s been a number of years since a solo exhibition by R H Quaytman has appeared in New York. It has been well worth the wait, however, to have the opportunity to view Quaytman’s work at the Miguel Abreu Gallery, a small space on the Lower East Side in an area that has been relatively recently colonized by art galleries. Quaytman’s show, Chapter 12: iamb, which presents work from an ongoing series, has a fresh and austere edge in sync with these new times that signals a clear path to follow. Quaytman makes reference in the title to both the seat of seeing (i am), and the classical meter of poetry, among other things. The manifold nature of these works indicates their significance can neither be pinned down nor limited to one approach. They serve rather as a vehicle for many. One could venture to say the works have been installed to follow the rhythm of an iambic pentameter, the “metrical foot of one unaccented followed by one accented syllable,” but any attempt to prove the point would become lost in the complexities of all that these works touch upon. The photo-silkscreened image of Dan Graham in “Chapter 12: iamb (blind smile),” (2008), looking ever so much like one of the Ancients in front of a Hermann grid, # 6 of “Chapter 12: iamb,” underscores both the classical reference and the tendency to double back. At the entrance, two panels, a cobalt blue silkscreened image of a light bulb shining on a screened panel of a pixelated field, and an oil painting of what feels like pure, yellow light, set the tone for the exhibition. With the simple metaphor of a light shining on a surface, Quaytman has engaged in an investigation of the grammar of mediation using the syntactic elements of visual apprehension. It’s all new ground, albeit a ground that has been constantly shifting since the undermining of painting’s supremacy in the last century and the subsequent proliferation of the means of reproduction. Quaytman’s shifting, cross-referenced world shows one way to marshal the vastness of the terrain. In both an acknowledgement and a clarification of the fact that we have stepped beyond Greenbergian questions, Quaytman playfully determines the image in #5 and #10 of “Chapter 12: iamb” (both 2008) by painting a profile of the wooden support structure on the surface of the panel in a quasi-minimalist gesture. Quaytman’s project reframes the question and in doing so, also eschews Barthes’ declaration in “Is painting a language?” that it is not. In this expanded context, painting is but one language that operates to elucidate the complex relationship between what we see and what we know. Surface takes precedent as a location upon which the imaginings of minds engage in actions, and visual means are relegated to their role as such. Yet it is the means that Quaytman takes hold of to reveal their extremes. In #7 of “Chapter 12: iamb” (2008), a tilted grid of vertical rectangles (each approximately 1/8" by 3/16") that fill the surface reads pictorially as an allover field even as it references the pixel. Floating in an indeterminate space somewhere in relation to this gridded field, three vertical bands of red, yellow and blue fade into one another; visible at a specific distance as you enter the small back room of Abreu’s gallery, they vanish as you approach the panel and the shimmering pixel grid asserts its dominance. At a distance of one foot, the colored bands are completely invisible, but new optical effects, color halos at the edges of the black and white rectangles emerge. Turning to the left to view what at that moment hovers at the edge of your peripheral vision, you can catch the RGB spectrum in the interstice of #4 of the gridded field in “Chapter 12: iamb,” an effect that shimmers only momentarily and disappears when one moves laterally in relation to its surface. In #8 the rectangles are pixelated in a way that reveals the surface grain of the plywood support, an image which also mysteriously vanishes as you move towards the panel and realize that a dot matrix has been layered into the pixilation, bringing into the picture yet another reference to the mediation of what is being seen. The grid and circles in #6 of “Chapter 12: iamb, (lateral inhibitions in the perceptual field)” (2008), provides the most spectacular optical effect, with the white circles at the grid’s every intersection turning grey and/or black in concert. Some might even get a headache from looking too long at the Hermann grid’s dazzling surface. Discovered in the 19th century and modified in more recent times, there is nowhere to rest in a Hermann grid, whose explanation is still being debated. Yet seen through a camera lens in #13 of “Chapter 12: iamb,” which is oriented horizontally in the gallery’s front room, it is devoid of optical effects. Turned on its side also in “(blind smile)” the Herman grid appears in three guises in this exhibition. Such effects, together with the concentric circles of sparkling diamond dust in “Chapter 12: iamb (Fresnell lens)” (2008) at the gallery’s entrance, might indicate that Quaytman’s subject is an interest in optics. I would propose rather that it is an interest that touches on the phenomenology of perception, and the investigation remains within the realm of the means, elucidating the conflicting and overlapping body of rules that govern different media and work in concert to determine how we interpret what we see. Light, the vehicle that both enables and determines sight, appears, if anything, to be the subject; painting stands alone in its directness. Quaytman’s sophisticated dissection of the complexities of seeing and the manifold aspects that inform perception is evident not only in individual works, but also in the relationship between specific works installed in the exhibition, and in the cumulative effect of the whole. In a room saturated with investigations into the mysterious nature of seeing and its mediation in our time, the autonomy of the singular is never in doubt. Individual works that can be read wholly within the context of the history of painting are at the same time open to formally interact with pieces like #8 “Chapter 12: iamb,” which brings to the fore the relationship between the dot screen and the pixel. On the left side of the gallery, the shift from the oil on wood “Chapter 2: Lødz Poem – Caption b” (2002), to a pixelated double-screened panel, to a yellow field of concentric circles, could be read as a position statement. The movement from painting to a screened computer generated digital image and then across the room to screened photographic imagery is seamless; the intent which connects them supersedes the media that contextualizes them, each slightly differently. In addressing a transitory period in which the crosspollination of media has rendered the visual a complex field to decode, Quaytman has foregrounded abstraction as a fundamental to the ongoing evolution of visual language. Quaytman’s fluency across diverse media is apparent in the mixing of the hand painted with the mechanically reproduced, photographic imagery with the language of non-objective painting. In creating a series of seductive wood panel surfaces that draw attention to the plane as the location to be read, Quaytman has clearly moved beyond questions of the viability of any specific media, yet it is in the ambiguities of her project that the shift has become visible.