Exhibition essay for curated exhibition: Get on the Block
Artists: Julianne Ahn, Alex Paik, Matt Phillips, Travis LeRoy Southworth, Liz Zanis
Camel Art Space
May 13 – June 19, 2011
Get on the block.
“Just in time”: The catch phrase adopted by cultural producers for the fractured and schizophrenic state of making in our post-fordist creative economy. Just in time and never enough. Get it out, get it done. Velocity over content. A wordless breath is a waste of good air. Just make yourself heard. Make this the moment, in this moment because there isn’t any other way, anyway. Such high expectations leave little room for the rebellious “well here’s what I really think,” since a practiced response is even quicker than an honest one, and dissent is no way to please. The nature of “Just in time” production means that things need to be ready in no time at all. It’s no surprise then that the social space of the bar is such a ubiquitous theme in current art.
Admittedly, there is a certain liberation in working fast and on the fly. Yet no one would deny the value of the long revision, the arduous edit that hopefully reads a little better, means a little more, feels a little more thoughtful, and real. Thoughtful choices and slow decisions take time, imagination and patience in waiting for the right moment to be revealed.
It seems this space for contemplation can only be asserted if we revolt against Just-in-time demands and high performance production, opting instead for isolation. So we don our shaman cloaks and speak in radical tongues, or go silent, off-grid, out of circulation and into hiding where we can pull the covers back over our heads until we know, we think, we might just be right. Heroism is not the point. The stumbles along the way are where the process gets interesting: how we negotiate the edit, face the potential for failure and cope with the persistent pressure to produce a grand declaration as a compact statement that will really, this time, say it like we mean it.
But what are we to do when the expectation is not only that we perform with genius speed and agility, but with the promise of perfection? Isn’t art the thing that cannot be perfected? And what would that criteria look like if we tried? It is certainly easier to sell a resolved idea than an evolving question; one is readily packaged, while the other does everything in its power to prevent that suffocation. Must we masquerade as overnight geniuses? Would we ever wantto stopdoubting ourselves?
Art loses its fundamental lawlessness when it is designed to please. Josephine Halvorson has admitted to succumbing to this phenomenon and becoming “too good,”iso that slick packaging has replaced conceptual rigor. Halvorson’s tightly cropped realist paintings of arranged debris, propped windows and locked doors successfully convince us that these scenes are important moments of sublime banality, yet the accidental beauty pictured instead feels calculated, highly mediated and fatally perfect in its complete lack of self-doubt. Thomas Nozkowski has said that reaching this point is the worst thing that can happen to you as an artist, for you lose the freshness of your medium and simply know too well what you are doing. The question at that point, he says, is “How do you make a new tightrope for yourself?”ii
In the essay Exhaustion & Exuberance: Ways to Defy the Pressure to Perform, Jan Verwoert asserts that “the insistence to speak – or make work in any other way – about that which is neither readily understandable nor immediately useful is in itself a strong claim to agency: I can speak or make work about what I Can’t speak or make work about.“iii Reminiscent of Lewis Hyde’s assertion that art gives voice to the speechless,iv Verwoert argues in defense of the absurd, unresolved yet imaginative and thoughtful speech act. Here, determining rights and wrongs is never the point, or at least not the most interesting; writing or making art is one way to resist having to be right or wrong all the time.
Arguing against absolute declarations, grand assertions and the very notion of striving for genius, Verwoert is in favor of a kind of “latency”, a slow build, pacing, teetering and revising in service of working “against the grain of the logic of high performance.” He writes: “The fatal consequence of a continuous pressure to perform is the exhaustion of all our potentials precisely because the current social order denies the value of latency, the value of a potentiality that remains presently unactualized and quite possibly can’t ever be exhaustively actualized.”v To defy the “pressure to perform,” we must recognize the equivalent worth of asserting both “I can” and “I can’t,” claiming agency by performing on our terms, on our own time, and reveling in latency in defense of the potential.
Everything’s possible … and nothing matters.
Two symbiotic truths constitute potentiality: “’everything’s possible…’ and its inevitable, bitter correlate: ‘…and nothing matters.’” The paradox is at once optimistic and melancholy, playful and apprehensive, ecstatic and debilitating. Yet as Jörg Heiser argues, “contemporary painting stays interesting when it moves between the above-mentioned poles without reconciling them.”vi Writing on the importance of the act of painting and echoing Verwoert’s call for latency, Heiser continues “this is the challenge to painting, to make visible that which resists visibility… To play out the micromechanics of decision-making in the realm of applying paint to canvas, even envisioning possible new decisions” and “new ways of seeing and acting.” To remain in this realm of new potential moves, choices and decisions, one must believe, for just a moment, that everything is possible; a brave notion in spite and because of the delusion required. Finding solace in the flip side of “nothing matters” may be the best way to cope with the unavoidable possibility of failure, negating any consequence and therefore eliminating the risk in beginning and choosing.
In an essay on the abstract paintings of Tomma Abts, Verwoert characterizes her method as “choosing to choose,” an approach to abstraction “genuinely dedicated to the production of the possibility of choices and feelings.”vii Abts’ compositions seem to begin from a central geometric form, a formal form, bold and rigid, even graphic. In a visibly long process of over painting and slight nudging, the form is gradually pulled apart, fanned out, torqued, twisted and splayed until the initial image comes to life and fades away in one breath. It is a dance of push and pull with that first, chosen form, driven by the primordial questions of ‘what am I doing’ and ‘how to begin.’ Embracing that dilemma as the point in itself is a powerful rejection of the artists’ internal Prufrock, impotent, hand-wringing and paralyzed by an incessant “what if I… what if they…” As Verwoert writes, “the question of choice does not arise at and as the end but in and as the beginning.” To never end beginning painting means to un-heroically and thoughtfully confront “the question of what it means to begin choosing choice.”
Nozkowski has described his painting process as such an inner dialogue; “I will sit in front of a canvas and put some paint down. I’ll think: That seems like a good idea. I’ll put a stroke down and think: Does this make any sense? If it doesn’t, I’ll make a second stroke, and if that doesn’t, I’ll fix the first stroke.” In Nozkowski’s logic, A leads to B leads to C which then might bring us back to A which if turned upside down and altered looks just like V. In order to navigate the space of a canvas, a blank sheet of paper – worlds of infinite choice – the possible inconsequence of decisions and the importance of giving voice to idea must be grappled with. The artist only maybe knows what they are doing. So long as this remains the case, the work may evolve, breathe, have a life of its own; in short, it remains interesting only when abandon is allowed, or at the very least when the agency to create one’s own rules is claimed. To overturn, pose and re-present the world, life, its questions, facts, things and thingness in a new light, a new language, is possible when invention and experimentation reign. Maintaining art as a space for open inquiry and thoughtful revision is the critical point of carrying out such an absurd practice. The act of making, the art of choosing, is a brave thing.
Back to those thousands of lonely hours.
The artists in Get on the Block consider the studio as playroom: a space for critical, lunatic and patient exploration.Play implies work without the consequence of a final goal, where winning and losing, succeeding or failing are inevitable but do not signal an end. The game itself, its players and rules are all equally significant elements. There is a self-conscious performative dimension to producing in a studio setting when, aware of and moving past post-studio conceptual practice, one creates work that reveals and revels in the fact of its making. Suspicious of their position as key-holders to this supposedly heroic, isolated world, the artists in the exhibition both embrace and resist the problematic of the studio as a sacred, rarefied space. If the idea of the studio signals a place for work and the artist’s position is increasingly influenced by the pressure to perform, then viewing one’s time in the studio as play becomes a radical gesture.
Sheer jubilance and serendipity direct Alex Paik‘s saturated and skewed geometric sculptures made of cut paper. Irregular polygons are adorned with solid stripes or unstable patterns in a clear fixation on recombining and obscuring rudimentary elements. Utilizing basic materials as marker, pencil and watercolor, Paik relishes in their immediate application and simplicity. Paper is similarly employed for its familiarity, accessibility and informality. The ease of these works is deceptive however, as each ultimately requires a rigorous architecture and an imperceptibly precarious balancing act. One dot in the wrong place, one angle too twisted and the game is lost.
One is tempted to imagine Paik in the studio as small and child-like, surrounded by a plethora of off-kilter colors and forms, scattered and towering fragments. At no point however does the chaos overwhelm. Piling and fusing these invented shapes as one plays with toy blocks or puzzles, Paik remains careful and commanding as these disparate parts are gradually brought together to form succinct wholes. There is nothing meek about these works; instead, they dance.
Verwoert argues that such a method of decision making rooted in revision and latency presents “a very particular model of agency: a model of how time can be spent making decisions in relation to what you want something to be.”viii In exercising this agency one also embraces the liberation in refusing to act, in idling, sometimes manifested by filling a void with nothing.
Travis LeRoy Southworth’s first spitwad sculpture, One Week of Entertainment, was made from the pages of an entire issue of “Entertainment” magazine chewed up and spat out as a pulpy mound in relief. The piece was made days after the artist was laid off from his job when, newly liberated from the distractions and stress of the 9 to 5 world, he was faced with the terrifying prospect of actually being able to do what he wanted. A week of staring at the ceiling ensued.
Southworth’s The Growing Metaphysical Void at the Center of my Bedroom Ceiling is an accumulation of spitwad stalactites, or “spitwadites,” protruding from the ceiling above the artist’s bed, without a doubt created by countless hours of staring, chewing, and spitting. The installation emulates the work of work and the work of choosing, embodying the constant churning of motivations, reflections, reconsiderations and, ultimately, choices which the artist must confront when presented with time and blank space. Spitting at the ceiling, however, is never presented as a conclusion since the potential infinitude of the gesture renders a final product impossible. The work’s preoccupation with inconsequence serves as a form of resistance to the expectations of high performance making. Southworth’s exhaustive dedication to a useless task presents an alternative economy of time.
Symbols of utility and comfort take form through a similarly grand uselessness of labor and time in Julianne Ahn’s absurdly sincere, and sincerely absurd works. A Blanket for John Henry is at once a carpet, a tapestry and a cover for warmth, fragile and light while dense, austere and monumental. Each ‘thread’ of the work is cut, painted and outlined in a methodical system of preparation and finish before they are woven together one by one, forming a grid. The work’s slouch on to the floor confuses its aura of preciousness further, blurring our attempts at distinguishing it as any one familiar or familiarly designed thing.
Leveling and fusing the intimate mania of art-making and domestic life, Ahn allows the physical minutia of one realm to populate the other such that dirty laundry appears alongside the grid as equals in a hierarchy of categorical terms. Black socks, they never get dirty, the more that you wear them the blacker they get. Someday, I’ll probably wash them but something keeps telling me don’t do it yet, not yet, not yet, not yet. is a swarming installation of wooden cut-out black socks modeled after early industrial sock dryers that are cluttered and strewn about, hung in a cluster or a wave, close to the ground and nearly reaching the ceiling. Generally identical and yet all with slight variation from Ahn’s hand sawing there is no solution to their pairing, only the puzzle of knowing that each could belong with any other. Her exhaustive labor is an extreme declaration of I can, I care by the very impracticality of her task.
While Ahn enlarges and multiplies the commonplace, Liz Zanis reduces mundane objects such as wrapped floral bouquets, train tickets and phone books to miniature facsimiles, channeling her matter-of-fact anxiety surrounding personal expectations and exchanges. Screen-printed on cut out balsa wood and produced in small editions, there is an intimate care in the making of these works yet they resemble illustrations or toys, adding a deceptively detached and manufactured aesthetic in jarring contrast to their small scale. Did you know she sleeps here? is a sculpture of the artist’s desk at work, the surface almost entirely covered in loose papers, with an oversized backpack tucked underneath. Both aspects of the piece represent instances of scatter and control in the artist’s life, colliding Zanis’ daily existence of infinite filing at the office and hauling her artwork to and from a print studio in simultaneous scenarios of paper pushing and self-perpetuating workflows. In a similar narrative of movement without progression, the market is a suite of signposts reading “you knew this would happen,” “I don’t know” and “you knew this was coming for months,” ubiquitous lines in love and disappointment that accompany an inner monologue of “I should’ve,” “I shouldn’t.” The doubt carried in Zanis’ tone of “I can’t” in these works is negated by the sheer fact of their making. The artist’s tagline is “Liz Zanis can do it” – through the act of condensing and displaying these obstacles, she does.
Similarly assertive in their self-conscious humor, Matt Phillips‘ paintings present a playful upheaval of and reverence for picture-making rules. In these canvases formalism is shattered and refracted, making simultaneous reference to physics, perspective, psychedelia and high modernism. Undeniably, much of the appeal in making and looking at art is figuring out just what it is that is compelling in the first place, despite the fact that “if you could figure it out, it would lose a lot of its magic.”ix Phillips engages not only aesthetic tropes but historical criteria for what makes a painting good or correct. Light beams stream from the corner of compositions alluding to the light of God in Italian renaissance works, or the modernist grid is employed as a framework to collapse or obey. Even the width and weight of each brushstroke carries with it a nod to a particular style. There from Here and Increasingly Complex contain direct visual cues into a conversation with the history of painting and formal composition. Starting with a white square – a blank canvas – Increasingly Complex slowly, step by step, one color and one edge at a time reveals the progression of a logical, quasi-mathematical formula for shape and image building. As the colors increase they also get muddy, and one can easily imagine the trajectory ending in another kind of blankness, a neutrality reached at the point of over saturation. There from Here is another series of steps, errs and revisions, as cascading shades of gray and solid hues pile and skip down and around the canvas. Dashed lines are painted throughout these two works as swirling stitches, tying them to a history of quilting, handmade and homespun creations. Beginning with a light grey square protruding from the upper right corner, the stacked and stitched rhythmof There from Here ends with a white sliver affixed underneath on the opposite side. Between these ecstatic points the shades shift and sink as if the building blocks of the composition will not stop at simply breaking with the grid, but must defy the flatness and restrain imposed by the physical and metaphorical boundaries of (a) painting.
Give us our Passes (Fortress) breaks slightly from this obsession with aesthetic tropes as the grid tilts 45 degrees to masquerade as a chain link fence, the bent wire composed with slices of mis-matched fabrics. Collage and clear reference to quilting further complicates Phillips’ inquisitive fascination with the notion of patterning and the grid. These elements have a necessarily complex and tense relationship within quilting, where textile and sewing pattern complement and clash with each other.
The title text is most significant here. The entire phrase reads “forgive us our trespasses,” though the letters of “give us our passes” are painted in a lighter hue, thus presenting two meanings and declaring two desires. Reverence for the rules is matched only by a determination to break them. This text speaks for the artist, the painting itself, and us, the viewer, and our anticipation of the act and experience of observing and doing; What is expected of us and what we want for ourselves. The message is clear: The rules were meant to be chosen.
i* The exhibition title Get on the Block is derived from a work by Francis Stark referenced by Jan Verwoert, which features the Henry Miller quote “Get on the fucking block and fuck.” The phrase also eludes to “the chopping block.”
** “Back to those thousands of lonely hours” is taken from an interview with Thomas Nozkowski. Citation below.
Lecture at the School of Visual Arts, New York, NY, 2011
iii Verwoert, Jan, “Exhaustion And Exuberance: Ways to Defy the Pressure to Perform,” Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really Want, Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam & Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2010, p. 30
viii Verwoert, Jan, “Exhaustion And Exuberance: Ways to Defy the Pressure to Perform,” Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really Want, Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam & Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2010, p. 32
1 – Liz Zanis, did you know that she sleeps here?, 2010, screen-print on balsa and basswood, ed. of 5, overall: 2.5 x 5 x 4 inches
2 – Matt Phillips, There From Here, 2010, oil on canvas and wood, 33 x 24 inches
3 – Alex Paik, Andy Gil, 2010, gouache, marker, paper, 6 x 5 x 1.5 inches
4 – Alex Paik, A Polygon, A Curve, 2011, gouache, marker, colored pencil, vellum, paper, 8 x 9 x 1 inches
5 – Travis LeRoy Southworth, The Growing Metaphysical Void at the Center of My Bedroom Ceiling, 2011, spit wads from magazine ads, dimensions vary
6 – Installation view: Left: Julianne Ahn, A Blanket for John Henry, 2011, acrylic, ink, kraft paper, cotton weave, 65 x 80 inches; Right: Julianne Ahn, Black socks, they never get dirty, the more that you wear them the blacker they get. Someday, I’ll probably wash them but something keeps telling me don’t do it yet, not yet, not yet, not yet., 2009, mdf board, acrylic, approx. 6 x 14 inches each
7 – Detail: Julianne Ahn, A Blanket for John Henry
8 – Liz Zanis, the market, 2007, screen-print on balsa, facsimile real estate signs, 4 x 3 x 2 inches, ed. of 9
9 – Matt Phillips, Give Us Our Passes (Fortress), 2009, oil and collage on canvas, 33 x 24 inches
10 – Gallery view, Spitwad workshop led by Travis LeRoy Southworth