Friday, August 18, 2006

Bad Reception | Adam Scott @ Kavi Gupta & Leslie Baum @ Bodybuilder and Sportsman

BAD RECEPTION: Adam Scott @ Kavi Gupta & Leslie Baum @ Bodybuilder & Sportsman
Originally Posted on Panel-House: October 2004

More and more, artists are either unable or unwilling to reconcile the abstract and representational. The two aspects of their practice “come apart,” making conflicting demands on the viewer, the most crucial of which registers as a division of labor in the act of reception. We are asked to both see and read at the same time, fissuring our experience of the work. Two strong solo shows of painting opened this fall in the West Loop that exhibit this tendency, Adam Scott at Kavi Gupta Gallery and Leslie Baum at Bodybuilder & Sportsman. Both paint landscapes in heavily saturated colors using a limited, potentially gimmicky, repertory of techniques. Both of their work skirts issues of intention (irony versus earnestness) and combines the legacy of 60s formalism with Pop’s savvy with mass media imagery, comics, and cliches of the American visual imagination.

Adam Scott paints suburban A-frames, cabins, rural churches and other banal postwar architecture situated in generic American landscapes. His paintings would be ironic images of the American dream if there weren’t such suspicious, sometimes surreal goings-on in these landscapes. Loony Tunes-style arms holding mallets (or are they gavels?) and muskets (or telescopes?) peep out from inside clouds and behind buildings or trees, creating an atmosphere of judgment, surveillance, and potential violence. Scott’s paintings have an obvious political tone, made only a little less shrill by the goofy rendering. The world pictured in these paintings is one of homes that are under attack and recklessly defended, a world where paranoia and desire for mastery abound. Scott forms the images by pouring acrylic paint into thick, shaped pools. The color is highly saturated and the paint is foamy-looking, pockmarked with tiny air bubbles – the combination of which connotes melted crayons, to this viewer at least. The color-shapes have sharp but wavering edges like a cartoon version of what a TV with bad reception looks like. The materiality and iconography of Scott’s work are so specific and distinct from one another, they seem unconnected, an almost arbitrary pairing of form and content. This seeming incommensurability results in a lack of unity in the effect of the paintings.

The lack of unity is too conspicuous for us not to pay further attention. I imagine that one could argue that the cartoon idiom, high key color, and coagulated materiality together highlight the unreality of what is represented in the paintings. The cheery and childlike elements of form and process do ironically contradict the scenarios of menace and danger. Although the process and materiality arguably might function expressively and metaphorically in relation to the narrative, the latter does not return the favor, so to speak. The surrealistically rendered foibles of the Patriot Act overwhelm the material reality of the paintings. One could read some allegorical meaning into this disturbed pictorial equilibrium in light of our current political situation, that there are matters that are genuinely more urgent than others and that our vigilance must not lapse at any cost. And isn’t that what his work does? Each time we become wordlessly absorbed in color, surface, or edge, our attention is interrupted by a telescope - or is it a rifle? - pointed directly at us. In a decidedly Blake-an move, Scott creates an either/or situation where we are forced to choose between an innocent (and ignorant) world of play or, forfeiting our pleasure, the turbulent political field of the real, schematically rendered in the crass contours of cartoons. Just because the two levels derive from the same work, however, does not mean that we can have them present to ourselves simultaneously. Instead we toggle back and forth between perspectives, in effect activating a split consciousness.

Unlike Scott’s explicitly political work, Baum’s landscapes partake of that vaguely ironic, nominally apolitical romanticism so prevalent in art today. Like Scott, however, she combines heterogeneous pictorial elements: in her case, fragments of landscape, depicted, again, in a cartoon idiom, drift over and through stained, abstract fields of color. The effect is not unlike silkscreening bits and pieces of a Disney landscape on a Morris Louis painting. The juxtaposition of different visual languages is not jarring as in most postmodernist pastiche, however. The luminous oil stains (no matter how serious their pedigree in Modernist abstraction) and the blocky forms filched from Disney and Hanna Barbara (no matter how goofy) are both tremendously pretty, sometimes ingratiatingly so. Describing the colors, I want to speak the pseudo-poetic language of paint charts: pumpkin, lentil, chocolate. Just as Friedrich’s sublime vision degenerated into backgrounds for animation cels in Snow White, Modernist abstraction becomes wallpaper, subordinated as decor. We are all well aware of the diminishing returns of the cultural apexes of the past, and I would like to think that Baum’s practice is informed by these dynamics. Despite their pleasant demeanor, there is a real power struggle in Baum’s work. The power struggle can be located at the most superficial level in the contentious combination of cartoon landscape fragments and abstract grounds. To the extent that both connote cliché notions of beauty, the conflict is easily resolved in an utterly banal decorativeness. The deeper and more meaningful power struggle exists at the level of reception, in the dual demand that the viewer both read and see the paintings. This is as much a conflict between the abstract and the representational as between the visual and the textual.

Reading and seeing, however, do not easily correspond to cartoon-ish illustrations and abstract painting respectively – and this is most true in Baum’s best paintings. The abstract grounds possess a Rorschach-like ability to yield images of mountains, seas, and cloudy skies. The cartoons, on the other hand, sometimes perform visually, abstractly (as opposed to merely denoting a referent or connoting a graphic style), and are as likely to be illegible as they are to signify “tree,” “rock,” or “leaf.” "Summer’s Last Stand" (2004) evinces much of this ambiguity and struggle. The ochre and umber stains provide a ground, on top of which similarly earthy hued leaves dance and flurry along with a number of dark, feather-shaped forms, leaves of grass perhaps. The cartoon imagery turns the abstract ground into a representational one, a forest ground. Moreover, the cartoon idiom with which the leaves are rendered casts the abstract stains into the realm of cultural connotations, linking watery stains to a style of illustration that I associate with children’s books from the 70s ("The Very Hungry Caterpillar" anyone?). The ochres and umbers in turn become “mustards” and “khakis.” At the top of the canvas is a grove of eye-popping blue tree trunks, appearing as if they were quoted directly from Fantasia because of their graphic style. They are the furthest objects from the viewer (in illusionistic terms), although they thrust forward due to their blue being so heavily saturated and complementary to the brown-ish ground. The leaves and feather forms subvert illusionistic space by not decreasing in size as they scale the surface of the painting, flattening the picture plane, as well as creating an abstract rhythm in their seemingly random, allover placement, as in Larry Poon’s early work. This essentially modernist attention to the picture plane is contradicted by the graphic style, which arrests the visual play, inscribing the picture into a chain of references, cooling its visual heat by putting quotes around it. In this way, abstraction and representation, and the visual and the textual, struggle against one another, vying for whether we read or see the picture. Does Baum inscribe a chain of references in her paintings to critique Modernist ideas of art, casting modernist immediacy as always already a representation? Or is she using a Modernist vocabulary of form to “melt” cliches, reanimating what little truth has been arrested in their ice. Are these question even relevant? And, if not, is that a strength or failure of the work?

Much work recently shown in Chicago stakes its meaning on the sheer visibility of informational glut. The viewer is lead through a succession of pop and subcultural references, as if lost in a labyrinth of hypertext. The substance of much of this work is a tissue of quotations, to paraphrase Roland Barthes. The mode of reception is textual (as opposed to phenomenological), amounting to maneuvering through a network of allusions. Further, its structural model is the digital, in which everything is equivalent, weaved from the same stuff, ones and zeros – a transformation into data in the service of radical mobility and fluidity. The artwork, the one that occupies the same space as you, the viewer, in the gallery, is rendered a mere material instance of an immaterial design. Scott and Baum depart from this unilateral embrace of the textual by activating the viewer’s capacity for seeing in addition to reading. The lack of unity in their work results from a necessity to acknowledge both the world of representations – immaterial, digitized, multiple, simulacral – on the one hand, and our daily bodily experience of the material world, on the other. I would argue their most recent forbears are 90s artists like Peter Doig, and Chris Ofili, who represent a tendency in recent art to put into perspective the increasing evaporation of our world into media sign systems by embedding representation in materially specific practices. Visually dense, semi-autonomous artworks decelerate the deterritorializing flows of data precisely through courting reference and allusion – and thereby also running the risk of dissipating in textual play. Scott and Baum both seem to be continuing this latter practice, but the question remains whether the work symptomatically indexes a split consciousness, half-consciously registers our predicament, or participates critically in this context.

Written by Elijah Burgher


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