Friday, March 16, 2007

Ignore the Man Behind the Curtain

David, Reed, #446, 1999. Oil and Alkyd on linen.

I really like paintings that look like they were made by a photographic process, a computer program, or some sort of mechanical device.

Working in a way that would be classified as "cool" goes a long way toward separating the maker from the picture. When I'm looking at a painting, or when I think about someone looking at mine, I want the relationship to be between the viewer and the picture, not between viewer, picture and artist. Think about it: The Mona Lisa is inseparable from Da Vinci the man (this was true before the book/movie), the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel cannot be viewed without a mental image of Michelangelo laying on his back, and almost no Van Gogh can be seen except through a veil of his madness and agony. It's extremely difficult to get a good look at these works.

When I got back into painting I started really sifting the pictures made during or after the "death of painting." Morris Louis' poured paintings and Jules Olitski's spray-gun pictures still looked great, like bathtubs full of color, and I think that once people get over the reflexive reaction to Greenberg a big reevaluation of these artists will come to pass. The Op painters, especially Bridget Riley and early Larry Poons, looked extremely relevant (I talk about this at greater length in an earlier post). David Reed and Gerhard Richter also looked very fresh, very modern (with a lower-case "m").

What all these painters had in common was a process and/or design that de-emphasized the hand of the author. This is particularly compelling with Reed, because of his free-wheeling use of gesture. Gesture is ultimate artistic autograph, and it's difficult to imagine a gestural abstraction that isn't explicitly autobiographical. Reed's mysterious process enables him to have it both ways: the freedom of gesture along with a coolness and remove that I largely associate with geometry.

Ironically, the door was opened to the I-am-a-machine approach by Pollock, the most emotionally motivated painter since Van Gogh. By using pure process to determine the image, mark, part-to-whole relationship, etc., he not only loosened up the gridded Cubist space, but presented an entirely different way of approaching abstract painting. Before Pollock, abstract painters (including Mondrian), essentially worked in the same way that representational painters worked; simply substituting abstract or semi-abstract figuration for representation. After Pollock, image and process were more often linked. This is certainly the case with Louis, Olitski, Riley, Poons, Reed, Richter (in his smeared abstractions), and a hundred others.

Some of the current painters that I really like in the I-am-my-own-device vein are Terry Haggerty, who is working out of the op tradition, Martjin Schuppers and Peter Davis who are both achieving the kind of photographic transparency mined by Reed, Tim Bavington, who is using either a spray-gun or airbrush in a highly disciplined way, Jeff Elrod, who is great at depicting the kind of things that can happen when you're just learning to use a computer program, and Carl Fudge, who is great at depicting the things you can make when you're really good at using a computer program.

Believe me, I'm as much a sucker for biographical tidbits as the next guy (read my Julian Stanczak post), and this blog is in fact me telling you my own story. But when I 'm trying to get a really good look at a painting, that stuff just gets in the way. Masking tape, squeegees, spray-guns and the like make the process of undistracted looking, which is extremely hard, just a little bit easier.