Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Richard Garrison at the Spencertown Academy Arts Center

Richard Garrison is an artist whose life and work seem quite at odds. His usual subject is the jetsam and flotsam of suburban culture; specifically the leftovers and empty spaces that are the by-products of middle-class consumption. But Garrison is not an urbanite sneering at suburbia - he lives there, and does so without a note of irony. He has a nice house on a nice block, a lovely wife and two little girls, and most of the consumer detritus that makes up the material and content of his work is actually stuff that he and his family consumes. I went to a barbeque there this past weekend; the hamburgers and hot dogs were terrific and the garden is coming in nicely.

The Spencertown Academy Arts Center recently hung a survey of Garrison's projects from the last two years entitled "American Color." Included were a series of works based on colors seen at fast food drive-through windows and another comprised of colors found in circulars from chain stores, both done in watercolor. A series of collages was made with square swatches cut from boxes of breakfast cereal, tissues, detergent, and so on, transforming what was ostensibly garbage (recyclable, of course) into glossy, flickering mosaics.

The reason that I like Garrison's work is because it looks really good, and I'm not being glib. As evidenced by the descriptions above, his underlying critique could easily be a recipe for tedious didacticism. But it's not - the work is visually compelling because Garrison's systems for sequencing his data are not aesthetically neutral; he knows how to make a picture, and his decisions in terms of scale, media, and the many other small details that are not specifically germane to the information he collects are not incidental to his project - far from it; these things are very much the art part.

By far my favorite works in the show took a slightly different approach to the notion of the store-bought suburban experience. Garrison has at different points in his career made large-scale drawings using a Spiro-Graph. Anyone of my generation remembers this magical device which allowed you to make groovy abstract art right there on the shag rug in front of the TV. Garrison's creations are not the floral, vaguely psychedelic arabesques one would expect; he employs the stubborn aesthetic (or non-aesthetic) of the minimalists to make long, insistent, overlapping tubes. From a short distance, the colors optically blend into near-solids, and from close up, they have the intricacy of currency. I have a particular weakness for art that looks like it might be made by a machine but turns out to be made by hand. The Spiro-Graph, interestingly, is both.

Nice work, Rich, and thanks again for the hot dogs.