Sunday, April 13, 2014

Doug Aitkin at 303 Gallery

MORE (shattered pour)

Sonic Fountain, the centerpiece of Doug Aitken’s show (all works 2013) includes a large, round hole jack-hammered into the cement floor and filled with water. From above, a system of pipes with five spigots drips water into this small pool. The drops fall in programmed rhythms and are doubled with recorded water sounds. Each splash is synchronized with more synthetic and resonant recorded splashes, as if they were reverberating in a cave. Nearby sits a pile of excavated rubble.

The overall effect is perversely theatrical and yet formally awkward, with the five spigots arrayed like corners of a square and one in the center. The rhythm of the drops is predictably regular and yet irritatingly unmusical in a way that calls to mind someone practicing rudimentary beats on a drum. The synthetic sounds are both cheesy and redundant, yet manage to make the physical drops sound, by comparison, oddly banal (reminiscent of toilet splashes, sadly.) Likewise, the atmospherics make the laborious excavation seem relatively puny and prosaic. The whole thing cancels itself out. Oddly, it is also suspiciously similar to a more successful piece—Untitled (2011) from Jim Hodges’ 2011 show at Barbara Gladstone—in which Hodges made a nearly identical hole and rigged a disco ball to gradually lower itself from the ceiling until submerged.

Aitken’s other sculpture here, Fountain (Earth Fountain), (2012) is blatantly derivative of a more famous work. In a large rectangular vitrine the letters “A-R-T”, built from Lucite, ooze smooth creamy mud resembling milk chocolate. It immediately recalls Robert Rauschenberg’s Mud Muse (1971)—itself a large rectangular vat filled with mud rigged to bubble and sputter like lava. The use of the word “ART” here merely underlines one obvious subtext of Rauschenberg’s piece: that something as ubiquitous and abject as mud could so effectively be corralled into the realm of art. This makes Aitken’s rather polished version more like CliffsNotes for a canonical work than anything else.

Here’s an even more tired trope: holes punched in gallery walls. While this device can be effective (if not subversive, as in the works of Gordon Matta-Clark) it’s become such a cliché that, at this point, Aitken’s version feels merely decorative. What’s worse, the holes are just-so: neatly cut through both layers of sheetrock with the interstitial space casually patched with cement and painted over. This creates the unconvincing impression of a rough but perfectly circular hole, over 8-feet wide, somehow spontaneously punched through a thick concrete wall. The large text pieces framed by these holes and situated a few feet behind them—Sunset (Black) and 100 YRS—are jokey, slick and elegant in ways that seems more like edgy design than art.

Another text piece, MORE (Shattered Pour), is made from faceted planes of mirrored glass spelling “MORE” with wet-looking broken mirrors coated in resin scattered in each letter’s convexity. It might seem custom-made to satirize art-market acquisitiveness except that its anodyne quality could just as easily play into it. Either way, it’s a nice looking object, but the viewer is left wanting, well… more.

Bjorn Copeland at Jack Hanley Gallery

Installation shot of Bjorn Copeland at Jack Hanley Gallery, New York, September to October 2013

Bjorn Copeland at Jack Hanley Gallery
September 5 to October 06, 2013
A chorus from acclaimed Indie Rock band The New Pornographers that goes “It came out magical, out from blown speakers” is testimonial to moments when music is transcendent despite technical glitches. Simultaneity of broken equipment and sonic pleasure is one that Bjorn Copeland, of the musical collective Black Dice, must know intimately as it is one that he embodies perfectly in BD Mix, (all works 2013) a Yamaha amp oozing black polyurethane foam.Call it abject synesthesia, this is the perfect totem for his group’s embrace of the broken, distorted, noisy, chaotic, and experimental aspects of music-making....

Read the full review at

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Jen Mazza at Stephan Stoyanov

Whether or not one has read Marcel Proust’s works, you might be familiar with his “madeleine,” the cookie that initiates his 1913 novel The Remembrance of Things Past: Swann’s Way by transporting him through time and memory. Jen Grazza, as if to signal how books, as objects, can be similarly evocative, depicts the first six pages in three paintings (2011). The paintings are striking upon first glance, with their prestidiginous skill and academic precision (the type-face text of whole pages re-created down to the very serif), and it quickly becomes apparent that their virtuosity belies a painterly, if somewhat conservative, sensibility.

Most of the works in Grazza’s exhibition “The Words (Le Mots)” feature books, in fact—either the cover or pages opened to text or an illustration. Each one, centered and parallel to the picture plane, is surrounded with hazy old-master-esque backgrounds of layered glazes of alternating warm and cool colors. These abstract yet individuated backgrounds function as a signal that Grazza’s careful paintings of her singular subjects are more akin to portraiture than still life painting. Recalling the oft-quoted line by Gilbert Highet (used frequently on Barnes & Noble paraphernalia): “These are not lumps of lifeless paper, but minds alive upon the shelves!”

Throughout the exhibition, Grazza displays an astonishing knack for duplicating style, including imitations of the affably bland graphic design of old Penguin paperbacks, as in Civilization (2012), loopy middle-brow Modernism as seen in Le Planetarium (2011), the fine curlicues of various logos and publisher’s imprints, and a reproduction of a Rothko in Le Ravissement (2012). The trompe l’oeil accuracy is impressive and yet, fortunately tends to fall short of pastiche. Grazza is always duly conscious her sources as fastidiously copied images and attributes of objects. They convey not just the original printed materials, but also the ravages of time: the dusty yellow pages, faded colors on the covers, and the wear, tear, creases, scuffs-marks, and folds which provide evidence the books were read and loved. This attention to the book as object also becomes a metaphor for the individual relationships that readers have to books as texts – how everyone’s experience of the same book is, nonetheless, unique.

One might say Grazza is attempting to reverse the effects described by Walter Benjamin in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”: to re-invest the mechanically reproduced object with the “aura” of a specifically personal one. The play of light and shade on the edges of pages and brown leather covers is treated with a variety of coloristic flourishes typically reserved for the human figure. These ostensibly drab elements are modulated with several nameless, fleshy shades of beige, grey, tan, ochre and mauve (as well as a few rogue notes of teal or light violet high-lights). This gives them a certain oily corporeality that recalls, perhaps ironically, De Kooning’s famous assertion, “Flesh is what oil paint was made for,” as well as the not-quite-dissimilarly biblical phrase, “And the Word became flesh.”

Julian Hoeber at Harris Lieberman Gallery


Travel across the US and you might encounter a type of roadside attraction known as a Gravitational Mystery Spot. It features an off-kilter structure which induces vertigo or disorientation that is generally attributed, by roadside hucksters, to either some gravitational anomaly or a paranormal phenomenon. The real source of the effect, however, lies in a simple architectural trick...

Read the full review in Frieze.

Mark Flood's "The Hateful Years" at Luxembourg & Dayan

Mark Flood might be one of the most prophetic and underrated artists of the 1980s. Working in a variety of media and formats – including painting, writing, installation, modified readymades, combines and photo-collage, not to mention the records of his band Culturcide – Flood’s anti-aesthetic sensibility has influenced a younger generation of artists that includes Josh Smith, Nate Lowman and Anthony Burdin. Dating from a time when pop subject matter was treated with varying degrees of cool indifference or irony, Flood’s is a unique, unusually impassioned and intensely oppositional voice. One gets the impression that... 

Read the full review in Frieze.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Review of Tom Thayer at Derek Eller Gallery


THE FAMED EXPRESSIONIST EDVARD MUNCH WAS KNOWN TO leave his paintings out in the rain on occasion, a habit he explained by saying, "It will either kill or cure them." I don't suspect that Tom Thayer has ever left one of his paintings outdoors but they do have a cracked, desiccated and weathered appearance that suggests it might not matter if he did. The cut-out corrugated cardboard figures hanging from dirty strings and gnarled curls of wire also help give off the impression that this work has been sitting undiscovered in an attic for about 30 years—despite the fact that everything here is from 2012 and Thayer is only 42-years-old.

Even his videos—which are subjected, it would seem, to every form of analog video degradation known to man—have a "Video tape dumped in a mop bucket" feel. The best of these, Empirical Video Study is shown as a projection. Its multicolored, oscillating wave-forms and distorted abstractions remind one of what the unpaid-for premium cable TV channels (the scrambled porn) used to look like, except the colors are more muted—pale, static-y tangerines and faded, off-tint magenta's predominate. That, and its rhythms are more furtive and hypnotic than herky-jerky.

All of this would seem to be deliberately anti-aesthetic, faux-naïve, or a pointed affront to good taste except that Thayer's overall attitude isn't a rejection of (or an ironic gloss on) anything so much as it is marked by a casual but complete indifference to those standards in the first place. To pull a variegated collection of clumped-up lint from the dryer's lint filter and use it to fill in a goofy cut-out profile of a face—With the Force of the Moon and the Ocean—isn't an act that's determined in opposition to anything. It's a gesture, particular to itself—as if to say, this is the world, or part of it. It is abject, quotidian, fraught with pathos, entropy, degradation and sadness, but also charming, weirdly funny, and beautiful.

It's a refined vision, also. The overall formal intelligence and sense of economy (along with the silhouetted figures and dangling strings) calls to mind late Jasper Johns, but the general tone is reminiscent of a different artist altogether: the Abstract Expressionist Clyfford Still. Paintings by Still tend to feel as if one is staring into outer space and finding that there's no one out there: we're all totally alone. Imagine, then, if Still had the sense of humor to hang a Johns-like cut-out silhouetted figure in front of that existential void. It's funny, yes, but not exactly "ha ha" funny. By suggesting that we're all alone, it resists that condition by attempting to communicate—even as it implicates its own efforts as comically futile. This is paradoxical—funny because it isn't funny, and sad because it's utterly mundane: the type of thing best expressed through corrugated cardboard, lint and VCR-tracking errors—just some of Thayer's derelict materials.

Review of Benjamin Butler's "Some Trees" at Klaus Von Nichtssagend Gallery

Originally Published in Artillery Art Magazine
One might easily dismiss Benjamin Butler's paintings as blandly pretty or ironic "bad painting," a faux-amateurish retread of early 20th century Modernism. But they are, in fact, rather subtle paintings with a deceptive simplicity that belies a lot of art-historical knowledge and painterly know-how: the kind of work that takes time to warm up to.

All of them in his recent exhibition "Some Trees" depict not so much trees, as a nearly schematic glyph: the idea of a tree. As in Untitled Forest (2012), for instance, the suggestion of branches is rendered as one or two veering curves attached to a vertical line—enough to convey "tree"-ness. Mondrian's trees come to mind, as if Butler is picking up an art-historical loose end and running with it, although, stylistically, they are more akin to Alex Katz. Similarly, Butler's nods toward Minimalism suggest an attitude of resisting both the idealism of pure abstraction and the picturesque qualities imbued in his subject.

Initially, almost everything about these paintings seems to assert their status as an object. Paint is applied in ways that are unassuming and spare: either dry and scumbled or in very thin washes. These techniques emphasize the grain of the canvas, its materiality. Green Forest (2010-2012), a piece comprised of five oddly-proportioned columnar canvases (each about 76" x 7"), similarly asserts the canvas as an object—not unlike Frank Stella's early work. Also, like Stella, Butler's marks are sometimes laid down in tracks with slight space between them, as in Autumn Forest (Sixty-Three Trees) (2012). Without much over-painting, every step of his process is visible. This makes them performative in a way that feels both loose and fastidious—that is, deliberate and controlled but not precious or fussy.

Butler's consistent allusion to trees complicates all of this insistent materiality. The overall flatness is contradicted by the tree motif, which lets space—an intimation of sky—open up behind them. This implies a horizon line situated (with one exception) outside the frame. That is, these are trees that we are looking up at, an attitude suggesting, it would seem, a kind of reverence for his subject (or, perhaps, for his early 20th-century sources). Forty-Five Trees at Sunset (2012), for instance, seems, at first, almost like a grid painting or a mosaic before suggesting, gradually, the sense of light emanating through a forest. It also has a surprising, very evocative, sense of place. Like Milton Avery, he can wring a lot of atmospheric effect out of surfaces that would seem, initially, rather abstract. In fact, the best summary of Butler's work might be contained in the John Ashbery poem from which he garnered his title (Some Trees): "That their merely being there means something"—though, perhaps in Butler's case, the reverse. For all their "meaning"—their paradoxes, ambiguities and art-historical name-checking—we are left, in the end, with the specificity of their simple presence.

Other Reviews of Benjamin Butler's work:
Ken Johnson
Will Heinrich
Roberta Smith