Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Review in Real Time

Bryce Speed
Ten Gallery, New Orleans

When I write about an artwork or exhibition, I usually summarize my cumulative experience of the work. Here though, I am transcribing notes I took in front of all eleven pieces in Bryce Speed's exhibition at Ten Gallery. So this review was, in a sense, written in real time. My notes are edited down for clarity and brevity but I hope they faithfully capture my viewing process and also honor the work with this record of careful looking. I spent about two hours looking at the work. These were my thoughts:

Yellow Portrait, watercolor and pencil on paper

I am suspicious of small, attractive, abstract or non-objective works on paper. Often, the appealing colors, shapes, and marks solicit a bland, hardly registered agreement: that's nice. Or they are seen as an object that would enhance a domestic space. I want to be bothered, to feel something new. I want art-especially small, attractive work–in some way to provoke or even annoy or bother me. Abstraction did not come to us without a revolution. But now this level of abstraction is pottery-barn ready, which can pose a challenge to the artist. An artist can use this language with urgency and vision but gesture of reducing a form or of recording a movement is not a new thought. This work is agreeable. But this is the first piece in the show so I have to keep looking at it and keep asking myself What is this artist doing? What is he looking for?

This piece is called “Yellow Portrait.” There is an illusion of depth within the four edges of this piece but I don’t know what kind of space that depth describes. It does not read as architecture (except maybe that arch), or nature; the marks look like brushstrokes, the pencil lines look like pencil lines. That white band reads as some kind of scrim, a curtain, or water, maybe. But really, the depth seems pictorial. The content seems to be the materials and even the title argues that this is a formal piece. I don’t dislike this piece it’s just a little too easy on the eyes for me.

I don't want art, even a small, non-objective works on paper, to be like the refined customers at a fine restaurant, chatting civilly and clinking silverware. I want the art to be like the unstable dishwasher yelling I quit! or something even crazier as he storms through the restaurant and out front door. Then when quiet returns to the room everyone is still a little shaken. Goofy example, I know. But even in a modest work of art I want to feel a shift in my mood or awareness.
Yellow Brick, acrylic, pencil, and oil on paper, 24" x 27"

Whoa. What are those things? I am looking at two triangleish forms that are coming off the surface of this piece by about half an inch. They seem to be constructed of thick, lemon yellow paint, modeled with a cake decorating tool. Now this is that weird, provocative thing I was missing in the last piece. One of these shapes (or, because they are so think they might be objects, forms) is leaving the frame of the page and invading the mat on which the drawing floats. Huh. Strange. I like it. 

The image behind forms is equally alluring and strange. A wash of bluish grey with white lines that make me think of water, or a curtain, and marks made by Julie Mehretu. I am already thinking “boathouse” when I focus in on the bunk bed-like structure whose mattresses are dressed in orange and yellow plaid sheets, the kind found in camp bunk beds in the 1970s or 80s…there are heavy, angled, brown lines that look like they bear the weight of the structure (and the drawing). Is this an A-frame? Again I am reminded of the 1980s and cottages. Then there is an outdoor space. There is green, there is water, there is a landscape. Pencil-drawn chairs recline in the web of perspective lines. I am hooked; I keep looking. I am in the spaces of this piece and then I realize I am no longer seeing the yellow forms interrupting the view until I see them. The piece is called "Yellow Brick." We, the viewer are outside the yellow brick. I think we are looking into the memory of a space.

The dishwasher is running through the restaurant.
Awash, ink, oil, and acrylic on paper, 17" x 21"

Coming from the last piece, I arrive at this one ready to see architecture and don’t those rectangles of grey frosting-paint look like bricks? Again, they place us outside looking in. Inside there is a fire and wallpaper suggested in pencil lines and  what are those dusty pink forms? In this space they look supernatural or as important as something supernatural; I do not read them simply as marks because I am following the logic of the picture. I am trusting the artist is not decorating the surface of a piece of paper. I see them as ghosts or the less superstitious cousin, memory. I feel like the artist is putting something back together, a place, a memory. There are those lines again (the ones I said resembled water, curtain, Mehretiu) and this picture is called "Awash." Yes, it looks like water is crossing the floor.
High Rise, acrylic, ink, and oil on canvas, 36" x 48"

Canvas is tricky, I think as I arrive at this painting. Canvas arrives with more baggage than paper. Canvas will deplete the surface of oil, of pigment even. Its texture can leave the eyes wanting more. But a canvas is shown (usually) without glass in front of it. It is not hard to feel the presence of the artist there working because as you stand face to face with a surface marked by his gestures, you stand in his place. This piece is more abstract than the previous two. Colored trapezoids look like rectangles floating in perspective. Doors without walls. There is an interior and an exterior, though these boarders are vague. The doors inside are the colors of wall paint, the ones outside are black and white. Behind them is a tidal wave of blue and grey. A wave, I say because this shape makes me think wave and because on its left, its breaking side, there are whitish circles that remind me of the stylized spray of Hokusai’s “The Great Wave.” What do I make of those reddish circles? What to I make of that green saber shape in the upper left? What do I make of this painting? I don’t know. It’s definitely not as comfortable as the works on paper. The artist does not have the upper hand here. The scale is bigger.The canvas is being difficult. I like that. Or maybe what I like most is that without the frame the painting is sort of suspended. I sense an ellipsis. When the artist’s activity is put in a frame, the ethereal content is concluded and contained.
Sixth Floor, oil and acrylic on canvas

This is an attractive painting. It also feels familiar. Again, the time I have spent with the previous works urges me to look for illusion of real space rather than read the space as strictly non-objective, pictorial. So I wonder how a viewer who does not make paintings him/herself sees paintings. Knowing the name of a color, the shape of the brush that made the stroke, understanding how a painting was made in the physical sense affects my interaction with it. With rapt pleasure I can watch a trapeze artist do what another acrobat might find elementary. Likewise, simple paint gymnastics don’t impress me. But when the familiar language of paint is deployed in the artist’s exploration of territory seemingly unfamiliar to him, I am engaged. This is the case here. Had I not seen the previous works I might not recognize the artist’s searching in this piece. It might have appeared decorative, almost quoting moments in the history of abstract painting. But at this point I trust the artist is following his own trajectory. (I wrote in a previous post about this moment, about the role trust plays in my art viewing.)

This is all to say that "Sixth Floor" might not interest me if I was approaching it without having seen the other work in the show. I would find it attractive but wonder if it had any depth. Now, in context, I see these black and white forms as architectural detail. There is a space behind it. This space seems unlit. Are we inside looking at twilight or are we outside looking a dark apartment building?
July Morning, oil and pencil on paper, 11" x 15"

I don’t know what to do with this one. I seem to be taking issue with the scale. Why? Let me ask another question: What is in this for me? As I said, for me, confident nice-looking marks don’t do it. I think I am taking issue with the travel-size scale. I am hung up on the scale. This seems like a little study or a notation but is it a finished work? The problem might be the frame, which elevates this piece, puts it on the level of the more finished, more ambitious works in the show. Now, I am delivered from the world of the artist into the practical world of the Art Show in which it may be wise to include smaller, more affordable options. (I didn't look at a price list; I have no idea how this piece is priced but here I am thinking about it.) But who knows, on another day this piece may seem essential.        
Spouting, acrylic, gouache and pencil on paper, 24" x 28"

Right away I like this piece. I mean really like it. I lean in. There is a lot going on spatially and on the surface. And there is what looks like a sort of ghost narrative. I say ghost because shapes representing objects are present to varying degrees of solidity. Also, there is the outline of a person and an outline of a head in profile. The space we look in on is a room in a modern house.

I think what I like about this artist’s work is that often a mark is simultaneously a mark and the articulation of an object or space. I am aware of both at once. The materials and gestures are one with the object or illusion they forms. Because the objects are realised to varying degrees, I seem to be witnessing the artist’s thoughts as they happen, as his marks conjure objects and spaces. This is the effect. And so this space seems reconstituted from memory with all memory’s peculiar generalization and detail.

Those blue marks in the far distance read as a building, like one of those glass office buildings you can see from far off in flat suburbs. How do I get that from what is essentially two or three drags of a paintbrush?

While some marks and color fields articulate an object or space, others suggest another layer I am thinking of as incidents. These are invisible things the artist has made visible. Wind. There is a passage similar to the ones I read as water or the notation of water in the pieces preceding this one but because of the way it is swirling and because the weight of the marks that define it, it might be wind instead. There is this outline of a head in profile; issuing from its open mouth are little isosceles triangles of solid black and white. These shapes, sit in a swarm on the surface of the illusion and also in it’s main space. They represent a different element, a different reality. Maybe speech. 

In this piece I see all of what I understand to be the artist's interests and abilities and I sense him following and grappling with his vision rather than directing it. 
Hexagon Place, acrylic and wax on paper, 15"x20"
Apartment Wave, acrylic and pencil on paper, 15"x20"

I found myself looking at the next two pieces together. Both contain a deep space of grey washes and vague line work. A more shallow space is made of triangles in one piece and trapezoids–reading as rectangles on various planes in space–in the other. I am often impatient with titles, usually when they take on a hazardous portion of an artwork’s total weight. In this case though, these titles informed the experience of looking at the work. Because these works are composed of abstract forms and marks, the titles encourage a reading that is not simply formal. “Hexagon Place” sounds almost like a street, a notation on a map, and it creates a bit of friction with the shapes pictured. 

I saw “Apartment Wave”–informed by the rest of the architecture in the show—as an apartment building before seeing the title. I found myself thinking of a Le Corbusier. Wave can refer to the pattern of windows or to an increase in construction in a certain area. The color of the shifting planes of rectangles recall paint swatches. As a grad student I sat in on a tenure review. The candidate was a painter and one reviewer commented that the palette of her small abstract paintings resembled the trendy colors in fashion that year. I have never forgotten the comment and have seen modes of color lifted from fashion or design make their way into art. In this case the association seems deliberate. The palette feels current, or retro in the current way. The association with interior paint supports what the piece seems to be about.
Night Deluge, ink, acrylic, and oil on paper, 22" x 30"
At first glance around the gallery I thought this was the piece I liked best. Or maybe it was the most unsettling. Now I am not sure. The artist seems to have been fighting the materials. The ink seems to have caused a problem for the artist. The forms seem unanchored in stark contrast to the other pieces. In a lot of ways this picture seems to be a hot mess. But I really, really appreciate artists willing to get themselves into trouble. The artist is in trouble here. There are really nice moments but there is a lack of cohesion. 

The title is “Night Deluge.” My process is to view the art work first, then the titles (and almost always stay away from the statement.) Before reading the title, though these elements are not explicitly illustrated in this piece I understood Night and saw water in the work. The title then for me is not only redundant but it names a thing I sensed which makes that thing smaller by naming it. The word deluge is also a bit like the word fancy; it undermines the thing it names.
Pods, acrylic and pencil on paper, 15" x 20"
Confession: I’m tired. Looking at the eleventh piece in this show my eyes feel saturated. So this might be a weak reading, not really fair to the work. What do I see here? This green, leaf-shaped thing is weird. I like its disruption. The structure resembles an apartment building. There are two empty little chairs facing each other. Since I am writing this in real time I think I am going to take a powder on this one. This piece is subtle. It is close to the door and the light switches which is never the place of honor in the room.
I looked at Bryce Speed's work online. And as I mentioned, I spent a lot of time with this show. I like his work and believe the artist is working thoughtfully and intuitively. I am trying to figure out why I want to see the scale pushed. Is it just a kind of auto-appreciation of the macho gesture? No I don’t think that’s it. Well maybe. But only insofar as that with the macho gesture an artist’s work becomes more ambitious. The artist fighting bigger dragons. 

I was thinking of two artists and how they relate to Bryce Speed: Julie Mehretu and Toba Khedoori (her large scale drawings from a while back). All three artists work with architecture and line and exhibit an almost totalitarian control of media. On a small scale this control can give an artwork the appearance of being too safe, too easy. I am not saying that Bryce Speed is not seeking challenges in is work, not at all. It just seems that he has chops he may not be using. 

It is possible that this has more to do with my own preoccupations than the artist’s trajectory; I worry that artists get lodged in certain practical circumstances such as a geographical norms, an academic setting, or the need to sell work to the most available buyers who might not be art collectors with space for large work. I find the strongest work in this show are the pieces that take on the task of describing a complicated space or the ones in which the materials (canvas, ink) present a challenge to the artist, which is to say the pieces that seem to be a record of artist pushing past the boundaries of what is known to him and taking the viewer to that precarious and exhilarating  edge.

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