Wednesday, February 17, 2016

What I Found There

Aaron Collier, Exhibition View, Photo by Jonathan Traviesa
Aaron Collier
Something There 
Carroll Gallery, New Orleans

There were six large, dark, abstract paintings in the main room of Tulane’s Carroll Gallery, black rectangles reflecting in the polished floor. The effect was powerful. In New Orleans it is a rare pleasure to stand in the middle of a spacious gallery filled (but not over filled) with large paintings.

The palette widened on approach, blacks giving way to other darks, blues, mauves, medium grays and some sparse passages of translucent silver. Two of the six paintings contained sculptural elements. In Revisitation, a scrap of lumber deckled with yellow spray foam insulation leaned in a corner formed by two canvases. In A Certain Uncertainty one of those decoy owl statues used to deter pigeons sat on a shelf in front of the lower left corner of the painting.

Aaron Collier, Revisitation, Photo by Jonathan Traviesa
When an object is imposed on a painting it is an act of rebellion. The object undermines the sovereignty of the painting if not the sovereignty of Painting with a capital P. Robert Rauchenberg, Jasper Johns, and other Neo-Dada and Pop artists knocked Painting down a peg or two with their constructions combining objects and paintings. These artworks did not ask to be read as paintings in the traditional way; they ask paintings to function as objects. Painting contains an illusory world like a window, real but untouchable. Set as the backdrop to an object (containing the shadow of that object), a painting becomes an object itself, a surface to look onto rather than into. Imagine a vase of flowers in front of an abstract painting–a Cy Twombly, say, or Joan Mitchell. The vase of flowers would change the way we perceive the painting. In Peter Rostovsky’s Epiphany Models  the artist places miniature sculpted figures on pedestals in front of landscapes reminiscent of works by Caspar David Friedrich. I am not sure if these works are ironic or sincere but the viewers are not likely to study Rostovsky's paintings the way they would the originals. The object-painting dialogue is an artist's inside joke. In the work of  the artist Daniel Atyim, found and constructed objects are placed in proximity to a drawing/painting. These objects appear born of the same media, like they came from the two-dimensional world. They remind me of that A-Ha video in which a sexy stranger escapes a comic book and throws himself violently against the walls to lose the remaining sketch marks that keep him from appearing fully human. The objects in Daniel’s work look uncomfortable in the material world and redirect us into the illusion of the two dimensional space. But these hybrid works do not employ the traditional materials and vocabulary of painting and do not ask to be approached as traditional paintings.

Aaron Collier, A Certain Uncertainty, Photo by Jonathan Traviesa
Aaron Collier’s two works, Revisitation and A Certain Uncertainty, are pretty conventionally presented paintings on canvas. The objects only slightly violate the space of the painting while the paintings passively accommodate their objects. The artist’s relationship to these objects seems to be a tentative one. Painting is a proposition; an object can reduce it to a prop. The rest of the works in the gallery seem to strive for a different purpose and tone.

From afar the four remaining works in the room were somber, impressive, hitting full low notes like cello music. In relation to the room and each other (as well as the objects in the other paintings) they alluded to architecture. Looking closer, the interiors of the paintings contained contour lines that were more organic than architectural or geometric. With a couple of exceptions these contour lines did not fully describe any figures or objects. They were concentrated in the centers of the pictures, relatively few lines straying past the edge of the canvas. In some passages these contours accumulate to the point where I would expect a build up of paint and inevitable texture, but the surface remained almost uniform and matte. The medium is listed as Flashe, a type of acrylic described this way on the Dick Blick art supply website: “extra-fine vinyl-based paint dries evenly with intense coverage to a uniform, velvety matte, opaque finish.” Thus the smooth surface and absence of luminosity. The resulting effect is incongruent, active and expressive searching lines on a surface that stands aloof. From a distance these paintings were luring, but when I moved closer to the individual works, I couldn’t get closer to them. I couldn’t get into their headspace. I felt a little like I was trying to meet the gaze of someone wearing mirror sunglasses.

Aaron Collier, (detail) In A Line..., Photo by Jonathan Traviesa
The work in the two smaller galleries varied widely in scale, palette, presentation, material and painterly vocabulary. Compared to the body of work in the main gallery the palette was wider, more vibrant, and included pastels and fluorescents. The works ranged from miniature at six by four inches to over seven feet in height. They were on paper, found paper, panel, Dura-Lar, and canvas. The paint was applied in contour lines, opaque color fields and washes.   The exhibition as a whole contained such a broad range of materials, sizes, and art-historical allusions I wondered, why isn’t this show more of a mess? I think Aaron Collier can, with little effort, make order of chaos. I wonder if the exploration of materials and surfaces might be the artist's attempt to challenge his ability to make order, to challenge his habits, his control of paint, his tendency to establish balance within a pictorial space. If that's the motivation I think is necessary and courageous for an artist to do though as a viewer I want to see that there are also convictions at the core of the work.

Aaron Collier, Where Light Is As Thick As Darkness, Photo by Jonathan Traviesa
I saw the bright, synthetic green in the painting Where Light Is As Thick As Darkness as an effort to rabble-rouse an otherwise tasteful palette. It was a color suited to cause a disruption, but when a blotch of green that would be rebellious in volume or as a rogue mark, is  threaded tastefully into the composition it acts as–in Apartment Therapy terms–an accent color. (I really like the strange window reflection looking mark in the top of this painting.) A scrap of cloth collaged onto the canvas surface (In a Line, But Out of Order) was placed neatly in a corner, on the line of the golden ratio, parallel to the edges of the painting, its colors in harmony with the palette. If these are efforts to undermine conservative or repetitive impulses in the artist’s art-making process, these gestures are not disruptive enough to propose a true challenge to an artist who can, it seems, effortlessly make an attractive painting.

Aaron Collier, Exhibition View, Photo by Jonathan Traviesa
In addition to the two dimensional works in one of the smaller galleries is an object, a shelf with three owl decoys. These owls are identical to one in the main gallery except they have been painted with Flashe. This piece, A Lack Of Sight Not Being The Cause Of Darkness is reminiscent of Haim Steinbach’s work, not only in his use of mass-produced objects (including owls), but his signature wedged shelf. It is hard to know if this quote was intentional or the inevitable result of two artists employing the same quotidian objects. In front of the painting the owl introduced one batch of art historical references, as multiples on the wedged shelf it recalled another artist and set of ideas. As totems I sort of liked this watchful predator in the gallery, but I could not figure out its function in the show other than to be what it is, a decoy. This piece, hung well above eye level does not invite examination; it redirects me (like a pigeon!) to the rest of the show.

This body of work (or bodies of work) represented hours of labor and thought, broad investigations of materials, and a wealth of art historical knowledge. The exhibition as a whole was thoughtfully curated, impeccably hung and a pleasure to attend. But when I tried to make contact with individual works I repeatedly felt like I was presented with a decoy.  This might have been the intention of the work, to be evasive, to keep me moving, but I wanted to connect more–more deeply, more emotionally, more physically–with the individual pieces. 

Aaron Collier, Looking At, Photo by Jonathan Traviesa
I suspect the work in this show succeeds in accomplishing what it sets out to. And the work is all handsome. But me, I am drawn to art that comes closer to failure, like a racecar taking the corner too fast, threatening to skid into the wall and burst into flames. That said, sometimes an artist’s most exciting brushes with disaster are slower and quieter than a racecar. In this show the piece I found the most exciting was titled Looking At. It was modest in size at seventeen by fourteen inches and painted in casein on paper. The palette was muted, warm grays and pastels with the exception of a subtle cameo of orange and teal. Horizontal bands of color descended nearly the length of the vertically formatted painting. These wobbly bands didn’t exactly look like window blinds but to me they felt like window blinds, closed, askew on the bottom as if raised by momentarily by one’s thumb, revealing a second space beyond them. There a wedge of muted blue, cut by plum colored dashes, maybe a sliver of wavy water. Yes, this was just my impression, my fantasy. But the point is that I was lured to fantasy. I was not thinking about art or mark making or anything in the material world, I was within the world of the painting, within its unique proposition. In this piece there was a lack of fussing, a directness. I was reminded of post-Futurist Morandi, not because this work resembled that but because of the similar abandonment of devices. In Aaron Collier’s painting Looking At there is both chaos and order. This humble and audacious painting was a racecar on fire, silent and in slow motion amidst the spectacle of the exhibition.

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