Friday, May 13, 2011

Art in America online/Paul Sietsema

Paul Sietsema's solo exhibition of sculpture, films and drawings at MoMA last year was organized by the museum's department of drawings. Indeed, the artist's dexterity as a draftsman—evident in a current show of exquisitely complex drawings and paintings at Matthew Marks—is remarkable. But while Sietsema can make trompe l'oeil images to rival the "perfect" naturalism of photographs, his intention is to excavate sites of image production.

Perfection in each mark reveals not simply a craftsman's talent, but the contemporary terms of artistic creation and image reproduction. What does it mean for a human hand to painstakingly reproduce an image that could be more economically rendered by a color printer?

In a 16mm film work from early in this decade, Empire (2002), the artist compared American critic Clement Greenberg's apartment to an 18th-century rococo dwelling, constructing miniature models of each environment and filming a tour through each—à la Robin Leach's "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." The piece shows the roots of Sietsema's interrogative odes to art-making and art culture, and his methodical devotion to minute detail. His newer work—including photo-perfect ink drawings of the front and back of a photograph of a boat (Boat Drawing, 2010) and enamel paintings on paper of various museum coat check plaques (Collection 3, 2010)—is equally inquisitive but far less straightforwardly diagrammatical. A.i.A. speaks to Sietsema about the escalating intricacies of his current work.

AIMEE WALLESTON: The content of your ink drawing, Painter's Mussel 4 (2011), is a framed photograph pried apart—suggesting an aggressive rejection of photography. By producing, by hand, images so technically perfect as to confound the viewer into believing a human made them, are you are trying to beat printers and photographic techniques at their own game?
PAUL SIETSEMA: I see hand- and machine-made things as existing in a continuum; one is not better or inherently more interesting than the other. Who made the machines, anyway? I guess much of my work is developing the right machine, the right process, in order to make the work. And if I confuse what a hand or what a machine should be doing, or thinking, maybe something will come out of that.

I guess my feeling about hand versus machine is ambivalence-which is probably how the machine feels about it, too.

WALLESTON: In Boat Drawing (2010), you copy the front and back of a photograph of a boat, replicating in ink the aging and crumpling of photographic paper. It's almost as though these effects were equal to, or perhaps more important than, the actual content of the image—the boat, people, waves and so forth.

SIETSEMA: Boat Drawing was built up in layers, with equal attention paid to every small piece of real estate, so the equalizing of the paper the boat is on with the boat itself is pretty inevitable. I was interested in layering or couching various aspects of different mediums. I use watery acrylic inks, and I like the parallel of the brush in ink and the boat in water. I like the match-up of the flat white topographical field of the sails, the portrayed photograph and the paper the drawing is on. So it's a boat captured in the ocean, captured in a photograph, the photograph captured in photographic paper, and the photographic paper captured in the paper of the drawing. The overall combine of esthetics ends up consisting of the residual physical aspects of each.

Eight or ten years ago I remember watching one of the Star Wars movies that had just come out, and noticing that Lucas had decided that in order for computer generated images to look right, he needed to add back the errant, random, unseemly aspects of materials. Robots needed dust and rust and dents to look right. These formal qualities were a natural byproduct of [traditional] photography, but this aspect of [traditional] photography and objects had to be reproduced in a newer [digital] medium.

With the boat I like the way the antiquated layers intersect with the antiquated image of sea travel. On the boat, one of the figures is waving-maybe as a farewell to photography?

WALLESTON: The two Untitled ink drawings (2011) are both completely abstraction-one is a dark abyss that gives the illusion of refracting light, the other a light square edged with blotches. What are you trying to say about working with ink?

SIETSEMA: I wanted to make images of ink. Maybe one way to think of them is as homage. The larger one would be an homage to the brush, the smaller and lighter one to the hand. I suppose it's a way for the materiality of the ink to take center stage, along with its delivery device.

When I was making these I also liked to think of them as portals: the larger and darker one as an actual portal, a kind of dark cave, the smaller and lighter one as an image of a portal (the shape made positive with finger and hand prints). I originally put the darker one next to the doorway into the gallery, but that seemed a little too literal or maybe redundant. Where it is now, across from the entry, I like to think of walking straight ahead (bypassing the show) and into the drawing, into whatever is across its threshold—which in this case wouldn't necessarily just be Metro Pictures, the gallery next door.

WALLESTON: You've made two enamel drawings based on the plaques you received from museum coat checks around the world, Collection 2 (2009) and Collection 3 (2010). They recall passports plastered with travel stamps-a traveler's memento. Was that the point?

SIETSEMA: When I was in New York in 2002 in preparation for my show at the Whitney I had a large parka with me. I wasn't so familiar with the weather in New York, and fearing an un-Californian climate I wore the parka for a meeting with my curator at the museum. I checked the coat and got a nice little plastic plaque with a number on it in return. It had become far too warm for the parka by the time I was leaving the museum so I decided I'd leave the jacket at the Whitney and come back for it later. I ended up uptown past the Whitney's closing time and had a plane to catch back to LA early the next morning. There was no point trying to get the coat back and I didn't really feel like the little plaque was such a bad trade.

I realized that as a matter of fact I felt pretty good that something of mine, even if it was just a coat, was now in the collection of the Whitney, even if that meant, in this case, that it was just in the building. I began to leave personal belongings in coat checks at other museums and began to assemble my collection of plaques. My drawings of them are my way of showing different parts of this collection.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Art in America online/Rebecca Chamberlain

In her small East Williamsburg studio, artist Rebecca Chamberlain puts the finishing touches on her first solo show in New York, ". . . Wouldn't it be sublime . . ." [opens May 14 at DODGE gallery]. Chamberlain will fill the large, two-story space with her delicately executed lithographic ink paintings. Several works willfully complicate high-modernist 2-D abstraction and architecture; the artist will present two paintings made directly on the wall ("in homage to Sol LeWitt," the artist told A.i.A.) and four painted plinths, which feature interiors painted on the front and back sides.

The paintings in this show use reproductions of mid-20th-century interiors as source material. Planning a painting, Chamberlain typically crops the source image, concentrating on a staircase or a hallway arch rather than the entire image, and giving the final piece a more abstract and unknowable mien. The method in which these interiors were shot inspires the artist—the shadows, soft lighting and moody points-of-view favored in midcentury interior photography gives her source material a cinematic feeling.

"I've tried to do work from film stills," Chamberlain says. "But then it just becomes something else, a piece of art created from a film still, and that's not really what I'm interested in." Rather, the artist's painted reinterpretations of interiors seem to become the stage for a scene yet to be played out-not one having already occurred.

A series of triptychs unite formal interior studies with reinterpretations of Josef Albers's geometric abstractions. For Albers Rooms, Strand Palace Hotel and Gayfere House, 1928–1931 (2010), Chamberlain created a central panel that reproduces Albers's Steps (1932). Installed in the "middle ground" between two opulent stairway interiors, the panel quietly addresses the continuum between design, decoration and fine art, using the Albers painting almost as a stand-in for the German artist's identity as both a Bauhaus master and abstract painter. The image recalls the impossible puzzle of the endless staircase, created by L.S. and Roger Penrose in 1958, giving the work a feeling of being precisely designed, yet impracticable. Favoring spatial enigmas, Chamberlain seems most drawn to the way a place feels: the unspoken psychological and emotional implications inherent to architecture and interior design.

"I'm interested in stairways and hallways as interstitial spaces," the artist says. "I'm also thinking about the points of anticipation in an interior or an image. The performative places, like a staircase, where one ascends and descends, as well as the places where one could hide and watch from behind the scenes."

Chamberlain began studying ballet at age four. She auditioned for Joffrey and the School of American Ballet, until injuries became debilitating. She says, "My frustration grew bigger than my pleasure and I wanted to work alone basically—not in front of mirrors, not in front of audiences, not beside anyone." Balletic references infuse Chamberlain's work, in her interest in sweeping arches and refined curves that give well-designed interiors their sense of life and movement.

Chamberlain says that her earlier works focused on women in fashion, and how women presented themselves when they first began working in offices. A 2004 single-panel piece, Reception, Chicago 1935–1936, is painted in ballpoint pen ink (the artist developed a technique of draining Bic pens overnight and using the ink as paint, before moving on to her current lithographic ink following a dissatisfying encounter with Bic's red ink). The work depicts an office interior with a slickness and luxury (lots of abstract art on the walls, sleek furnishings seemingly carved from glossy ebony), which appears like some silent prayer for the industrial age.

"I was working in an office at the time, and I became obsessed more and more with office supplies, like the printed interiors of envelopes," says the artist. "Then I started to look less at the women in offices, and more [carefully at] the offices they were working in."

This latest body of work sees the artist addressing increasingly complicated issues. The art is an unadulterated exaltation of Modernism—yet its absence of figures induces viewers to wonder: did fantastic things really happen here? Or are the interiors Chamberlain investigates sites for a magnificent moment that could never really be?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Art in America online/Nate Lowman

Trash, Treasure: Nate Lowman's Selective Memory
by aimee walleston 05/06/11
New York artist Nate Lowman's iconophilic paintings, sculpture and bricolage have a story of cultural alienation to tell. "I love language, and I love the failure of language," Lowman told A.i.A. "To me, a drop of oil paint or a xerographic dot are the same thing—they're all just language." Just as well: all the works for this upcoming show are still nameless, as titles are the last step.

Late last week, Lowman and his assistants were spread over two large studios (one the artist's own, in Tribeca; the other a Chinatown loaner from his dealer), preparing work for a behemoth, painting-heavy exhibition, "Trash Landing," opening May 7 at Maccarone and Gavin Brown's Enterprise. The two-gallery premise is a gambit by the two dealers that last fall featured Rob Pruitt.

The 32-year-old Lowman has shown consistently for the past decade, and makes work that hails from the twin temples of pop-culture atrocity and political disaster, with detours into environmental destruction. These have included Xerox collages examining Serena Williams's "sweet stalker," Albrecht Stromeyer (Why I Love Serena, 2003), and sculpture consisting of rusted gas station pumps that acts as a metaphor for the war in Iraq (The Never Ending Story, 2007).

Less obviously, the artist has used the language of mediation to create a vocabulary of recurring images—continually playing from his own picture deck to build an alternative iconography. Recalling artist Nancy Spero, whose invented dictionary of hieroglyphs substituted for semiotics, Lowman's catalogue of images suggests a desire to say something, repeatedly, about culture that goes beyond words. Since 2001, for example, he has reused the same image of a topless Nicole Brown Simpson (derived from a topless image that was allegedly sold to a tabloid by Brown Simpson's own sister). Several paintings based on this image will be included in "Trash Landing."

"I make paintings of certain images because I want people to remember them," says Lowman. "That's when I make a painting of someone like Oliver North [the infamous Iran-Contra conspirator and Marine, whose portrait Lowman exhibited in 2004 at Ritter/Zamet in London]. I wanted to be like: Remember him?"

This show features a herd of images from Lowman's recent popular series of variously sized, nearly indistinguishable paintings that reinterpret de Kooning's Marilyn Monroe (1954). Lowman's Marilyns come to life on unprimed linen, the figure rendered with lush daubs of oil in '80s surfboard hues. On top of the figure, Lowman paints a layer of striated high-gloss black alkyd paint, giving the image the look of a multiple-generation photocopy (i.e., the "Xerox of a Xerox" esthetic of punk show flyers and zines).

Lowman has used alkyd—a dense, shiny paint that, in Lowman's hands, mimics a glossier version of newsprint and Xerox—consistently for the last decade, and his use of the medium has often made visual analogies between antique copiers and skin. This series also riffs on de Kooning's famous statement: "Flesh was the reason oil paint was invented." Lowman's alkyd application gives each painting a machine-made, reproduced appearance, suggesting that, in contemporary culture, the way we see skin appears less like oil and more like inkjet.

If Marilyn is the 20th century's iconic blonde, doomed to live eternally in an image, she's also a woman estranged from her born identity. Lowman says he came to the subject more as a meditation on a culture of violence and began using this specific image almost by chance. Marilyn, whose image represents a suggestively acquiescent sexual conquest maddeningly out of reach, has equally become a prized fetish object for collectors (everything from her chest X-rays to the couch from her psychiatrist's office have been put up for sale, purportedly in honor of her legend). "I don't have a connoisseur's interest [in this material]," says Lowman. He's never read a biography of Monroe, "and the only films I saw of hers were The Misfits and her singing ‘Happy Birthday Mr. President.' I'm more interested in other peoples' interest in these [people]."

Lowman will also show landscape paintings, mostly depicting disaster imagery—both man-made and natural, including Iceland's erupting volcano and a house in Brazil floating away in a flood. These are made with a technique he developed by spraying oil paint through an automotive paint gun, and subsequently layering alkyd on top. The artist proposes a different sublime, one in which nature does not prevail—his images of catastrophe seem quotidian rather than heartbreaking. Lowman's sublime is a horror at the hand of man-the guilt of creating Frankenstein mixed with a keen sense of banality. "With that volcano, all anyone ever talks about is inconvenience," says Lowman.

Lowman will light the gallery with fluorescent gels, to create the effect of the Magic Hour, the first and last hour of sunlight in the day. "I talked to a lot of cinematographers about how to get the light to look perfect, but then I decided to do it in a more ghetto way," he explains. "A gesture like that has to be straightforward, or it dissolves into the decorative."

Lowman has consistently employed text in his work. On a large, unprimed canvas, the artist has copied the poetic phrase: "He's running on a treadmill in front of the mirror in his gym. She's coming home from work behind the wheel of her Smartcar. Will they meet?" The text comes from The Coming Insurrection, a call-to-arms (and Glenn Beck's bête noire) written by anonymous political collective the Invisible Committee in the wake of Paris's 2005 banlieue riots. Written as though the group comprised the philosophical grandchildren of Adorno and Horkheimer and the Weather Underground coming home to roost, the text "really describes contemporary alienation in the best way," says Lowman.