For Gideon Bok, painting, which has historically been defined as a container, a window, or a two-dimensional surface, is at least all three at once. Although I have no proof, I also felt that Bok may also think of painting as a screen.
That idea came to me while I was looking at “Highway to Hegel” in his current exhibition, Welcome to the Afterfuture (2013) at SHFAP/Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (February 12–March 16, 2014). In the nearly square “Highway to Hegel” (2013), as well as the diptych “Welcome to the Afterfuture” (2013) — the largest paintings in the exhibition — Bok continues using his cluttered studio space as the starting point for his investigations into perception, perspective and time, as well as the possibilities of paint’s materiality, ranging from crusty layers to dirty washes, and from opaque to translucent.
The setup for “Highway to Hegel” suggests that the artist is standing at the far end of his studio, looking at the two windows opposite him. Perspectivally speaking, we are looking into a three-sided enclosure, with the painting forming the fourth, transparent wall (window or screen). It is nighttime and the fluorescent lights are on. A worktable enters the composition diagonally from the bottom edge. A coffee can full of vertical, dirty brushes is nestled in the lower right corner of the table’s diagonally jutting plane.
A slightly warped, red-and-black checkerboard floor takes up nearly two/thirds of the painting’s surface, tilting back in space to the far wall and two windows, which also tilt back, as if afraid of our presence. Part of the ceiling and the two fluorescent lights are also visible, as is the reflection of the lights in the window. Album covers from vinyl LPs are scattered on the floor, with one of them repeated. Two empty chairs (invitations to physically enter the space) and a stereo speaker are near the window, facing out.
The obvious way to read “Highway to Hegel” is as a chronicle of the artist’s perceptions of his studio in time, with the painting’s surface acting as a record of the artist’s varying perceptions of the space as he attempts to take it all in. The perceptual disparity runs the gamut, from looking down at the table, where he mixes the paint, to looking straight ahead, at the far wall and windows. By applying the paint differently in diverse areas, Bok suggests loose equivalents between perception and paint’s materiality, employing everything from thick daubs to watery surfaces, and turning the canvas into a record of mark-making from the postwar era to the present.
However, in registering and fitting together distinct perceptions, particularly in “Highway to Hegel” and the diptych, “Welcome to the Afterfuture,” Bok evokes the imagery found in surveillance cameras from closed-circuit cameras. It is as if Bok is spying on his environment, trying to discover what he can about himself and the world he inhabits. The other, almost contrary perception I had was that these the views are what the painting sees after the artist has left the studio or before he has enters it: instead of the fourth wall of a room, the painting becomes a sensitive eye and skin.
In his earlier work, Bok often included friends and others who hung out in his studio. If their positions changed over time, he recorded it. Sometimes, as in “Our Endless Numbered Days” (2001–04), which is not in the exhibition, the same person is seen in different locations in the same space. Perhaps because Bok has recently moved to Boston, the studio is empty of people, which I feel makes the large paintings in Welcome To The Afterfuture much stronger than the earlier ones in which figures are seen. This is because the figures often introduced an anecdotal note into the painting, shifting the viewer away from the perceptual domain to a narrative one. One of the differences between chronicling time passing and telling a story is that the former is apt to invoke the imminence of chaos, while the latter asserts resolution. But just as style is a deception, so too is resolution.
In addition to the larger paintings, the exhibition included a series of small, square canvases, in which Bok depicts a circumscribed view, often featuring part of a window and chair at the one of end of his studio. In the lower left-hand corner of the window, Bok has placed an album cover of a band — Last Poets or Bedford Park, for example. Two kinds of time — a musical recording and the light of the day (or night) outside the window — are joined together, and made inseparable, with the cultural artifact existing inside the larger expanse of the window. In other paintings from this group done on square formats, various objects (including album covers, guitars, amplifier and stereo equipmet) are lying on the floor, seen from above.
On the simplest level, these items serve as visual reminders that, in addition to being a painter, Bok is a musician. On another level, they differentiate the ways a musician and an observational painter (or chronicler) mark time. A musician might perform a particular song over and over, knowing that each performance will be different. An observational painter shapes time according to shades of light and the changes wrought by nature and human activity.
Bok works on several paintings at once, working within a predetermined time frame in order to keep the ambient light in the painting consistent. The guitar reminds us that for all of music’s ethereality, it is the result of physical contact, of repetition, labor and memory.
As Bok seems to be suggesting in these works, at the heart of music and painting is a dance between structure and improvisation, repetition and difference. All kinds of contradictory emotions seep into these paintings — loneliness and camaraderie, and the convoluted union between ordinariness and strangeness that is synonymous with daily living. Their celebration of a particular light also acknowledges, in its passing, the limits of mortality.
Gideon Bok: Welcome to the Afterfuture continues at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through March 16.