I was recently talking to a friend of mine about how there seems to be a common conception that an artist’s life in the studio is primarily filled with creativity and excitement. The reality, we both decided, can be far less sexy, long hours of painstaking physical labor that can be draining, and to be honest, kind of boring. Making boldface generalities is of course a recipe for disaster, but for many artists the long hours and repetitive demands of making something by hand is part of the parcel.
Curator Chris Sharp’s two-gallery exhibition at Laurel Gitlen and Lisa Cooley, Stay In Love, is a celebration of those who persist in this mode. The exhibition focuses on “manual repetition and devotion to a single subject in the 21st century”: Sharp argues, not incorrectly, that the immediate gratification of the internet and digital technologies has reduced the perceived necessity of certain labors. I personally have no problem with the idea that the internet and technology as a whole have begun to remove the repetitive and handheld tasks that used to dominate our lives. While there is an intimate and ritualistic quality to using things like a typewriter or a record player, it was much easier to write this post on my laptop, listening to iTunes.
Yet it is the idea of impractical devotion that seems to unite the exhibition. At first glance, unfortunately, the arrangements in both galleries are so different that they are not immediately recognizable as part of the same exhibition.
At Lisa Cooley the somewhat literal interpretation of the theme is rescued by the wide range and impressive quality of the works on view. Though it read a bit like a bullet point list, I found the display instructive and recommend visiting this gallery first. Three canvases by On Kawara stare across at a massive, all white installation by Roman Opalka. The architectural photography by duo Bernd and Hilla Becher seem oddly well paired with Peter Dreher’s work “Tag um Tag guter Tag, N. 2130 (Night).” Dreher has been painting the same water glass on almost identical canvases since the 1970s. A strikingly painted costal landscape of a cottage by Maureen Gallace offers what might be considered a slightly more orthodox take on a similar theme. A collection of found vintage photographs of women entitled “the hidden mother” by Linda Fregni Nagler seems to solidify the mood in the room. Singular and one dimensional subject matter is transformed and made magical or otherwise interesting through the use of repetition.
The works on view at Laurel Gitlen, largely abstract paintings and sculpture, are united by a sense of informality. I was unfamiliar with the Claude Viallat’s paintings before this exhibition. His slapdash geometric compositions, hung unstretched on the wall, seem to resonate with New York’s younger, emerging generation of abstract painters. While the exhibition seems to involve some level of obsessive fixation I think in this case, repetition is actually just a vehicle for dealing with composition. Though separated from his fellow painter by a generation and a continent, Josh Smith’s self titled canvas speaks a similar language. We get the sense that both artists were incredibly excited to paint these pictures and were slightly unsure of how to go about doing it. In both cases the artists rely upon a formula to avoid making immediate decisions about subject matter. The execution becomes the content.
Kyle Thurman is another artist I’d never heard of, yet what I discovered was moving. His contribution to the exhibition was tiny compared to the surrounding works. His small white canvas dotted with an array of startlingly beautiful flat red flower forms. They seemed to erupt from and consume the surface of his canvas the way fire might spread across a glacier soaked in lighter fluid. This painting was one of many created by the artist using artificially died flower arrangements purchased from local delis. After boiling the flowers for their dye, the bleached, spent petals are used as a stencil of sorts. This little painting is lush, throaty and frankly, sort of easy at first glance. Sebastian Black’s tiny pastel painting seems to dream sunnily off the far wall of the gallery. This is a particularly peachy example of his geometric semi figurative abstracts. The work as a whole feels decidedly well behaved but there is certainly a handful of snark hidden somewhere in the pockets of this painting.
Tacita Dean’s abstract film, projected onto a hanging sheet of glass in the back room hovers like a time lapse fragment of black and white graffiti torn from space and forced inside your head. In the unfinished confines of Gitlen’s brick and cement backroom the piece is raw, immediate and totally arresting.
The works at hand seem to relate to one another through a sort of casual, irreverent approach to abstraction. I am reminded of a capable but hyperactive kid I knew in high school who refused to sit in the front of the classroom or do any homework but somehow aced all the tests regardless. In fact all of the works in Gitlen’s space are generally spectacular. As I left the gallery I found myself smiling broadly — I was having such a good time that I forgot about the theme of the exhibition. Unfortunately, it feels as if the curator may have as well. This seems to get to the crux of my problem with this half of the show. Though the connections to theme do exist, one must have extensive background knowledge of the works on display or do exhaustive research to draw the necessary connections. It may be that I am extremely thick, but I kept wishing there were wall labels to spell things out. Instead, what is emphasized is the sense of physicality, humor, and optimism.The result is a joy to see. In the end I don’t actually care that the thesis of the exhibition wasn’t answered. Maybe this should happen more often. The end result is a an intoxicating tonic made exhaustively by hand.