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Regional Painting (2010), at Winkleman Gallery, is not a remarkable presentation; the casual viewer could be excused for thinking it is just another painting show. Twelve paintings on linen, each twelve by sixteen inches, beautifully framed in walnut, greatly varied in technique and style, are hung equidistant around the gallery. Some are intentionally amateur, others unexpectedly virtuosic, all preserve some part of the clear-primed linen. There is an antique quality to some, taking their cue from early 20th C. abstraction, others are more contemporary and even a little slick. They are Christopher K. Ho‘s legitimate attempt at earnest painting, but also represent a much larger system of conceptual artworks.
Only by reading the press release will the casual viewer learn of “License Plate Shed” (2010), billed as a performance piece, the artist’s yearlong sojourn in a shed covered in license plates in the remote mountain town of Telluride, Colorado, where, supposedly, the paintings were made. It was his residency in Colorado, working in a hippie shack, the artist claims, that allowed him to set aside academia, critical discourse, the New York art world, and attempt something completely new: to paint “unselfconsciously.”
If the casual viewer doesn’t consult the price list, he won’t know that a fictive character, Hirsch E.P. Rothko (HEPR), is partially credited for the paintings, impossibly dated both 2001 (Rothko) and 2010 (Ho). On his way out, he might pick up a copy of Hirsch E.P. Rothko (2001/2010) by HEPR, hundreds of copies of which are neatly stacked against the wall. He probably won’t read it.
If he doesn’t read the publication page, he won’t know it was an anagram of the artist’s name. He won’t know it is an 80-page long semi-autobiographical work of fiction, ghost written by Inez Kruckev (another anagram?). The events detailed in the book are largely true, even if they tend to hyperbole. Although there was no car accident, Ho (Rothko) really did live in Colorado with local artists (hippies), and had real relationships with them, and probably really did smoke Bali Shag and drink Sumatran organic coffee, and go mountain biking and skiing.
Ho moved to Colorado to get away from the New York art world for a year. Who could blame him? These are the impossible parameters He set up for himself, leading up to his show:
“Art is weak. If modernism’s project of self-definition ended with the monochrome, postmodernism’s critical project ended with the assimilation of the readymade and of institutional critique. So the options that this leaves are basically:
1) you can blithely forge ahead, either as an academic or an ‘outsider’ artist;
2) you can cynically choose to be complicit, accepting your work’s future assimilation and nonetheless performing critique, either ironically or exploitatively; or
3) you can acknowledge your fate (assimilation) and your work as redundant.” (HEPR’s HEPR 47)
Ho’s answer to the major question of how one makes art in the contemporary moment is “regional” or “real” painting (the show went through many titular iterations before “regional” was finally settled on) — painting for the sake of painting. Ho grapples with questions all painters must answer before continuing their practice: balancing the love of making with the more rigorous conceptual concerns of the contemporary artist. Ed Winkleman recently weighed in on this very subject immediately before Regional Painting opened in November:
I seriously believe that highly intellectual investigations and aesthetic accomplishments are not mutually exclusive. For art to be truly great, they rarely can be far apart.
Other painters, like Josh Smith, have attempted similar projects, to unselfconsciously paint. Regional Painting is ironic; note the tone in HEPR: “I realized, in fact, there was a concept there, a clear one. It was right in front of me; it had been all along. My concept was triangles.” (78) Ho’s efforts in the studio are earnest, and his presentation is compelling. In irony’s place: a highly controlled and carefully choreographed performance of artistic production.
If Ho is seriously proposing regionalism as the next and only logical step forward for artistic production, why then does he reinforce his paintings with performance, philosophy, and fictional narrative? Much of the show’s conceptual apparatus occurs in the press release, the price list, the book, and subsequent interviews with the artist and Ed Winkleman; it demands much investment and thought and work from the viewer.
Ho reveals his conceptual rigor by the specificity of every decision. All of the linen is scrap material from Soho Art Supply, one of the oldest art supply stores in New York. The size and scale of HEPR is based on the dimensions of a classic dime novel. Hirsch, the fictional character, is reading the last chapter of Rosalind Krauss’ The Picasso Papers, which addresses binaries in modernism like “counterfeit” versus “genuine” which, she finds, actually reflect the same condition; Regional Painting brings up the same questions of authenticity. The last chapter of The Picasso Papers is titled “Dime Novels,” (see?) where binaries are released of their positive and negative connotations and allowed to circulate, accessible to anyone (like HEPR, which is free to take.)
The gallery walls were painted a very specific color of light gray; in conversation with the artist, I learned that the color was selected as the result of a deliberation between several painters over an 8-hour conversation at the artist’s New York apartment. It is the same color the interior of the license plate shed was painted. Absolutely every detail was considered for the show, to an obsessive extent. The entire show is multi-layered and multi-faceted, each minute detail is inundated with content, which expands, upon investigation, into more and more content ad infinitum.
The narrative of failed artist as embittered teacher, consistent with John Malkovich’s character from the Hollywood film Art School Confidential (2006), is a recurring theme. Note that triangles as the only form that unites the paintings. One chapter of HEPR is dedicated to HEPR’s termination at RISD. (Ho stopped teaching at RISD in 2009.) It is this identity, characterized by failure, HEPR embodies for the first half of the book until its climax, when HEPR takes mushrooms and magically bikes down a mountain through treacherous wilderness using the powers of his newly freed intuition. Immediately afterwards, he attempts to paint again, recalling his loving relationship with making he had during high school. There is a good amount of self-deprecating humor embedded deep within this deadpan delivery.
Regional Painting is an exercise in planning and self-restraint; the parameters of Ho’s practice allow him to make virtually anything (or, considering how impossible they are, nothing) and he settled on this very concise, but also dated offering. The artist’s work is not necessarily known for subtlety: his last solo at Winkleman Gallery immortalized Ed Winkleman, his long-time dealer, nude, in a life-size polyurethane statue. Regional Painting is completely unremarkable outside the context of Ho’s other bodies of work. A conceptual artist, trained as an architect and a philosopher, turned to regional painting (e.g., abstract paintings of triangles), finally, as the only way to sidestep his own impassable critical constraints. Regional Painting is an unexpectedly subdued second solo show.
Ho combines two opposing points of view in Regional Painting: one, the regional artist who makes art for the sake of art, and two, the self-aware critic/academic who seeks to advance the field, into a single exhibition. Before this offering, Ho was merely the latter, and now, he can be both. By deploying a self-deprecating sense of humor, the absurdity of the art school, a love of making, critical theory, and his own unique brand of compulsive attention to detail, Ho manages to hit that sweet spot between regionalism and the international/critical art world. It is not his paintings’ “lack of pursuit of originality” (from the press release) that makes them register as a valuable contribution, which would only constitute a purposeful regression or reactionary conservatism. Rather, Ho’s unrelenting analysis of the significance of making art in the present cultural moment, every possible method of making meaning, interpretation, cultural register, signifier or sign, that we find valuable. The center of Ho’s show was not the paintings at all, but the real work of being a conceptual artist in 2010.
[Full Disclosure: Christopher K. Ho was my art history professor at RISD. As his former student, I am the perfect audience for Regional Painting. In fact, “An Art History Lesson” (43-47) outlined the curriculum of the class I took with him, titled “Manet to the Monochrome” in 2004.]