COLOGNE — The opening for Avery Singer’s solo show, Sailor, now on view at Kölnischer Kunstverein, was crowded with European art scenesters in town for Art Cologne. My initial reaction was blasé indifference to the large paintings that make up Singer’s new body of work, although I was eventually able to overcome that view.
Part of what makes her work interesting is the translation of digital abstraction to analog material, but this means that the paintings come to life when viewed through a screen, or as a screen. Getting to this conclusion took some work, because I confess that I am attached to the materiality of painting. The surface quality of Singer’s work is dull and unexciting if you’re looking for expressivity — hovering between matte and glossy, only varying in a few works where the artist’s hand is actually present.
It wasn’t until I began to look through the lens of my camera that I started to actually see the show’s form. When I revisited Singer’s pieces in the quiet of my office, through my iPhone and laptop, those canvases (I hesitate to even call them paintings) that felt so lifeless in the crowded gallery revealed their ethereal presence, blurring genre and media.
These are works that you have to sit with. What seem to be arbitrary abstract shapes and printer splotches arranged in a shallow geometric picture plane, like a desktop, turn into wobbly figures and unusual forms the more you look at them. There is an interesting tension that plays out in viewers’ eyes because our digitalized neuroses lead us to pass over the images quickly, as if swiping through social media feeds. I was definitely guilty of this accelerated, dismissive looking without seeing until, ironically, I began interpreting the images through a screen.
One of the most interesting and contradictory aspects of Sailors is that the show — like Singer’s previous work but in a less overt way — makes constant references to classicism and art history with carefully posed and composed figures that are almost lost to digital abstraction. Shadows cast by objects beyond the picture plane further confuse the images.
All the figures in Sailors allude to larger compositions beyond the picture plane — a whole world, one between real and digital. Singer is using the computer to return to cubism, modernity, and abstraction, alluding to modern painters playing with nonlinear time and narration. In one painting, a cubist figure can be seen, maybe by a pool, lying on her stomach and draped in leafy shadows from an unseen canopy above. In another, the figure reminds me of Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” in that time is broken into fragments like a filmstrip. I even think of Wassily Kandinsky’s compositions and other artists from the Der Blaue Reiter group, like Franz Marc and his wild geometric breakdowns of animals. All of Singer’s works are dated 2016 and untitled, except for one that makes another reference to the history of painting, “Larry Poons” (2016), which is by far the loudest and most dumbfounding work in the show. The composition harkens to Poons’s optical illusion art, but it also looks like some kind of out-of-focus printer test, which makes it hard to stare at.
Although I wasn’t initially taken by the paintings’ presence as objects in a gallery, Singer is on to something that I was able to tap into later using a digital intermediary. More than the introduction of color to her compositions, which is the obvious variation from her earlier works, the further abstraction of her figures play out an interesting blurring of genre and media lines. Her nods to classicism and modernity add an interesting element of play with the history of painting and what it means —what it can be — in the digital age.
Sailor continues at Kölnischer Kunstverein (Hahnenstraße 6, Cologne) through June 11.