When a Painting Becomes an Incantation

Douglas Florian’s choice of words reminds us how much our nation indulges in name-calling and name checks.

Douglas Florian, “Little Lady Godiva” (2016), oil on linen, 26 x 26 inches (images courtesy BravinLee Programs unless otherwise noted)

In 1977, Daniel Buren, who had given up painting, published Reboundings, his manifesto about the death of painting, in a small edition. In 1981, in his influential essay, “The Death of Painting” (1981), Douglas Crimp quoted from Buren’s manifesto:

The work of art is so frightened of the world at large, it needs isolation in order to exist, that any conceivable means of protection will suffice. It frames itself, withdraws under glass, barricades itself behind a bullet-proof surface, surrounds itself with a protective cordon, with instruments showing the room humidity, for even the slightest cold would be fatal. Ideally the work of art finds itself not just screened from the world, but shut up in a safe, permanently and totally sheltered from the eye.

I was unexpectedly reminded of Crimp’s use of Buren’s specious argument when I went to see the exhibition Douglas Florian: Spells and Apparitions at BravinLee Programs (March 1 – April 7, 2018). The reason I was reminded of Crimp’s red herring is because I got the feeling that Florian could leave his paintings outside in a snowstorm and they would still look pretty damn good after they were brought back inside.

Douglas Florian, “Big Fat Liar”
(2016), oil on linen, 50 X 48 inches

Neither Florian nor the work he makes is “frightened of the world at large.” If anything, his paintings are about the troubling world we currently inhabit and seem unable to get out of. They combine abstract images (circles and concentric circles) with names and phrases (“Beowulf,” “Baruch Spinoza,” “Big Fat Liar”) that might inspire you to begin repeating as you walk around the gallery. This kind of direct interaction is something that only Bruce Nauman’s pithy neon pieces are able to compel. Like Nauman, but coming from a very different place, Florian can get right at the infantile, repetitive name calling we have all experienced.

His choice of words and phrases reminds us that we have become a nation indulging in name-calling and name checks, led by the man that less than half the voters elected as President.

In “Big Fat Liar” (2016), the phrases “Drive By.” “Big Fat Liar,” and “Yo Soy” are repeated on strips of canvas that Florian has affixed to the painting’s surface. Suddenly your mind begins mirroring the painting, and you hear the words “Big Fat Liar” repeated in your head. This kept happening to me when I was at the gallery, and it was weirdly thrilling and disconcerting. Florian’s paintings are as uncompromising and tough as Nauman’s best neons, and, more importantly, they stand on their own. His use of repetition is comic, nasty, idiotic, and childish, and it thrusts you into a bizarre state. The exhibition’s title, Spells and Apparitions, begins to make a wonderfully awful kind of sense.

Douglas Florian, “Beowolves” (2015-16), oil on linen, triptych, 96 X 95 inches

Florian’s repetition of the letters of “Beowulf” recalls the Old English epic poem’s use of alliteration to generate its rhythmic pull, but it also becomes an insistent series of puerile sounds. Might we not also hear ”bay of wolves” in Florian’s repetition, as in an architectural recess, a body of water, or a prolonged howl? Done on three separate canvases, one of which is noticeably shorter than the others, that have been abutted together, the grouping underscores the perception that Florian’s process consists of joining similar things to each other— letters, painted strips, and stretched canvases. The process mirrors the content, infusing the work with a manic insistence that is funny and disturbing. We are apt to find the persistence unsettling because it hints at depths of rage being held in check.

In “Little Espinoza” (2016), Florian alternates blue and orange strips from the top of the painting to the bottom. On the orange strips (sometimes one and sometimes two stacked together), Florian writes the following words in reddish-orange paint: Baruch, Spinoza, Espinoza, Espionaza, Spainoza. Sometimes he writes the letters upside-down or as a mirror image.

Douglas Florian, “Little Espinoza” (2016), oil on linen, 50 X 26 inches (image via

Florian’s color choice is not arbitrary. Orange is the color of the Dutch royal family; and it can be traced back to Willem van Oranje (William of Orange), who led the revolt against the Spanish Hapsburgs, leading to Dutch independence in 1581. The philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who was born in Holland, was of Sephardic and Portuguese descent; his birth name was Benedito de Espinosa. Spinoza, whom Gilles Deleuze called “the ‘prince’ of philosophers,” remains a controversial thinker.

Florian’s painting has to do with his name, which he changed from “Espinosa” to “Spinoza.” When he was 23, the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam expelled him for his “evil opinions and acts.” By listing Spinoza’s different names, Florian makes a history painting, which addresses the persecution of individuals who express radical and challenging views.

In the painting “Looking Worse, and Worse, and Worse” (2016), Florian stacks turquoise-colored strips from the top to bottom edge. Pink peeks through the frayed slits between the strips: threads are visible on the surface, like physical lines. Spaced across the strips are the letters of the painting’s title; each is written in magenta on a pink, irregular rectangle, which is affixed to the painting’s turquoise surface.

Beside some of the squares, Florian has placed a yellow rectangle bearing a partial representation of a Chinese ideogram (or series of stylized lines). Between the letters, on the turquoise strips, Florian has painted a thick black line connecting them. Spiky lines poke up and down along the length of the horizontal black lines, reminding this viewer at least of barbed wire.

While a political and social consciousness floods the paintings, Florian never lets it overwhelm the work or become anecdotal. He dislodges the words from their previous context, but does not deny their meaning. They are free-floating phrases, clouds of childish petulance attached to the surface in torn canvas strips.

Douglas Florian, “Looking Worse, and Worse, and Worse” (2016), oil on linen, 54 X 50 inches

The strips, with their frayed edges and loose threads, evoke a body politic in which such phrases are routinely thrown about, seemingly as a form of entertainment. At times, you can look at the painting as a patchwork of abstract doodles, but what is actually written begins singing in your head — an insane bird or, worse, a human with power over others.

In repeating the letters and words, Florian is conducting an exorcism or attempting a magical reversal: he wants the words to go back to those who uttered them, to send them flying back into their mouths, where they can lodge themselves permanently. The strips may also bring to mind bandages, and while words may never hurt you, as the saying goes, they leave their marks on your psyche. By equating the materiality of the object with letters, names, and phrases, Florian shares something with Antonin Artaud. Both attempt to make what could be called a “nerve language” that isn’t separate from the body.

These paintings are a way to reflect upon the scars that language has left on your body. They are funny in a creepy way — the result of a man writing the same words over and over again, turning the letters into abstract patterns echoed by circles and concentric circles, as if this might either neutralize them or instill them with an incantatory power.

Have we become a community of lampooners repeating ourselves to no avail? Has reality TV become the stage for the latest news? Are we reduced to tolerating outbursts and tantrums? Will isolationism and a hatred of otherness rule the roost? Florian’s paintings bring us to that decidedly unsettling place. This is art at the barricades, rather than something cut off from the world.

Douglas Florian: Spells and Apparitions continues at BravinLee Programs (526 West 26th Street, #211, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 7.

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