Baker Overstreet, "Kilroy Was Here"

Baker Overstreet, “Kilroy Was Here” (2012–13). Acrylic on canvas, 24 x 36 inches. (All photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Every now and then we realize how much we live in a digital mirage. Take Baker Overstreet’s show at Fredericks & Freiser. Although this is the artist’s fourth solo in New York, I hadn’t yet seen his work in the flesh, my only exposure being images and reviews.

And, frankly, what I saw — including the work in the current show — didn’t especially interest me. The images, in their scaled-down state, looked like candy-colored cutouts on a uniformly black field, their insistent symmetry resolving into a totemic face, an anthropomorphic abstraction that hit me as an immediate turn-off.

But an inadvertent glance into the gallery window became another disorienting and somewhat embarrassing lesson in the obvious: pixels lie.

The pristine surfaces of the virtual versions are in fact densely mottled layers of loosely brushed acrylic. As the artist and writer Craig Olson wrote in the Brooklyn Rail about Overstreet’s 2008 solo exhibition, Follies, which was also at Fredericks & Freiser:

The paintings in this show all have a loose and crude formality. Nothing’s sloppy here. On the contrary, things are quite orderly and neat in their looseness, with aesthetic allegiances to artists like Rodney Alan Greenblat, Richard Lindner, and Alfred Jensen.

Baker Overstreet, "Kilroy Was Here" (2012–13), detail (click to enlarge)

Baker Overstreet, “Kilroy Was Here” (2012–13), detail (click to enlarge)

Still, the open, even raggedy textures came as a shock.

In the presence of the paintings, the symmetry and the anthropomorphism recede into a none-issue, giving way to currents of paradoxical pleasure streaming off those tough, unforgiving surfaces.

Olson compares the experience of looking at Overstreet’s work to “watching a dollar bill getting sucked from your fingers into a slot machine — followed by that moment of melodious idiocy as you yank down its arm.” There’s a moment of disorientation, of resistance, before surrendering to a giddy weightlessness, the trippy lure of the abyss.

In his New York Times review of the same 2008 show, Ken Johnson writes of the artist’s “faux-primitive visionary mode associated with painters like Alfred Jensen and Forest [sic] Bess.”

I tend not to think of Alfred Jensen or Forrest Bess as “faux-primitive.” They were sophisticated painters who achieved very different ends despite the material similarities of their means. But they both dealt with paint metaphysically, as a concrete expression of the spirit or the psyche.

I wouldn’t consider Overstreet faux-primitive either; his allusions to outsider art and what the show’s press release describes as “primitive linguistic markings” seem to tap into some kind of authentic nerve endings.

On the face of it, Overstreet — a 31-year-old painter with an Ivy League MFA and eight solo shows under his belt — couldn’t be more different from the aspirational hermaphrodite Bess or the peripatetic Jensen. Even so, their work drills straight into the wellspring of pleasure that only paint, as a viscous, stubborn substance, can provide. Overstreet’s symmetrical designs, built up over time, with traces of previous decisions establishing the bases for further formulations, emerge as an infrastructure for channeling the wellspring’s flow.

The paintings’ resemblance to 1980s-era video games does not diminish their impact but rather connects the process of their making with the primal euphoria aroused by color, movement and light, made all the more affecting by the scruffiness of their surfaces, as if there were only enough emotional space available for the essence of subliminal urges, not for the representation of their source. It also makes the imagery’s inability to translate into jpegs simultaneously fitting, ironic and poignant.

Enmeshed in early modernism’s formal concerns while distilling hyperactive electronic displays into shimmering acrylic strokes, Overstreet’s show, which carries the title Frown Upside Down, feels deeply anchored and inscrutably, decidedly new. Today’s the last day: catch it while you can.

Baker Overstreet: Frown Upside Down continues at Fredericks & Freiser (536 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through today.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.