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Baker Overstreet: Follies

Fredericks & Freiser, August 26 – October 4, 2008

There’s something buried in these paintings, hovering at the cusp of recognition. It’s a fleeting something or other that at times appears as parody, and at others as a sincere meditation on the medium of a medium (or market gone mad?), and it hits home in both contexts. It isn’t a distanced insider’s position in the least; the sensation you get feels more like 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.

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Alibaster Plaster Caster," 2008. Acrylic and latex on canvas: 52 by 67 in.

Overstreet is a young artist who received his MFA from Yale in 2006. 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. The compositions are played out on black or dark gray grounds where pattern, symmetry, and a barrage of blinking colors from across the spectrum tumble into odd machine—or altar-like forms. Sometimes faces and mystic orifices shimmer forth and then fade back to rudimentary pigment on canvas. This indistinctness is paramount.

Take Overstreet’s, “The New World Symphony (For the Elite Ark),” 2008. It’s a stacked, symmetrical composition suggesting four shallow interior spaces whose exact structure is vague at best. Intermittent, wobbly groups of dots play around the painting’s clashing perspectival cul-de-sacs and blocks of loosely articulated hues. The composition straddles the thin line between formality and informality, grace and vulgarity, meaning and meaninglessness so effortlessly that it keeps me anchored, with the shelf wheels and coin chutes of the mind reeling and ringing, playing the odds of our cumulative experiences.

There’s also a telltale density to Overstreet’s surfaces, hinting that a previous work had been painted over, that these images are most likely arrived at and not premeditated. It’s an interesting strategy, though certainly not new. It’s a gamble too, full of lessons borne of failure and metaphors of uncertainty. In other words, the artist has relinquished a significant amount of control over meaning, allowing for unpredictable associations to flood in. This can cause anxiety in the heart of the viewer (not to mention the maker)—when meaning isn’t spoon-fed, where all the cards aren’t revealed. It’s very different from any form of formalist strategy, whose parameters of experience are rigidly defined. It’s that very rigidity that enables efficient productivity, active engagement in the normal order of the cultural machine.

The virtue of these pictures is their ability time and again not to fix meaning to a rigid, objective reading, but to welcome the wagers of uncertainty and confusion. It’s there that the unknown lingers just beyond our senses, which the control-prone often translate as threatening. It’s what old Thorstein Veblen would call an “inscrutable teleological propensity in objects,” or simply a belief in luck. Once that preternatural agency is engaged there’s little going back, since the whole normal order of productive efficiency has been thrown out of whack. Then we can be only partial authors of our own creations. In that chaos, we can’t really predict the outcome of events because we’ve engaged the forces lying outside of them, where we’re pulling that long arm of the unseen hand and eagerly waiting like the dog with its ear cocked to the gramophone.


Craig Olson

Craig Olson is a former student of Thomas Nozkowski and regular contributor to the Rail. He is also an artist who lives and works in Minneapolis, Minnesota.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2008

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