On ViewRosamund Felsen Gallery
January 9 – February 6, 2010
Five years ago I thought that Tim Ebner’s early work from the late 1970s and 80s would no longer need to be dragged into the discussion of the paintings that he has been making since 1991, when after more than a decade’s worth of minimalist “surrogate” paintings from non-traditional materials (such as linoleum, resin, and vacu-formed acrylic), he turned abruptly to making representational paintings with brushes in oil on canvas. My declaration in 2005 was unequivocal (“it is time to let his work just be”) and, judging from this latest exhibition, foolish. After so many years of seeing his work, I should have known better, especially since he has done a solo show at Felsen nearly every year since 1991 (!) without once coming across as overexposed, underdeveloped, or, worse yet, predictable. With this show, Ebner has made it abundantly clear that the last thing he wants to do is let his work just be, slapping us in the face with—of all things—paintings in the shape of “surrogate” fish.
Before I describe what nearly all of these fish paintings actually look like, and how they have been constructed, painted, and presented, I have to start with one work that enabled me to enter the full-circle moment outlined above. “Untitled (Jacuzzi)” (all works 2009), is the only one of the twenty-four pieces in the show that has no paint on it. Instead it has simply been cut from a sheet of acrylic and mounted on a fish-shaped piece of plywood. Because the acrylic’s pattern mimics veined marble, the “painting” not only flashes back to Ebner’s beginnings but also throws the fish into a witty (and watery?) conceptual space between art’s material history and mass-produced, faux-marble hot tubs. On its own it’s inscrutable; in the show it made my head spin, given everything else going on around it.
The rest of Ebner’s fish are very much paintings, worked so aggressively in terms of both gesture and color that they put most of the live, tropical versions to shame. The breadth and non-representational specificity of their painterliness recalls (and I would say challenges) that of Richter’s, a comparison that makes the associative eccentricity of their shapes all the more outrageous and in the end liberating. Each is uniquely shaped: some are little and rounded, while others are bigger and angular, and many are outfitted with additional trimmings ranging from an actual peacock feather for an eye (“Untitled (peacock eye)”) to elongated snout-like mouths and teeth made from Sculpy (“Untitled (pink and black)”). As wild as the accoutrements are, they take nothing away from the assured exuberance of the painting they embellish; if anything they help slow down one’s eye as it races from one brushstroke to another as well as from one fish to another and yet another. This effect has been accentuated by Ebner’s decision to mount them in groups as if they were schools (of fish, if not painting), outfitting each of them with supporting poles and brackets that seem to have been scavenged, judging from their rustiness, from some underwater wreck.
It’s telling that among the paintings of single or double fish, only “Untitled (Jacuzzi)” is installed directly on the wall, without the intervention of a bracket, as are two dissimilar works containing multiple fish on a much smaller scale—“Untitled (school)” and “Untitled (5 little fishes).” Ebner’s paintless, plastic vacu-formed fish seems to be a clue that what appeared to be a dramatic break between surrogacy and reality was anything but: painting, his work emphatically argues, is both at once, an activity and an object that is able to have it both ways, whether it makes sense or not.
It’s clear that Ebner’s openness to senselessness continues to deliver his work to smart and productive territory. Learning, as I did from Felsen, that this body of work is the result of his frustration with painting on flat surfaces, I’m still unable to follow the logic of his actual process. First he dug a semi-spherical hole in his backyard and filled it with concrete. When dry he turned it over, brought it into the studio and stapled canvas over its rounded form. After painting each canvas, he removed it and then cut shapes from it to fit the plywood silhouettes of the fish. Yes, I know it makes no sense, but it works for me, and it clearly worked for him. So, with that in mind, I’d suggest staying tuned to Ebner’s upcoming (and likely still frequent) exhibitions, all the while ruling absolutely nothing out.