Marksmen and the Palimpsestsby Cora Fisher
CENTOTTO | NOVEMBER 5 – DECEMBER 17, 2010
At Centotto, curator Paul D’Agostino provides a conceptual link for each exhibition, inviting artists to respond to it any way they see fit.
D’Agostino’s concept for the current show, featuring the painters John Avelluto and Josh Willis, is the palimpsest. The term refers to a sheet of parchment that has been scraped down and reused, so that a phantom text is still visible. The phantom text functions as a buried original—lost yet recoverable; its presence can change the meaning of the superimposed layers. This exhibition expands the word’s Greek origins—“to scrape again”—into several modes of signification: the search for new representations via the retracing of an original source; the generation of a new formal vocabulary by means of the painterly process; and artistic collaboration. Arrayed across the wall, the artists’ works buttress each other. The palimpsest, as a lingual field that accrues meaning with each deposited layer, befits the meeting of these two artistic minds as something richly composite, yet new.
Avelluto’s series begins with a sheet of loose-leaf paper mounted on glass. Smack in the middle of the page, white-out obscures the phrase “fuhggedaboudit.” Yet this apparent snark, writ on the surface of standard-issue paper (perhaps a commentary on the laziness of readymades), is quickly toppled: everything from the ink and the white-out to the blue lines, the pink margin, and the paper’s very substrate is made entirely of paint. If D’Agostino hadn’t called the work’s bluff and told me, I could have spent the rest of my visit inspecting it without detecting the counterfeit—so consummate is the forgery that it becomes something else. Trompe l’oeil in the classical sense, with its conceit of illusionism (which is usually given away by the painting’s support) is only half of Avelluto’s story. The apparent concept here is how faithfully, and playfully, these false doodles recall your high school binder, not their painstaking craft.
In subsequent works, the ruled stationary’s blue lines begin to make their own rules. They slide into Sol LeWitt-like geometries, creating horizon lines and gradations. The three-hole-punch holes become setting suns, circular cutouts in Op Art fields, and negative spaces. Made and presented on glass, they defy canvas support.
These works are in fact better understood (though not immediately recognized) as bas-relief sculpture, formally rigorous rather than whimsically improvisational. I suspect Avelluto is not interested in a nearly perfect copy, although, at face value, this is just what he has achieved. Rather, his process of making “paper” out of textured acrylic medium allows for his paintings to move beyond trompe l’oeil and become the objects they represent. The same applies to the faux vellum sheets or faux scotch tape that appear in Avelluto’s series: through materiality, his “palimpsest” is a painstaking forgery that dupes the original, and often, the viewer as well.
In a conversation piece neighboring a painting by Willis, the lines of Avelluto’s morphed loose-leaf have strutted themselves into three towers, with the phrase “Whatchu Talkin’ ‘Bout Willis” running along their sides. The cheeky phrase is a literal touchstone in the artists’ dialogue: Avelluto is referencing the source image of Willis’s landscape series, Pieter Bruegel’s “The Tower of Babel.” Avelluto’s babble on Babel alludes to the proverbial tower both pictorially and textually, offering through sly indirection the key to the sources for his piece.
As if the deftness of Avelluto’s fakery were not impressive enough, Josh Willis’s gem-like landscapes capture luscious, shimmering skies under a varnished glaze. Willis applies paint onto a board, scrapes it off with a vertical motion, and then smears it crosswise with pigment, building up the central form as simultaneously flat and multi-layered. Afterwards, he paints around this central mass, filling in a stormy sky or sunset. Sometimes the mass looks like a cake, sometimes a mossy stone or an imposing monolith.
By thrusting an abstract form in the midst of a classical landscape, Willis takes Bruegel’s original as the point of departure for a series that underscores the language-resistance of abstraction. Willis’s mass in the middle of each picture—unique permutations of the Tower of Babel—reveals representation in painting as inherently and singularly abstract, open to individual interpretation. Each rendition stormily moves further from the appearance of Brueghel’s image yet closer in its evocation of the Tower of Babel as an apocryphal swarm of language and visual signification, a monument to entropy that barely manages to stay contained.
This performance—of accretion and of a violent sloughing off—compresses the surface layers through friction that affects its micro-geological time. Both artists are masters of acrylic in their own right; Willis’s searingly pleasurable and chaotic variations on his source image are palimpsests of his own private art history that renew the idea of landscape.
In the paintings of both artists, iconographically divergent yet materially homologous, layers of built-up imagery accrue conceptual depth if not thickness of profile. A group of collaborative works in the middle of the wall further realizes the idea of the palimpsest. The artists took turns adding or cutting away layers of one another’s paintings, a collaborative interpretation of the medieval concept that encourages reconsideration of the studio practices and aesthetic directions individually forged by Avelluto and Willis.
This reconsideration just might extend to the interfaces of communication today, recasting our fast-moving visual culture as something more nuanced, complex, and paradoxical, layered and weighted with shadow images and lingering associations.