AMERICAN CONTEMPORARY| FEBRUARY 27 – APRIL 12, 2014
When looking at Ethan Cook’s work, you need to be able to both stand back to take in the entirety of the field and lean in to observe every detail from up close. Anything in your line of sight will disrupt your ability to properly experience the work. So, if you can, find a time to see Problem In Chair Not In Computer, Cook’s excellent show at American Contemporary, when few people are likely to be in the gallery.
In the front room is a group of three works that share the same composition: two centralized, upright rectangular panels of hand-woven canvas that are a slightly different off-white or tan color from that of the unmarked canvas that surrounds them. The marginal differences between each reside in the ways that every woven form is somewhat distorted in the act of stretching. In the back room Cook has installed a large work that is of similar dimensions to the wall on which it is hung, and in which two parallel panels of woven fabric run along its upper and lower edges. Alongside it, and rounding out the show, sits a sculptural assemblage made up of plywood panels taken from failed tables in the artist’s studio that resembles (in the best way) a set of Ikea-does-Judd chairs that have been salvaged from a scrap heap.
When seen from afar, a given canvas work envelops the viewer in an absorptive field of muted color, while up close one sees the hand-made quality of the colored fabric panels that Cook has woven himself, in the process leaving in any errors or idiosyncrasies. Working solely in a large scale in this exhibition, the artist demonstrates that as scale increases the experiential registers of tactile intimacy and absorptive expansion take on a greater intensity. The field is both easier to get lost in, optically, and engages the viewer's body more directly and emphatically, while the material “flaws” increase and diversify as Cook asks more of his loom.
Each work is produced in the same way: Cook weaves panels of colored cotton and sews them into store bought canvas. Cook’s process of arriving at the placement of the woven panels entails taking lengths of the colored fabrics he has woven, laying them out, and moving them around to determine what number, size, and shape (rectangle or square) will be introduced into the picture plane, similar to how Matisse made his cut-outs. Once he has finalized the composition, the woven pieces are sewn into the commercial canvas such that everything is sutured into a single flat surface that is then stretched and framed.
Cook recognizes that for many years the innovations of post-war abstraction divested painting of the sense of immediacy and intimacy it once held. However, by processing and responding to this important period in art history he is able to update the aesthetic goals of an earlier generation. Like the work of Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt and, perhaps especially, Agnes Martin, Cook’s works encourage the kind of prolonged contemplation that leads to a personal engagement that is both intimate and expansive. As with Martin’s wavering penciled grids, intimacy is solicited by the “errors” Cook makes as he weaves the canvas. These are the sole marks of his hand, and can only be seen up close. But it is only in taking a few steps back and viewing the work from afar that the beholder is immersed in a quiet field of subdued form and color.
This insistently somatic and visual address sets Cook apart from other artists who have used fabrics and sewing in their paintings such as, historically, Blinky Palermo, Rosemarie Trockel, Alighiero Boetti, and, more recently, Sergej Jensen, Ayan Farah, Lauren Luloff, Sam Moyer, and Frances Trombly. While there is variation amongst these artists, they all utilize familiar, even pedestrian, materials, drawing on our acquaintance with such materials to lend their work a particular kind of physical presence. For Cook, however, his materials are ultimately a vehicle to an aesthetic experience that transcends them, in much the same way that for Rothko or Reinhardt what kind of paint they used was important, but solely as a means to an aesthetic end.
The role of craft in Cook’s work is tempered and mediated by his limited use of such fabrics, which he employs sparely and simply, and only in the dimensions his loom is capable of producing. He uses an elementary weave—the same basic cross-stitch utilized to make traditional canvas—and he employs the resulting fabric only in places where other artists would introduce pigment, as, for example, with the central off-white planes in the works in the front room. Cook’s very particular use of materials demonstrates something as conceptually profound as his fields of color are affecting: that in an age where we increasingly experience everything as mediated through an ever-proliferating number of devices that act as prostheses for our various senses, certain materials take on new meaning and significance. In the 1960s it would have been impossible to see works incorporating no paint as paintings. Today works like Cook’s, that are made up only of sewn patches of fabric, not only read as paintings, but as ones that draw equally on the medium’s modernist and deconstructive traditions.
In 1967, Michael Fried amended Clement Greenberg’s 1962 statement that a “stretched or tacked-up canvas already exists as a picture” with the caveat that “it is not conceivably one” because, even if “future circumstances might be such as to make it a successful painting…for that to happen, the enterprise of painting would have to change so drastically that nothing more than the name would remain.”1 The fact that Cook’s works succeed by the very terms established by Fried for painterly success—“being convinced that a particular work can stand comparison with the painting of the past whose quality is not in doubt”—reveals that, even if such a change has come to pass, in the hands of a select few artists, like Cook, it has reinvigorated rather than impoverished painting. In a digital age the medium has been given renewed potential to pose, as Cook’s works do, modalities of connectivity and empathy.
ALEX BACON is a critic, curator, scholar based in New York. Most recently, with Harrison Tenzer, he curated Correspondences: Ad Reinhardt at 100.