Brian Morris Gallery Project Space
October 18 – November 15, 2014
No smoke, no mirrors, just you and the canvas. Contemporary abstract painting, the sexiest of which is being called Casualism, considers imperfection a lynchpin. Sharon Butler inaugurated the term to describe this self-amused, anti-heroic style toying with Japanese wabi-sabi and its interest in impermanence. Although endearing on paper, it is a rearing Hydra, sprouting one art-historical reference after another, seeking institutional mythologies to give it any sense of importance or worth. This hissy-fit against branding in art ignores a hidden reality within abstraction: regardless of its neutral guise, the better work is still in reaction to something. Fred Gutzeit’s exhibition at Brian Morris Gallery, on view through November 16, counteracts the norm of vapid abstraction. His SigNatures series, an offering of abstract autographs from friends and colleagues, employs Casualist tactics with a more stirring result.
Gutzeit popped up on my radar in 2009 when the SigNatures series was a curious seed—like a multi-yolked egg. I needed to know how it acquired the nutrients to consider abstraction and realism with equal intensity. Gutzeit has been battling Minimalism since he arrived in Manhattan from Cleveland in the late 1960s. His earliest work applied hyperrealist chainlink fences upon atmospheric backgrounds, often in a single hue fluctuating in intensity. His hard-edge style, sparring with what he felt were the limits of Minimalism, continued when he moved to the Bowery in 1970. The intensity of Skid Row propelled him to depict the neighborhood and the turbulence of navigating its sidewalks and alleys, often in acute detail. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, he worked in numerous series: he photographed sidewalks at different times of day and depicted their topography, pebble by pebble, with a precision that inverts Monet’s depictions of the Rouen Cathedral. He recreated building facades on canvas using industrial siding accented by chaotic concrete and color swatches. He painted work gloves, commandeered from the street, on canvas, then eventually embellished and presented them as sculptural anti-products, to use the artist’s phrase. The SigNatures, a mercurial investigation of drifters that graced his studio, are shrewd observations tailored to a complex, abstract stage.
Beginning in 2011, Gutzeit sought out signatures from 13 artists and writers (of which I was one.) The series was accelerated by his discovery of Adobe Illustrator, encouraging transformations of line and pattern with precision and immediacy that would have been impossible otherwise. Elements were mixed and matched; innumerable prototypes were created in this digital sketchbook before making their way onto panels and then canvases. Although the panels vary in size, they are small overall, intimate. The signature always occupies the largest surface area possible, twisting to the beat of its internal hues. The backgrounds undulate between amoebic shapes internally patterned, some with the delicacy of Seurat’s pointillist landscapes, and tidal tones that surge and swell like Brian Eno’s ambient soundscapes or Goya’s skies. Gutzeit paints the edges of his canvases as well, which he hopes will serve as a continuation of the background and create objects revolving in space like a hologram. From afar, they have the complexity of a twisted nail puzzle and a three-dimensional map of the galaxy.
The SigNatures are certainly a series of portraiture according to Gutzeit. The aggressive color spectrum, somewhat kitsch, is not for the faint of heart. The composition itself also has some lofty ideals: the signature, a concrete but instinctual aspect of identity, should be coaxed into union with variables rendered in the background. The chaos of the backgrounds is a map of tumult and energy—some are overwhelmingly disorienting, others have a formulaic calm to them. Gutzeit has rendered many permutations, improvising regularly as he searched for synchronicity. Fifty total panels exist in the series, and Gutzeit’s dreams of cohesion have not been fulfilled—but he is better for it. Like a scientist, he continues to question an innately human curiosity: the wonder of structure.
Theodor Adorno noted that “a successful work of art is not one which resolves objective contradictions in a spurious harmony, but one which expresses the idea of harmony negatively by embodying contradictions pure and uncompromised, in its innermost structure.” What Casualists are missing is this innermost structure. They are nihilistic; everything has been done and thus the final frontier will be defined by tossing what we know in a blender, demolishing context, and instinctually recombining in hopes of transcendence or successful failure. Theirs is a Columbian mantra—seeking the sheer luck of collisions and new territory to be claimed. Gutzeit, however, knows that even abstract renditions of reality link to observations. His attempt to render the murky sandpits of identity through abstract means relies on thought rather than chance. He captures an essence, as inexplicable as first impressions or body language, through sinuous form and fervent mayhem. We should be demanding as much from abstract painting.
Lynn Maliszewski is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, NY.