MORGAN LEHMAN | January 8 – February 7, 2015.
Rough Cut attempts to offer a new look at how eight emerging and mid-career artists incorporate collage into the process of making abstract art. The show’s premise arises from one of curator Jennifer Samet’s overriding intellectual pursuits: understanding the artistic process. In her popular column, “Beer with a Painter” (Hyperallergic), Samet interviews artists, often asking concrete questions like “How long do you work on your paintings?” or “So you begin your paintings abstractly…” to elucidate the creative process. Throughout the exhibit, the curators rework these questions by hanging studies next to finished paintings. But with over 20 pieces included, Rough Cut asks too much of its viewer. It is impossible to understand an artist’s practice from one example, and given the range and abundance of artistic concerns, it is exhausting to appreciate and sort these various interests both within each painting and in the show as a whole.
Though the eight artists in Rough Cut all use collage and all make abstract work, they do not share conceptual concerns. The tedious press release lists these artists’ divergent—and manifold—interests. For example, Bryan Osburn’s paintings use “folkloristic textures, ranging from Far Eastern to Latin American, Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic landscapes, Surrealism, as well as the work of the 1950s,” whereas Alexi Worth’s paintings quote “absurdist figurative distortions, the language of the comic book, and, occasionally, citations of historic paintings.” The range of references that can be included in a single piece is both collage’s strength and its defect. The paintings are dense. Furthermore, showing eight artists with such disparate concerns makes for a disjointed show.
Moreover, each painting featured in the show cannot possibly contain the range of the artist’s interests. For example, in two passages of his “Walking Shirt” (2014), Osburn alludes to 1950s abstraction with three gestural brush marks and seems to quote different textures, especially of wood. Yet if he intends to refer to Friedrich’s landscapes in this painting, the reference is too oblique to be noticed. Likewise, Worth’s “Leaf 1” (2015) contains two distorted shapes, one that might resemble Matisse’s cut-out leaves and one that approximates a hand, but the language of the comic book—the drawings that suggest a narrative or the close-up boxes that emphasize an action through strange cropping—is not present.
For six of the eight artists, the curators have included the collages that precede the paintings. In displaying the final work next to its antecedent studies, the curators have attempted to let the viewer into the artists’ respective processes. Yet this organization is too didactic. It fails to provide any insights beyond the rather obvious observation that artists use collage differently: compositional studies (Amy Park, Elizabeth Hazan, Alexi Worth), color studies (Bryan Osburn), and close, if not nearly perfect, facsimiles of their paintings (Sangram Majumdar, Trevor Winkfield). This presentation also makes for a rather crowded show; the paintings are not given enough wall space, making it difficult to evaluate their visual merit because it is impossible not to compare the paintings to their predecessors.
This predictable approach, however, is not completely without its merits. It actually enhances the experience of the individuals’ work when the exhibited collages were made after the painting, as is the case for Jennifer Sirey and Carrie Moyer. Rather than planning the work, their collages reflect on it. They hint at what continues to intrigue them, helping the viewer understand why Sirey’s sculpture, “Fisher Loves Eggs” (2014), and Moyer’s painting “Yes Rays (aka Sister’s Stamen)” (2013), are visually compelling.
Sirey’s sculpture, “Fisher Loves Eggs,” is the only three-dimensional work in Rough Cut. To make this sculpture, Sirey filled the glass tank with bacteria and vinegar to grow organic, semi-opaque shapes. She then made “Scrape Yeller” (2014), a mixed-media collage on paper that describes the ovoid shape of the bacteria’s growth. Sirey’s sculpture is more interesting precisely because we do not see the preparatory, schematic collages. Instead we see her interpreting her reaction to the evolution of her own process.
In the large painting “Yes Rays (aka Sister’s Stamen),” Moyer handles paint with remarkable facility. She separates hard-edge shapes with painterly passages of carefully modulated markings, and she uses subtle tonal shifts to create an illusion of overlapping planes of transparent color. Yet Moyer does not bring these techniques into her paper collages. Instead, she uses a similar orchestration of shapes to create the same tension apparent in the beautiful painting. Her ex post facto collage isolates what still remains interesting to her after the painting is finished: the centripetal composition. By looking and then making, Moyer has uncovered why her painting succeeds.
Beyond using collage, three of the painters (Moyer, Winkfield, and Worth) share another passion: they write about art. In collaging, the artist can move the elements around repeatedly and endlessly, testing new shapes and different arrangements until she fixes its form with glue. Likewise, words can be deleted, sentences written and rewritten, or paragraphs moved up or down. Both can remain unfixed for a long period of time and are suggestive, additive modes of working. Just as a single sentence can prefigure the next ones, a shape suggests another should be cut, placed, and glued. As Winkfield says of his collages: “It’s like a Chinese box puzzle; one thing leads to another.”
Hazan’s “Study for Parklands” (2014), one of the sparest pieces in the show, further reinforces the relationship between collage and writing, a relationship that dates back at least to the early Cubist projects. Slightly right of center, Hazan has included a trapezoid of text, an excerpt from a newspaper article that reflects on the writing process. The text is covered on the left side, but we can still read phrases that show how writing is suggestive. These excerpts could also apply to collage, and how it fits into the artistic practices of these eight artists: “begin a first verse,” “work downwards,” “then loop back up.”
KATE LIEBMAN is a painter who works in Brooklyn.