Checkered Historyby William Corwin
OUTPOST ARTISTS RESOURCES | OCTOBER 2 – 30, 2015
Despite being all about the grid, David Weinstein and Ruth Kahn’s curation of Checkered History is decidedly of the tree network variety: it starts with Weinstein’s piece Illuminated Man and slowly branches out, expanding to sixty friends and acquaintances who involve the grid in their practice, including Lori Ellison, Brece Honeycutt, Andrew Ross, John Zorn, Serra Victoria Bothwell Fels, and Cory Arcangel. In approaching the grid from a purely superficial angle, the exhibition functions as an encyclopedic survey of the various functions the grid can serve as a visual signifier—as regulating geometry, as repetitive act, as mapping tool, as storage unit and building block, among many other capacities. Beyond the implication of the title, “checkered,” the curators steer clear of leveling any criticism at the grid itself; they only seem to marvel at its potential. The viewer is left to ascertain from the individual artists whether they see this orthogonal regulating system as liberating or oppressive. Not surprisingly most of the artists either seem to revel in the grid, or break it all to pieces, or at least stretch it a bit. Having the origin point of the project be a dearly beloved and long-term project of the curator lends further warmth to what could be a stiflingly academic proposition.
Illuminated Man was created by David Weinstein while living in a Brooklyn loft in 1981. It was developed as a game board of sorts—a canvas floor piece measuring 18 × 9 square feet, populated with almost 350,000 smaller squares stenciled onto the canvas with black textile dye. Musicians were asked to stand on the piece, and using the various patterns, somehow gain inspiration for improvised music. As an aside, David Weinstein is primarily known as a composer. He has played keyboards with John Zorn, Elliott Sharp and Carbon, and has produced a substantial body of work—including the solo album Perfume. Illuminated Man travelled widely in its day, spending time at the Serpentine Gallery in London before ending its “tour” at PS1 in 1988. Since then, Weinstein largely retired his floor piece, and it has not seen the light of day since the early 2000s.
Weinstein himself asserted that the conceit of the physical connection between the floor piece and the musicians began to grow stale as the viewer’s fascination with the project veered more towards a questioning of the process between looking and touching the work, and conceiving of a musical line, rather than the intended effect—which was looking and listening. So Illuminated Man has entered a second phase as a net by which to catch other grid-based work. Among the works in Checkered History, Weinstein’s Illuminated Man, John Zorn’s delicate Solo Improvisations for Alto, Soprano Saxophone, Bb Clarinet (1979), Max Neuhaus’s Five Russians (1979) and WallyGPX’s GPS on Baltimore Canvas (2010 – 2015) are all about notation. Not surprisingly, except for WallyGPX, who creates outlined forms on maps by tracking his bike rides on GPS, the other three artists deal with sound and the tricky proposition of somehow rendering it visually. From this mathematical origin, the artists increasingly subvert the grid until we reach Andrew Ross’s writhing mobile and Gail Vachon’s dainty miniatures. Ross’s series of plaster squiggles painted black twist and intersect like a grid viewed through a rainy windshield, while Vachon’s colorful vignettes of planes of grids intersecting completely dissolve into warped lines and grainy textures when viewed through a magnifying glass (provided and recommended by the artist).
Beyond the ardent musician’s quest for notational liberation, there are further examples of grid-as-tool: Serra Victoria Bothwell Fels’s joint-compound and cedar shim wall piece Underneath (2015) employs weaving patterns from Roman period mummy wrappings. As with her other works, there is the implication of the nest, of an inherent and organic construction technique at odds with existing architecture. Rico Gatson’s Untitled (Portal) (2011) is the grid all grown up and transformed into metaphysical architectural detail: a false door. Gatson’s grid, similar to Bothwell Fels’s, uses the malleable grid as the raw material from which to extract all necessary form and structure. In the colorful gouache mosaic, lucky lucky luck (2014), Bruce Pearson sees the grid as a filter and obfuscator that manipulates
and/or distorts text and meaning.
Beyond Illuminated Man—which is presented half on the wall, half on the floor like a Persian carpet at the Metropolitan Museum—two pieces activate Ruth Kahn’s stunning gallery space with a quirkiness that pays homage to the grid while cheerily subverting it in the next breath. Robert Hickman’s Buckminster Fuller Mirror Ball (2015) is a subtle and zany ode to the OCD/grid connection, wherein a seemingly typical disco ball is in fact a geodesic dome by virtue of the fact that the mirror facets are no longer the prosaic square, but the super-efficient triangle. As one exits the gallery, Lisa Hein and Bob Seng’s Jello Brick Window (2015) takes on a new poignancy—the initial impression upon arrival, of a polychrome jiggly barricade, festering with maggots and fruit flies, and reeking of the fermented confection, now becomes the antidote to the square: it is the grid as life.
WILLIAM CORWIN is a sculptor and curator based in New York City. His work has been reviewed in the Brooklyn Rail, ARTnews, Sculpture Magazine, Artcritical, and Art Monthly. In 2016, he organized I Cyborg at the Gazelli Art House in London. He currently teaches with the Meet the Met program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and hosts a program on Clocktower Radio.