Vanishing Points, curated by Andrianna Campbell
JAMES COHAN GALLERY | MARCH 23 – APRIL 22, 2017
Ever eyeball a painting and decide that you loathe every square inch of it? Then later, it’s still pullulating around in your brain, so you trace your steps back to the gallery, where your heart swerves a 180.
Adam Novak’s Lotion, Beer, Phone (2016) is that painting. Ugly, ungainly, with putrid colors and inept drawing. But like that broken-nosed woman on the subway wearing one blue shoe and one black shoe, you can’t shake the image.
Novak violates about every law of composition to create an indelible work of art. Bad Painting in pursuit of a cock-eyed beauty becomes a virtue. Of course, as a 2001 RISD grad and bearing a 2009 MFA, he doesn’t come at this from a position of naiveté. Clearly he knows his Guston. Like hundreds (thousands?) of other under-forty painters, he’s pondered Dana Schutz; but his end-product—born of equal parts bravura painting and unstated narrative—flows fresh. Or as the show’s curator Andrianna Campbell terms it, “luscious, studied, but intuitive use of paint.”
Novak’s two works in the show introduce his alter-ego, Steve: the gay Everyman on the perpetual prowl. His Steve Drives 2 (2016) is a broad-daylight nightmare of navigating the Los Angeles streets, hot concrete blocks and palm trees, his GPS firmly lodged in his sweaty claw. Campbell says Steve is a “symbol of desire which allows him to explore a vast range of personal and conceptual attendances…and how looking is about coveting. At times our need to know the full story is denied but we are allowed access to the cellphone image and therefore to one of our most intimate spaces.”
This theme of disrupted viewing and the fragmentation of the viewing experience threads through the show. Campbell pits the classic and cool abstract geometry of Robert Smithson and Ruth Vollmer—and contemporary geo-abstraction from Beatriz Milhazes—against the lush figuration of the sex-mad Carroll Dunham. Sparks fly.
Matt Mullican’s Untitled (Views 4) (2016) continues the conversation about the random gaze. It features two Snapchat-like moments of the artist’s personal vision; in one he’s taking in the world through a windshield, while the other follows him peering down at his in-flight meal. Deeply immersed in the metapsychology of art-making, Mullican sometimes creates drawings in front of an audience while in a hypnotic trance.
A vibratingly bright Marina Adams painting, Wonderland (2016), dominates one wall as a stopover between geometry and painterliness—an interjection. Despite a nod to the jigsaw-puzzle paintings of Thomas Scheibitz, she attains originality with a feminine and muscular palette. Also taking an interstitial role is an untitled 2016 Laura Owens painting offering a screen-printed grid punctuated with four thick cake-frosting clots of paint: a work that can accommodate a wheel from a child’s wagon, but remains concise.
Discussing the mechanics of artist selection, Campbell describes:
I first met Marina Adams in the loft she shares with her husband Stanley Whitney. She came in the room like a tornado…so much energy. (Aware of how the “wives” of artists often get overshadowed by a more well-known partner.) Later she won a Guggenheim and had two exhibitions coming up, Salon 94 and in Switzerland. The work is vibrant and the curving forms allude to femininity and spirituality. Women didn't used to want to make abstract paintings that could be read as feminine. (Even Georgia O’Keefe rebelled against this). But Adams has created a language.
Colored-pencil drawings by Peixuan Wang are part of a salon-style grouping of works by Lucas Blalock and other artists, hung tightly to initiate a dialogue. The Wangs don’t jar and challenge like the Novak or the Dunham; rather, they inveigle, insinuate, seduce. In one, an Asian serpent figure coils benignly against a patterned background. “These drawings address the young artist moving to a highly surveilled city,” continues Campbell. “The interest in identity formation as galvanized by looking is significant.”
Campbell’s mixtape hang is acid-jazz and string concertos:
It is about interfacing and dwelling on that moment of transition. For these reasons, politics, the environment, surveillance, racism, bigotry, and the fraught socio-cultural moment is also in the backdrop because it is so related to how we see and how we are seen.
“The show has two nodes,” continues Campbell. “Early Smithson drawings, which are carnal and sexual and full of body fluids, and then a year later the Enantiomorphic Chambers, which are about disembodied looking.”
These Smithson drawings that are the linchpin of Campbell’s exhibition will be a revelation to those who know him as the Spiral Jetty guy. Made in the early ’60s at Pop’s fomenting moment, the drawings have an outsider-art flavor married to a Pop sensibility. Smithson wandered in and out of Times Square peep shows and adult bookshops; the resulting works essay tattoo parlor flash, while the lurid beefcake and cheesecake figures arrayed around the drawings’ edges maintain a connection to classical drawing.
Vanishing Points is an exhibition that explores how we identify: subjectivity, how we possess ourselves and our objects, as Fred Moten would say. In this way, it is a snapshot of the space in between—the screen, the threshold, the window—places that are not quite the body and not quite far away. It is a flicker of a moment.
Timothy Francis Barry has written for the Boston Globe, New Musical Express, Aesthetica Magazine, artcritical and artsfuse.org. His first column was under the editorship of Byron Coley at Take-It Magazine. Summers he operates Tim's Used Books in Provincetown, Mass., which book critic David L. Ulin, called his "favorite bookstore in America." (Los Angeles Times, 8-29-13) He lives in New York.