New YorkThe Hole
January 3 – February 3, 2019
The point of painting in a digital age is not to rehash what’s already been done, or what a camera or computer can do better, but to twerk reality at the behest of curious, exploratory minds. Two solo shows by artists Mathew Zefeldt and Caroline Larsen exemplify this project. Titled Customizable Realities and Kaleidoscopic, they are focused, respectively, on floral arrangements in antique vases and the hectic other-world of the video game Grand Theft Auto (GTA), which suggests dichotomy but isn’t.
Isolated to a vault-like inner room, Customizable Realities reeks of an experience: With the exception of the ceiling, Zefeldt’s super-graphic paintings of GTA stillscover every surface. Step inside! Photograph yourself disappearing into a vortex of macho images a la Lichtenstein cycled repeatedly in Warhol’s iterative style! But, unlike Pop exhibitions, there’s nothing hokey or manufactured here: No prints. No duplicates. No silkscreens. Zefeldt painted the 256 greyscale panels by hand, which elevates them from the Pop-Art rip-offs they could easily have been. They’re also distinct from one another. Each one combines with its neighbors to form larger matrix-like paintings—the rear-end of an Annis Elegy RH8, the fictive GTA version of the speedy Nissan GT-R—which are also repeated, and then fused again into a large tiled fresco fit for the 21st century.
Zefeldt calls his project “virtual-plein-air-painting,” a concept that gels with the gallery’s designation of the project as “post-analog.” The term refers to the aesthetic born out of the flip-flopping that allows a two-dimensional form like painting to survive even as its scope evolves to include the digital: virtual representations of the three-dimensional are re-claimed by the brush. In eight additional canvasses mounted atop the panels, Zefeldt zeroes in on highlights of the game-scape that compel him—a hunched stag, a boulder, a smattering of pebbles—and reiterates them in grids of 5 by 5 or 3 by 3 feet, or places them one atop the other. The simulated objects of his real-time gaze are rendered, again and again, by his lovely, impressionistic hand.
That Zefeldt’s work is obsessed with the digital does not preclude it from referencing the real world. The politics of Pipe Bomb and Police Car (2018), a diptych of a cop car afire, are not exactly subtle in a time when police brutality is (understandably) top of the mind. Pipe Bomb and Police Car hints at a reaction, a possible solution. The explosive moment—the mysterious thumb on the detonator—is irreverent, and thus exciting, but is also over-caffeinated and perhaps a bit sophomoric. “Let’s fuck this shit up,” it says.
Touring Larsen’s Kaleidoscopic is not so all-consuming as stepping into Customizable Realities but doing so is equally rewarding. Inspired by Dutch-era still lifes, Larsen’s canvasses depicting floral bouquets are delicately crafted by squeezing oil paint from frosting tips of various shapes and sizes. Her works belong in the gallery’s outer halls: The stately, energetic flowers come to astounding life when given the room they need to breathe. The curation is excellent here—the only misstep is the checkerboard pattern applied to the floors to reflect, and ostensibly augment, Larsen’s backgrounds, that proves more distracting than cool.
Larsen’s figurative and regenerative references to other media fit squarely within the brackets of the post-analog. Instead of the clocks and dead birds that characterized the 17th-century vanitas obsession with ephemerality, Larsen introduces emoticon-like smiley-faces and carefully-nestled eyeballs, indicating—I don’t know—technological chaos? Whatever it is, it works, and I find myself as mesmerized before a Larsen canvas as I used to be by the book I Spy, and continue to be when I see a Maria van Oosterwicjk in real life.
Take Still Life with Toucan Vase Emaux de Longwy Limited Edition (2018). Here, Larsen reinvents a bouquet as a coterie of technicolored florals stuffed into a portly Art Deco vase against a pixelated rainbow zebra-striped background. All this is composed of high squiggly fondant lines—some thick, some thin, some ridged, some smooth. This sounds like a mess because that is what a Larsen painting dares to be, and what it would turn into were it not for her enlightened bemusement with color and careful attention to the effect of textural contrast. In other words, there is little Larsen can’t invent, convincingly, by way of the post-analog that the Dutch masters could with the proto-informational; the floral-still lives were, after all, not mimetic but confabulatory, the available combined with the exotic and unknown.