On ViewPeter Freeman, Inc.
Mel Bochner: Seldom or Never Seen 2004-2022
November 10, 2022 – January 7, 2023
While watching a Netflix series in which the Nordic Gods are high school students who play out their animosities within a context of teenage jealousy and angst, I made the mistake of changing the translation from subtitles to dubbing. Reading the subtitles maintained a level of distance between what I was watching and comprehending, but the dubbing broke that connection and the action on screen descended into absurdity. Mel Bochner delights in this fragile disjunction. The survey of his works from the past 18 years at Peter Freeman displays his many strategies for making the viewer observe without reading, or the vice versa. To say that one feels a bit toyed with after walking the exhibition is an understatement; we are yelled at, victimized by simultaneously juvenile and brilliant puns, and forced to read things backwards and forwards and upside-down—knowing there’s nothing in it for us. Except that it sticks, and like the romp of teenage Asgardians, we value the specific benefits of reading as a method of avoiding meaning as much as inadvertently absorbing ideas.
Language Is Not Transparent (Babel) (2019/2022) faces the gallery’s front door and immediately jerks our chain: three lines of text have been written and rewritten so that it is impossible to tell what is being communicated, but the recognizable shapes of letters ask we at least try. Bochner has placed it on a drippy black rectangle painted directly on the wall, and written in chalk, channeling Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat; engaging street culture and social protest without using a word. In the next room, Babble (2011), a selection of words for nonsense inscribed in differently colored letters painted on stripes in changing hues, is perfectly legible from a text point of view. The artist instead allows the punctuation a level of autonomy that begins to trip up the eye: commas dangle from one line to the next, inserting themselves as apostrophes, emphasized by bright or dark colors that don’t match the accompanying letters. He also uses painting as a form of physical humor by inserting puns not through text but in the fabrication of the work itself: the comma’s color and positioning render a painting about babble (and babel) into a confusing and unreadable mess, but again we can’t turn away.
Throughout the collection of works—pulled from Bochner’s different series of the previous two decades—there is an overwhelming confrontational, hostile, or nihilistic tone, with most of the paintings challenging the viewer with phrases like “talk is cheap,” “look who’s talking,” and “do I have to draw you a picture?” This plays into the artist’s strategy of forcing us to look. Perpetually, slightly insulted we question the font he uses and the application of paint, mulling over why these words, just words, evoke such a response. But while looking closer we also notice that in a painting like Easy/Difficult (2022), the high gloss enamel paint forms shiny little peaks where it cakes up in the center of the letters, and we’re then relating the idea of the ease of fabrication with stencils and thinking Jasper Johns and the simultaneous embracing and rejection of the painterly hand.
Column A and Column B (both 2018) dominate the main, second, room. Two totemic lists of four statements each, they state the obvious: “I’ve had it up to here” says the top line of Column B, while the bottom panel of Column A reads “mistakes were made” while being partly obscured by the glossy oil enamel paint bleeding out from the edges of the letters. The ghostly puddles of white oil soaking into the black velvet surface is riveting and triggering when applied to texts that go out their way to say nothing specifically to us. The same is true of the gorgeous light blues generated by painting “blah” in white on a dark Prussian Blue background in Blah, Blah, Blah (2010): they are deliciously slick, drippy, and visceral. Bochner has forced us to start out by reading them instead of looking at them as at an image—and this twisted action speaks far louder than the words.