Planned Obsolescence? Antek Walczak and the Medium of Painting

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Antek Walczak advances the medium of painting as a kind of machine through which social, economic, political, and technological systems are ground down and assembled anew. Borrowing from the languages of communication networks, software engineering, and cybernetics, his work allegorizes the social, institutional, and economic networks that facilitate and regulate the production and reception of art, posing the question of how painting belongs to a network, but also how art itself is a system.1 Despite this inquiry into the logic of systems, Walczak seeks out and tugs at incongruous threads, resulting in a body of coexisting sentiments — sardonic yet sincere, aloof yet aware, brash yet introspective. However, Walczak, whose career dates to the mid-1990s, only came to painting within the past decade, having spent the previous sixteen years working predominantly as a member of the collective Bernadette Corporation.

Since its formation in 1994, Bernadette Corporation has consistently eschewed painting in favor of a multifaceted approach to artmaking that encompasses fashion, photography, film, sculpture, installation, poetry, and publications. The group’s interest in the destabilization of individual artistic authorship, cross-pollination within the culture industry, and a politicized disruption of the networks in which art is expected to function have proven immensely influential. Though Bernadette Corporation has collaborated with an array of artists, Bernadette Van-Huy, John Kelsey, and Walczak were its principal members until the latter parted ways with the group in 2012. Walczak is assumed to have been heavily involved with the outfit’s published endeavors, such as its fashion magazine, Made in USA (1999–2001). During this same period Walczak produced a number of self-authored videos, suggesting the possibility that he was responsible for the filming and editing of Bernadette Corporation’s lauded video works, such as The BC Corporate Story (1997), Hell Frozen Over (2000), and Get Rid of Yourself (2003), though it is of course impossible to determine exactly who did what.

All this is to say that with such a comprehensive history of working outside painting, it is rather surprising that Walczak’s solo practice, since departing Bernadette Corporation, has been almost exclusively committed to the medium. In order to properly unpack Walczak’s work of the past decade, it would appear necessary to first interpret this turn to painting after a sustained period of abstention. Certain contemporaries of Walczak who are similarly interested in financial systems and social networks — Simon Denny and Katja Novitskova immediately spring to mind — shun painting in favor of appropriating the corporate aesthetics native to their subjects of critique. Walczak addressed his distaste for such overt emulation when in 2015 he offered, “By simply making art that is not a painting, seventy-five percent of concept is already delivered on the plate as gesture and statement. Add to that any kind of out-of-art-world factor like a social science or two, some agriculture, animal husbandry, or gene splicing, and your art concept hits the ground running.”2 While apparently shedding light on his reasons for exiting a collective that never engaged painting, Walczak also stressed the Sisyphean challenge to painting’s vitality. As everyone knows, painting requires a conceptual remapping within its own parameters, yet it also frequently “finds itself most fully only where it is most deeply in question.”3

Both of these ideas were clearly in mind when Walczak embarked upon his 2010 solo exhibition “Empire State of Machine Mind,” the artist’s first determined foray into painting. Housed at Real Fine Arts in Brooklyn, the exhibition consisted of four large white canvases on top of which appeared black letters, darting arrows, and not a few distended ovals. Resembling a game-play diagram gone haywire, the compositions were in fact lyrics plucked from Jay-Z’s 2009 hit “Empire State of Mind” spelled out using the Lempel-Ziv-Welch data compression algorithm. The resulting compositions appeared as though they had been screen-printed but were in fact traditionally brushed with acrylic. A premeditated index of physical labor, this trace of the hand could come off as a gambit intended to increase value, but ultimately functions as a synapse between machinic and haptic fronts — where the rigidity of a digital network meets a pliable body. More to the point, Jay-Z’s hymn to New York City’s fabled capacity for social and economic transcendence provided the perfect conduit for Walczak to model how painting acts as a vessel for the social and intellectual networks that undergird its production — the compression of the social context of the New York art world into what David Joselit and Isabelle Graw have referred to as “the networked painted object.” In the end it’s all about who you know. Success that stems from networking is one thing, but making art about this activity is quite another. Other painters, such as Jana Euler and Mathieu Malouf, use the material constructs of painting to stress the social imperatives of the art world. But whereas Euler and Malouf point out the existence of such a network, Walczak foregrounds the conditions of participating within it. Indeed, he takes up the baggage of “networked” painting to hold up an antagonistic mirror to it, calling to mind the shortcomings and problems inherent to such an exercise — including his own complicity in doing just the same.

For obvious reasons, many artists avoid acknowledging in their work the clandestine mechanisms of wealth, its influence and the validation it imparts in contemporary art. Whereas certain artists call attention to the networked nature of the art world to broadcast their success, Walczak frequently wields his art to foreground the frustration and exhaustion of maintaining currency within such fickle webs. The artist’s 2013 solo exhibition, “New Transbohemian States,” again at Real Fine Arts, found him ensnaring himself within these matters more overtly than ever before. The series took the form of monochromatically grounded, uniformly sized square paintings of state-transition diagrams, a type of blueprint frequently used in software engineering. In Walczak’s paintings, these each took the shape of a familiar Disney or Warner Bros. cartoon character — Mickey Mouse, Woody Woodpecker, et al. Tightly installed along just two of the gallery’s four walls, their colors flickered against one another like a structuralist film. The connect-the-dot-like diagrams of numbers and arrows have a single word inserted between each number so that they blossom into full sentences. They also offer a choose-your-own-adventure kind of reading. For example, in Greed (2013), whose composition takes the form of Donald Duck, number one can go in any of three directions: sequentially linking to two, forming the phrase “I want to be a contemporary artist”; splitting off to three, which leads the viewer to “I want all integrity by being the critical artist”; or jumping to ten to come up with “what constitutes my institutional value.” Effectively these texts forge a road map of the artist’s simultaneous compulsion to operate within and vexation toward the system of art, pushing the conflicting stances of self-implication, sincerity, and mockery to a cathartic edge, revealing their author by turns competitive, revelatory, smug, trite, and downtrodden.

If these consecutive Real Fine Arts shows were diagrammatic pantomimes of the trials and tribulations of the networked artist, Walczak’s subsequent shows, “The Lead Years” (2012) and “Kompromat” (2017) at Mexico City’s House of Gaga, displaced such introspection in favor of highlighting the currency of metal. “The Lead Years” was comprised of eight lead panels onto which spam emails were silk-screened. New Order fans will immediately link their visual language to the cover art of the group’s 1986 album Brotherhood (one of the works shares that very title). These variously sized and formatted texts were culled from Walczak’s junk mail from 2007–08, covering the period before and after the beginning of the global financial crisis. All are in the service of phishing schemes in the guise of investment opportunities, brandishing statements such as “Gold investors find a safe haven as the US dollar continues to drop throughout 2007” (Storm, 2012), and peppered with baiting phrases like “Don’t miss it” (Saturn, 2012) or “just click on the icon below this text” (Titanic, 2012). These spammed texts come to us in the form of painting situated on the poisonous substrate of lead, suggesting the “toxic” nature of art and technological systems alike. Indeed, Walczak’s panels, again acting as agents for concepts and realities outside the art object, suggest that the content of the spam text is less important than what it says about content circulation and financial systems as well as our parallel dependence upon and wariness of technology. Much in the same manner as the “Machine Mind” and “New Transbohemian” paintings, these works were serially installed ruminations on a single theme, varying little in terms of individual composition yet acting as a durational sequence that forged formal relationships and linguistic meaning within the movement from one end to the other, evoking the cinematic technique of montage. In fact, Walczak’s use of montage in the context of painting reveals the clearest correlations with his former, filmic practice, suggesting that painting, for him, is perhaps a finite enterprise — a planned obsolescence. In addition to underscoring our terrifyingly vulnerable position in relation to technological and economic circumstances beyond our control, “The Lead Years” saw Walczak dabbling in astrological significations. As he wrote in the press release, the “alchemical symbol for lead is the same as for the planet Saturn.”4 If in 2012 Walczak metaphorically raised the value of lead to that of gold under the foreboding presence of Saturn, he foretold his confrontation with “Venus, mother of Libra, whose symbol denotes copper.”

Accordingly, Walczak fulfilled this fate by staging “Kompromat” at the same venue five years later. Although the exhibition was not exclusively dedicated to copper, the side of Venus that speaks “of our self worth, money, banks” was nevertheless manifest in three paintings executed on copper substrates.6 Atop their shimmering surfaces Walczak silkscreened images of hundred-dollar bills with transparent ink and then corroded the surfaces with various chemicals and exposure to the sun, inescapably calling to mind both Andy Warhol’s early “Dollar Bill” and late “Oxidation” paintings. While the titan of twentieth-century Pop was undeniably obsessed with cold hard cash, Walczak conjures the notion that art, like money, benefits from circulation, particularly in our age of electronic exchange and crypto currencies.

As we have seen in his canvas, lead, and copper works, Walczak clearly exploits painting as a means of working through technological systems, social networks, and the omnipresent forces of capitalism. Yet he also appears distrustful of painting’s ability to properly channel these ideas outside the realm of art. To this end, Walczak seems less interested in theoretically parlaying painting’s limits than utilizing the medium both allegorically and ironically: allegorical in that he is using an existing medium to address matters external to it; ironic in the acknowledgement of its self-imposed “impossibility.”

It is perhaps with these thoughts in mind that in early 2016 Walczak mounted an exhibition of non-painted, professionally produced works at Dominique Lévy in New York. These hexagonally shaped dye sublimation prints on metal were installed in groups of three, resembling chemical formulas or honeycombs. Each computer-generated composition is populated with gaming icons (rooks, knights, hearts, clubs, swords, dice, “eject button” arrows, etc.) that coexist on a segmented monochromatic plane, creating visually differentiated but conceptually linked constellations. The layouts were designed utilizing a digital mosaic-patterning technique that allows random content population within any given field, resulting in splayed and overlapping imagery recalling early video games.

Later that year Walczak produced a second iteration of the series at Jenny’s in Los Angeles titled “Neanderthal Interface Guidelines.” This was comprised of thirty-six works installed on a single wall in a tessellated rhythm. As before, these works also made use of digital shorthand language (signs, glyphs, and symbols). Their use here is emblematic of the continuing evaporation of written language in favor of a universal, egalitarian approach to the sign. Prolonged viewing of the segmented hexagonal formats allows the viewer to perceive two different compositional geometries and to vacillate between them: a flattened hexagon and a cube. The former makes for immediate legibility of the two-dimensional glyphs, while the latter allows the flat figures to float in imaginary three-dimensional space. Toggling between the two produces a kind of gestalt image that makes for enthralling viewing. Unlike the East Coast manifestation of the series, the pattern of symbols here are printed across multiple panels, making the thirty-six-part installation in effect a single, undulating artwork, flowing from deep blue at the upper left (Ocean, all works 2016) to a mustard yellow at the lower right (Crater). The titles allude to natural phenomena (Fjord;Delta) or specific geographic locations (Dasht-e Lut; Sibillini Mountains), mirroring the way tech repeatedly evokes nature, such as Mac’s successive operating systems — Yosemite, El Capitan, Sierra, and Mojave. Though the press release for “Neanderthal Interface Guidelines” repeats the artist’s apparent frustrations with uncritical “trending” artistic production, it also drives home that Walczak is creating a legible critique — a caustic screenshot — of those very propensities. For ultimately systemic critique is at the very heart of Walczak’s work — that is, until he renders it obsolete.

1 For an extended analysis on the networked nature of painting see David Joselit, “Painting Beside Itself,” October, no. 130 (fall 2009), 125–34.

2 “Why Paint? Q/A with Antek Walczak,” Spike #44 (summer 2015), https://www.spikeartmagazine.com/en/articles/qa-antek-walczak.

3 Stephen Melville, “Counting /As/ Painting,” As Painting: Division and Displacement, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001), 3.

4 Press release for “The Lead Years,” March 30–May 11, 2012, House of Gaga, Mexico City.

5 Ibid.

6 http://www.astrology-zodiac-signs.com/astrology/planets/venus/

Image: Antek Walczak, Greed (2013). Image courtesy of the artist and Real Fine Arts, New York.

Originally published by Flash Art, Issue 323 (November 2018 – January 2019)

 

Fiona Connor at the MAK Center

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Beyond mere entry and exit, not much thought is given to the doors through which we pass every day. Closed Down Clubs, New Zealand-born, Los Angeles-based artist Fiona Connor’s latest exhibition, invited contemplation of the larger significations of such mundane portals. Housed at the MAK Center’s Mackey Garage Top (a sleek and airy space above a garage behind a Rudolf Schindler house), Connor’s exhibition was comprised of nine freestanding doors installed in a staggered, parallel formation, each emblazoned with printed or hand-written signs announcing the recent closure of the businesses to which they were once attached.

Like virtually all of Connor’s work, each of the sculptures included is a meticulous replication of an actual object. Having previously assumed such forms as bulletin boards, drinking fountains, and architectural infrastructure, her works are typically adorned with artist-drawn or screen-printed stickers, posters, or pamphlets to faithfully match the original reference as closely as possible. As relics of shared space, her works often bear traces of obsolescence or fatigue, expounded through the artist’s fastidious duplication of objects’ apparent wear or corrosion. Closed Down Clubs was no exception—one could sense the traffic that Connor’s chosen doors had experienced in their past lives, as seen in suspended animation (such as where sullied hands cumulatively left their mark in instances of worn-o paint or accumulated grime). With such minute attention to detail, Connor’s work offers a verisimilitude so precise that it could easily be mistaken for the real thing, which begs the question: why laboriously recreate an object that could simply be appropriated?

Unlike Danh Vo or Cameron Rowland, two artists whose use of the readymade foregrounds the compelling personal and political histories of their chosen objects, Connor’s work is a deft repetition of the real. Indeed, her readymade-once-removed production is a fiction residing in tandem with reality—meaning we are meant to understand that her work is a facsimile of lived experience at a particular place and time. With this, Connor mobilizes the deceptive surface of artifice not only to underscore the often-overlooked aesthetic qualities of quotidian objects, but also what they communicate about the societies in which they function.

Connor’s works at the MAK Center—as is the case in most of her work—were duplications of things that, by and large, are only truly experienced in person— whether that be the touch of a worn brass door handle (Closed Down Clubs, Club Tee Gee) (all works 2018), the kicked and nicked bottom side of a plum-colored entryway (Closed Down Clubs, NoHo London Music Hall), or the texture of corroded duct tape stuck on an emergency exit (Closed Down Clubs, The Smell).

As a title, Closed Down Clubs is more fictive than legitimate, being that not all of the establishments featured are actually closed and many are not clubs. (At least two are restaurants, one a bookstore, and one that’s altogether undefined.) Nevertheless, while these portals obviously act as agents of erstwhile monetary exchange, these are also relics of physical access, frozen between states of entry and departure, assembly and dispersal. More pertinently, each work is a token of sidelined identity.

One only need recall the Cheers theme song to emote the pursuit of belonging and shared escape through spaces of congregation. When these establishments shutter, a part of us does as well. Additionally, these works called our attention not only to the potential pitfalls of being a small business owner but of the mortality of brick and mortar stores more generally. Connor, though, was not singing a song of financial victimization and e-commerce heartache, but was rather building a narrative of foreclosed selfhood and belonging. Ironically, the namesakes for the two works that were most regionally emblematic of this kind of belonging, The Smell and Club Tee Gee, are still open.

Closed Down Clubs was not just about communication consumed in transience—the taped note on the door seen while strolling by, “PULL” written in crackled signage, business cards crammed in crevices—but it was also about the state of community in the face of its looming digital annihilation. Indeed, with modes of identity shifting further out of the realm of the real and more into the realm of the immaterial, Connor’s assiduously analogue endeavors gave clarity to this very reality.

Though Connor’s exhibition decidedly conjured extinction, her simulacra reminded us that no matter what technological advances society makes, analogue forms of communication will outlive all others.

Image: Fiona Connor, Closed Down Clubs (2018) (installation view). Image courtesy of the artist and MAK Center. Photo: Esteban Schimpf.

Originally published by Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles, Issue 13 (October 2018)

Reena Spaulings at Matthew Marks

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For those unfamiliar, Reena Spaulings is a fictional character in the eponymous 2004 novel by artist collective Bernadette Corporation, of which John Kelsey is a co-founding member. Reena Spaulings is also an artist collective and an art gallery in New York City (with an outpost in Los Angeles), both of which were co-founded by Kelsey and Emily Sundblad. In addition to these, Kelsey is also a widely published essayist and artist in his own right. Whether under the guise of a collective or exhibiting solo, Kelsey is represented in eight cities by no less than seven galleries, many of which represent artists also on the Reena Spaulings gallery roster. This shrewdly architected branding of interconnectivity is continually reinforced at museum and gallery openings, editorial meetings, art fairs, dinners, after parties, studio visits, lectures, and conferences. As such, Kelsey has arguably positioned himself as a figure with more channels of agency than any other person in the art world.

In his artistic collaboration with Reena Spaulings—which includes a rotating array of artists—Kelsey frequently foregrounds these mechanisms. Take, for example, their recent portraits of art advisors that were shown at Art Basel (several of which sold to a collector through an advisor represented in one of them),1 or the older Enigma paintings: wine-stained tablecloths snagged from opening night dinners that Reena Spaulings evidently attended (and you did not). At times, it seems this imbrication of social, economic, and cultural capital is the work, and the objects themselves function merely as byproducts of a clout machine operating at full steam. Importantly, though, these and by extension all Reena Spaulings works point out that the terms “artist” and “artwork” are fictions and that their production, display, and exchange are nothing more than suspensions of disbelief. It would be easy to malign Reena Spaulings as mere purveyors of insider trading had their activities never transcended such navel gazing, as their latest exhibition at Matthew Marks’ Los Angeles outpost demonstrates.

Reena Spaulings shows at a number of established galleries, but none sells primary market artworks for upwards of eight figures in the same manner as Matthew Marks. Indeed, The Male Gates is the first foray into the mega-gallery realm for Reena Spaulings, which begs the question: will a practice heretofore nurtured by more intimate and interdependent networks thoroughly deflate in such a blue chip context?

Straddling two galleries and comprised of nine canvases, five painted airport security gates, and a single marble sculpture, The Male Gates is by and large a show of and about painting. Within it there are repeated allusions not only to the current approaches toward the medium but historical ones as well. Half of the paintings are executed in an intentionally sloppy pointillist style, at once an allusion to Georges Seurat and a depersonalization of gesture. As their fictional name suggests, the undermining of individual authorship is a Reena Spaulings staple, wherein anyone or indeed anything could have been responsible for the work’s execution. An example of such painterly abdication is the gigantic and brushy Seascape (2014), which was painted with the assistance of an iRobot Roomba—a knowingly feeble conceit that tests the limits of Reena’s smugness. The work’s size here is rather functional in terms of its relationship to the freestanding Gate works (all 2018), installed in a zigzagging fashion in the center of the main gallery. Glossed quasi-seductively in house paint, they act as literal and metaphorical portals through which the viewer experiences Seascape and its attendant paintings. More compelling, however, are the Gate’s biopolitical associations. Security gates like these are typically installed at institutional thresholds such as airports and prisons where the body is either denied or granted entry, where dominant/submissive power dynamics are innately understood. Their appearance here reminds us that “the individual never ceases passing from one closed environment to another, each having its own laws.”2

The notions of power and control raised by these works are echoed in the smaller-scale paintings, each bearing the title Medusa (all 2018) and taking the compositional form of pointillistic female visages or loosely brushed Gorgonian coral. Medusa, as we all know, is a female monster, a gorgon, with snakes in place of hair, whose gaze turned men to stone. Reena’s repeated allusion to a figure of table-turning male domination is particularly trenchant, considering the exhibition’s proximity to the Hollywood film industry, where the #MeToo movement began. Against this backdrop, Reena’s Medusas transform themselves into vessels of feminine fortitude.

On the whole, there is a sense that the show’s location informed certain subjects explored in the work, but not any of its lo-fi production value—a crafty balance of contextual transcendence and brand maintenance. The show’s title, The Male Gates at once nods to the painterly notion of the male gaze and the male-dominated gatekeeping inherent to all aspects of life, including the art world. With this, the exhibition succeeds most when it calls into question our conceptions of artistic authorship, institutional control, and gender-based power. It’s interesting to note that this particular Reena Spaulings exhibition was not only executed by Kelsey and Sundblad, but also included Jutta Koether, tipping the gender balance of the collective. Still, ask yourself: Would Reena Spaulings (or indeed John Kelsey himself) have reached their current level of visibility were she not a fe/male fiction, but a female-only entity?

Image: Reena Spaulings, Medusa 11 (2018). Acrylic and oil on linen, 40 x 50 inches. Image courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo: Alan Wiener.

Originally published by Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles, Issue 12 (August 2018)

Wolfgang Stoerchle at Overduin & Co.

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In 1962 Wolfgang Stoerchle (1944-1976) filmed and photographed his horseback journey from Toronto to Los Angeles. Though actually done for personal record, Stoerchle later dubbed the expedition a monumental performance. Such self-mythologizing is peppered throughout the artist’s compelling if uneven output, which includes painting, sculpture, performance, fictional news, and video. Tragically, a car accident cut his life short at the age of thirty-two. In lieu of a warranted museum survey, Overduin & Co.’s recent exhibition, astutely curated by Paris-based editor and publisher Alice Dusapin, makes up for institutional lag.

After middling forays into painting and sculpture, Stoerchle began leaning towards performance and was soon drawn to video. It was through this medium that the artist hit his stride, exploring its potential as both an archive of performance and a conduit for technological experimentation. Happily, the Overduin show was largely dedicated to this facet of Stoerchle’s output. Particularly noteworthy was Crawling out of clothes (1970-72), in which the artist set up an interconnected series of cameras and monitors, creating a mise-en-abyme of registration, display, and re-registration through which the titular activity is seen once, then again, and yet again through a series of delays. Or take Dodging (1970-72), wherein the artist, his head cut out of frame, sits on a monitor displaying a close-up of his head. In a play of self and mediation, Stoerchle repeatedly attempts cover his eyes on the monitor with a black band while simultaneously dodging those very pursuits, evincing an embrace of happenstance, failure, and comedy.

Rounding out the show were rigid polyurethane foam paintings of tire-flattened bananas and Stoerchle’s “Fictional News” works. These fabricated news articles seem uncannily anticipatory of our current moment in their questioning of the relationship between the media, art, and truth. Though Stoerchle’s static works are engaging on their own accord and gave the show a needed kick of color, they pale in comparison to the invention, vigor, and urgency of their video counterparts.

Image: Wolfgang Stoerchle, “before you can pry any secrets from me,” curated by Alice Dusapin (installation view). Image courtesy Overduin & Co., Los Angeles. Photo: Brian Forrest

Originally published by Flash Art, Vol. 50, No. 321 (June – August 2018)

Material Soul: Photography and Corporeality in the Work of Josh Tonsfeldt

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What does my body know of photography? — Roland Barthes

The opening moment of Quentin, a 2010 video by Josh Tonsfeldt (b. 1979, US; lives in New York), is a ground-angle bucolic scene, replete with leaves, moss, and a tree trunk, swiftly taken over by a close-up of fry bread smothered in pink pudding and dirt. “Get back over there, buddy,” a child’s off-camera voice whispers to the now-inedible treat as he shoves it so close to the camera that it nearly monopolizes the frame. “What about this?” he offers, as the legs of a squirming spider enter from the right, dancing frantically as they are repeatedly mired in and freed from the saccharine mess. “Right there,” he says with studied satisfaction as he continues to manhandle the arachnid’s body, fingering it into the dessert, drowning it in the fleshy goo. Tonsfeldt’s camera remains fixed throughout, its distracted autofocus constantly gliding from one point to another as it struggles to manage its lush surroundings.

Exhausted, the victim remains motionless for a moment, its sunlit exoskeleton rendered a translucent, speckled tan against the sticky backdrop. Nearby conversation is heard. The squeak of a toy. Clicks of a lighter. It seems like a family outing. “Do you think he’s gonna survive?” an older asks the younger. “Yeah… probably so,” says the boy, weighing this against prior experience. “It’s only pudding.” The spider eventually frees itself and scuttles out of view. A twig descends from above, audibly penetrating the dessert. A shadow of the spider — apparently still within the boy’s clutches — appears in raking light on the bark’s tactile ridges. This intimate, even claustrophobic scene continues in this vein for several moments before the camera is moved back, revealing the pastoral setting in full view, and then abruptly cuts off. Filmed in a single five-and-a-half-minute take at a summertime family gathering, Tonsfeldt’s video is at once visceral and seductive.

The themes that comprise Quentin — material truth, capture of quotidian subjects, embrace of the capabilities and limitations of digital apparatuses, engagement with the body’s increasingly inextricable relationship to cameras and screens — are characteristic of Tonsfeldt’s approach to artmaking. With these actions and circumstances in mind, he investigates the manners in which reality can be captured, processed, and consumed. He destabilizes and restructures images through various digital and physical processes, laying bare or thoroughly reworking elements of their construction, or else dismantling and repurposing their means of display. Traversing material strata, Tonsfeldt’s work can be seen as a continual investigation into — and a processing of — the porous border between the photographic and the corporeal.

Tonsfeldt does not primarily identify as a photographer, and yet the sequences and procedural operations inherent to photographic and cinematic activity — interplay between operator and apparatus, image capture, manipulation of the channels through which images travel, printing — inform virtually all aspects of the artist’s output. Importantly, Tonsfeldt, like Vilém Flusser before him, holds that the apparatus of image capture is an extension of the body’s senses, a prosthesis that facilitates an augmented and intensified engagement with the world. The creation of works of art is not, Tonsfeldt claims, of primary importance, but is rather the inevitable product of his engagement with the photographic, which we might define, following Howard Singerman, as “neither a medium nor the instance of a medium. Rather, it is something like the technical condition of photography, its reproducibility, its circulation, and its dumbly indexical, contingent ties to the world.”1

Tonsfeldt’s artworks stem from an intense personal relationship to the devices and materials he employs; as he gets to know them intimately they become not only instruments of capture but also veritable extensions of his own body. His works are imbued with a sensorial aura, a palpable residue of emotional connection between object and author — a material soul. This intimacy with apparatuses and materials can be glimpsed not only when the machines and processes are running smoothly, but in their potential for disruption and failure as well.

These interests were foregrounded in the artist’s 2013 exhibition at New York’s Simon Preston Gallery, a self-illuminated, environmental installation in which the artist presented several wall-based works, many of which were printed on the reverse side of photo paper, a material that, depending on the ink in question, accepts or rejects the printer’s efforts. In Untitled (2013), for instance, the artist printed an image onto the back of a large piece of photo paper and while the ink was still wet he wiped it away, leaving a cerulean palimpsest. On top he printed an image of Bart Simpson broken up into three out-of-order segments, staggering the smaller image over the larger, effaced one. Here Tonsfeldt is frustrating image legibility through the index of the work’s very own creation. Elsewhere in the same exhibition, the artist pushed these indexical notions further by making rectangular plaster casts of the floor and installing them vertically side-by-side in the middle of the gallery, thereby constructing a wholly new, mimetic architecture within the space. These “walls,” like photographic negatives, bore indexical relations to their source; every crevice and crack made a physical protuberance.

As regards the negative, Tonsfeldt’s output is entirely free of it, as he has only ever employed digital cameras. A great deal of twentieth-century discourse on photography emphasizes the primacy of the negative as the gatekeeper of photographic inversion, reproduction, and dissemination. However, as George Baker has observed, “With the shift from analog to digital media in recent decades, few have mourned the fact that this transition has included the loss of the negative from most of the dominant forms of current photographic processes. Whether considered as the matrix of the voyage of the image from camera to print or as the former primary modality of image storage, the negative once embodied the central operations of both photography and film, and yet it has hardly been noted that in recent years the negative has simply been swept away.”2

While digital cameras are of course instruments of indexical faculty, they have nonetheless shifted emphasis from a relationship between author and negative to a fusion of operator and apparatus and the consequent “lens-based aesthetics” of the post-darkroom photographic era. Tonsfeldt’s images go entirely through digitally coded channels; from the point of initial capture up until the point of execution, they exist completely outside the realm of the physical, residing only in the hermetic vacuum of digital circuitry.

If anyone jettisoned the discourse of the negative in favor of a scrutiny of the seamless fusion of user and device it was Flusser, who in 1983 presaged photographic ubiquity as “a new kind of function in which human beings are neither the constant nor the variable but in which human beings and apparatus merge into a unity.”3 Flusser emphasized the non-impartiality of the apparatus, explaining that what it depicts is not “real,” but rather a transformed index of reality that comes about as a result of the apparatus’s ability to record objects, regardless of any presence of the negative.

Seen through this lens, plaster is an instrument capable of photographic mimesis in its own right. Tonsfeldt’s use of the material is not only a means of inverting the contours of three-dimensional objects, it is also a receptacle of two-dimensional image transfer. The artist fused these capacities in “Adrenaline,” a 2015 show, wherein high-resolution photographs were printed onto single and multipart hydrocal casts. Adrenaline Tattoo, for example, is a cast of Tonsfeldt’s studio worktable upon which he superimposed two parts of a single, peeled-apart LCD screen removed from a flat-screen television. Printed onto the surface of the hydrocal cast is an image depicting a man getting a rectangular tattoo on his chest while his arms are otherwise occupied — his left an ad hoc pillow, his right raised and holding an iPhone, presumably to record the process. Surreptitiously shot from the exterior of the tattoo shop, a glass barrier had separated the artist from his subject.

A physical connection between the printed image and how the material accepts it (crisp resolution where the surface is flat, murkiness in its lacunae) makes it so the eye “feels” the image. Meanwhile, the screen appears as a kind of skin, a porous boundary through which sensorial information is synaptically transferred then transmitted. As the image rides over the cast surface there is a dovetailing of affect: the work’s rectangular shape, the casts of the screens, the man’s tattoo, his iPhone, and the glass “screen” separating subject and witness all echo a screen’s form and function: seen together they act as a bridging of the corporeal and the digital.

What could be more emblematic of the dermal exchange between machine and body than a touchscreen? As Laura Glitsos has commented, “Touchscreens imply the relationship between skin on skin — the skin of our body (in particular the hands) against the skin of the screen. It follows that mobile touchscreen devices suggest a degree of sensuality — in the coming together of bodies, fluids, and other organic materials which ‘stick’ to the touchscreen.”4 At what point does this fluidity become transmutable into other realms? As technology progresses and the lines between life and work, screen time and lived time, the real and the virtual, become blurred — and the self increasingly layered and fluid — the body’s engagement with the screen is omnipresent.

Just as the viewfinder marks the commencement of photographic reality, the framed or screened image is the culmination of its sequence. Indeed, life, work, and leisure are all now experienced through a succession of screens. With this hegemony in mind, Tonsfeldt recently embarked upon two interrelated bodies of work that explore the physiological nature of the screen through absence and presence.

The first is a series of disrupted and augmented flat screen televisions. The LCD displays found within, similar to the epidermal and dermal strata of skin, are layers of extremely thin films that can be peeled apart and removed. Without them, the television is just a grid of lights in a plastic vessel. If moving images are to be viewed as intended, their information must first go through these diffusion and prism films, then the LCD screen itself. Surprisingly, when these films are removed, the LCD display still functions, albeit with different results: “white” information is invisible, and the viewer sees nothing but the lighting grid, but “black” and color images can still be read. In Untitled (2016), for example, Tonsfeldt excised the interior films and glued several items to its grid, including dried vegetation and pieces of clothing. Over this backdrop a video of a pulsating flashlight appears within a floating black animation. The viewer’s attention is thrust from the video to the very mechanisms that enable its legibility, to the familiarity of the objects and back again. The work’s effect, almost respiratory, is utterly hypnotic.

The second is a series of cast hydrocal works that are a seamless fusion of frame and receptacle. Their internal compositions are an admixture of fragmented objects and imagery problematized by the application of the extracted television prism films. The films have a polarized lens effect, obscuring what lies behind them when viewing the work frontally, coming into clearer focus when the viewer moves to either side. Despite this connection between viewer and object, the prism film barrier renders the underlying imagery unattainable, perpetually mediating the viewer’s direct engagement with it, culminating in an entanglement of desire and frustration.

In the press release for “Adrenaline” Tonsfeldt states, “Familiarity becomes something slippery in the timespan of making a picture. The tenderness felt toward a loved one can emerge like a program between you and the camera, a machine-body behavior ready to play itself out in situations untethered from its source.” Indeed, Tonsfeldt’s work has the familiar at its core: forever processing it, abstracting it, pulling it apart, and pushing it into other registers, while never letting it go.

Notes

1 Howard Singerman, Art History, After Sherrie Levine (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2012), p. 60.

2 George Baker, “The Black Mirror,” October, No. 158 (Fall 2016), p. 35.

3 Vilém Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography (London: Reaktion, 2000), p. 27.

4 Laura Glitsos, “Screen as Skin: The Somatechnics of Touchscreen Music Media,” Somatechnics, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 142–165.

Image: Josh Tonsfeldt, Adrenaline Tattoo, 2015, UV cured pigment print on hydrocal, spray paint, epoxy resin, pigment inks, 48 x 32 inches (121.9 x 81.3 cm), courtesy Simon Preston Gallery, New York.

Originally published in Flash Art, Vol. 50, No. 319 (March-April 2018)

Vittorio Brodmann at Freedman Fitzpatrick

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Known for modestly sized canvases of vivid, cartoonish brio, Swiss artist Vittorio Brodmann appears to be pivoting from the candy colored anthropomorphism that defined his earlier work toward a more nuanced and dreamlike vocabulary. Moreover, his latest exhibition advances that his penchant for amalgamating folks and fauna in cramped quarters has migrated into relaxed contours beset by watery brushwork.

The stanza-esque press release succinctly links itself to particular works while doling out generalities elsewhere. For instance, “…that Queen got her hoof on…” clearly alludes to the cerulean-crowned royal sitting astride an orange horse in Midnight Deadlines (all works 2018). Likewise, “….spotting the existential self” meets its match with the faint red “X” hovering over the demonic mouse-pig’s head in X Marks the Self. Yet the vagueness of “market waves” and “quotidian proclivities caught on loop” dismantle the text to image ratio the other phrases so neatly profess, making clear that Brodmann really only wants to meet you halfway.

Indeed, Brodmann’s output is a moving target, vacillating between abstraction and figuration, slapstick and sincerity, happenstance and premeditation, narrative and abandon. Such parlayed ambivalence is at its apex here in Slump, wherein an oblivious “salaried man in Ray-Bans” is accompanied by a looming, vampire-toothed apparition in a sea of pale green littered with fits of pink and orange. More ominous, perhaps, is the sad sack star of Automatism of Acquired Habits who evinces both aggression and amorousness after a bout of drinking. Is his clenched hand set upon assaulting or embracing his paramour? We are held in the balance.

By continually pulling at these inconclusive strands, Brodmann highlights that the subjects broached here (introspection, romantic pursuits, professional relationships, art history, politics) can’t be pigeonholed, as their interstitial nature and must be dealt with case by case. Two Birds, Two Stones, as the title suggests, is the opposite of a shortcut. It’s an arena of dealing with problems as they arise, one stone at a time.

Image: Vittorio Brodmann, X Marks the Self (2018). Acrylic and charcoal on canvas
29 1/2 x 39 1/2 inches. Image courtesy of the artist and Freedman Fitzpatrick.

Originally published by Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles, April 11, 2018

Radical Women at the Hammer

Burzstyn, Feliza

Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985, the Hammer’s extensive and momentous contribution to Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA was both a welcome and long overdue survey of an underrepresented generation of Latina and Chicana artists. As if having the foresight that 2017 would prove a turning point for women’s voices, the exhibition was at once prescient and culturally imperative. Radical Women was dedicated to an era of extraordinary social and political upheaval during which the oppression of women was actively resisted. It was also during this time many of the countries represented were subject to military dictatorship. Examining how such realities were filtered through the work of female artists in Latin America and the United States, co-curators Cecilia Fajardo-Hill and Andrea Giunta assiduously situated Radical Women at the intersection of the political and the corporeal.

Many of the subversive and conceptually-driven gestures seen here—performances, happenings, and interventions—demanded documentation; therefore, the great majority of work in Radical Women took the form of photography or video. In this respect the installation veered toward monotony—a problem the savvy exhibition design at times succeeded in mitigating. Nonetheless, Radical Women was an eruditely researched and altogether revelatory examination of the urgent desire, indeed necessity for these artists to forge a new kind of bodily representation, one that could speak on its own terms.

A compelling investigation of this was the show’s opener Me gritaron negra (they shouted black at me) (1978), a black and white video projection by Peruvian artist Victoria Santa Cruz. The artist, accompanied by a small chorus, recites a poem through which she recounts the internalization of racial slurs thrown at her during her childhood: “And I hated my hair and fleshy lips,” she orates. In cathartic, songlike cadence she reveals a narrative of self-loathing that gives way to self-realization and liberation: “I don’t step back anymore (Finally!), I move forward with confidence (Finally!),” setting the exhibition’s tone of defiance and self-possession.

The notion of the female body as physical and metaphorical terrain is explored in the adjoining gallery, most overtly in Epidermic Scapes (1977/1982) by Brazilian artist Vera Chaves Barcellos. The massive floor-level grid is comprised of 30 black and white extreme close-up photographs of skin, contrasted to the point of resembling aerial views of arid regions. If Chaves Barcellos uncannily renders the skin terrestrial, the neighboring Corazon de roca con sangre (Rock heart with blood) (1975) by Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta hypnotically fuses body and earth. The grainy Super 8 film shows a nude Mendieta kneeling beside a figure-shaped depression into which she ritualistically pours a bright red liquid to match the placement of her heart (a red-painted rock) before lying face down in it. Against the hard earth her bare, soft body reminds us of its vulnerability and inevitable finitude.

Compared to Colombian María Evelia Marmolejo, however, Mendieta’s meditations seem positively anodyne. While Radical Women clearly aims at surveying iconoclasm, Marmolejo takes her performance-based practice to an extreme. Her Anónimo 4 (Anonymous 4) (1984) is a video of a performance in which the artist tied decaying placentas from recent births to her body and wrapped herself in plastic, later ripping the materials from her body in a ritualized bereaving of the poverty and suffering she is certain the newborns will inevitably endure.

In seeming contrast to this crucible of carnal consequence, the exhibition’s final room hints at the liberating potentials of sexual pleasure. However, the takeaway from Columbian Feliza Bursztyn’s Cama (Bed) (1974), a gyrating machine draped in red satin is not sensual union but the brute mechanics of sex. Even more suggestive and not without humor is Brazilian Lygia Pape’s Eat Me (1975), a projection of a lipsticked mouth surrounded by facial hair. It is difficult to tell, perhaps intentionally so, whether it belongs to a disguised woman or a bearded man. As the glossy lips part and pucker the work oozes sexuality while upending gender roles.

Undoubtedly, Radical Women will serve as an important chronicle that deftly traced commonalities among 120 geographically and chronologically separate artists. Such extensiveness, however, resulted in an overly dense and at times fatiguing installation. Still, the unification of so many overlooked female artists from Latin America makes clear that this exhibition barely scratched the surface of the larger, worldwide exclusion of artists based on gender alone, leaving one with the sad realization that Radical Women was just a drop in an ocean of omissions. Those untold stories can’t come soon enough.

Image: Feliza Bursztyn (Colombian, 1933–1982), Cama (Bed), 1974. Assemblage with stainless steel scrap, cot, satin sheet, and motor. 43 5/16 × 70 7/8 × 27 9/16 in. (110 × 180 × 70 cm). Museo Nacional de Colombia. Artwork ©the artist. Photo ©Museo Nacional de Colombia / Andrés Mauricio López.

Originally published by Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles, Issue 9 (February 2018)