The cover article in the Summer 2008 issue of Artforum is about Wade Guyton, in particular the exhibition he mounted at Friedrich Petzel Gallery during November - December 2007. The article is written by Johanna Burton, the young and prolific art historian. I visited this show last year with the intention of writing about it, but opted not to; the publication of this article prompts me to briefly revisit some of the thoughts I left unresolved six months ago.
First, a short summary: this show consisted of a group of large, mostly black inkjet prints on canvas that were stretched and presented as paintings would be. The floor was covered with plywood and painted a glossy black. Both rooms of the gallery were occupied by these works.
The premise of the work, as I understand it, is contemporary and unobjectionable. The works are “paintings” because they occupy the space and function of painting; the material that constitutes the work (in this case ink, and not paint) is secondary to its status as painting. They are made at a remove: folded canvas fed through an inkjet printer, often multiple times, resulting in a number of “unpredictable” flaws in the printing process. These flaws (mis-registration, clogged printer heads, scuffs and the like) mark the surfaces as a place demanding of inspection rather than a purely symbolic reference to well-trodden theories.
I put quotes around “unpredictable” above to mark the difference between unexpected and not precisely controlled. After all, an essential character of the work is the effect of the flaws; steps are taken to ensure their presence. They’re neither unexpected nor unwelcome. Decisions about how to use the tools (the printer, the ink, the canvas) establish a measure of control, inside of which the affect of imperfection operates. Furthermore, these decisions indicate a set of values that declare the position of the these works relative to The Discourse, such as it is. And that position is neither unexamined nor accidental.
So I want to take up a couple points from Burton’s analysis now. First is her dwelling, at length, on the phrase “ostensibly black monochromes” in the press release for the exhibition. Ostensible, for Burton, is about something not quite being what it purports to be, in Guyton’s case both “ostensibly paintings but not paintings” and “ostensibly black monochromes but not black monochromes”. Both directions are, in my reading, red herrings. The expansion of the field of painting to include objects not made of paint, or by actual hands, is definitive and not contentious. It’s just a fact, and Guyton’s “inkjet prints on stretched canvas” have no trouble finding purchase on the cliffs of painting. Secondly, I see nothing about these that’s qualitatively different from every other monochrome that is, in perceptual reality, “not monochrome”. Her list of predecessors to whom these paintings gesture includes Rothko, Reinhardt, Stella, and Marden. I’m unaware of any paintings by the first three that could even qualify as ostensible monochromes, and I take it as uncontroversial that what makes Marden’s monochromes thrilling is their shortcomings within what appears to be a good faith effort to make The Monochrome.
The other major point threading through Burton’s text is the idea of the Neutral, especially as articulated by Roland Barthes in a series of lectures in 1978. I’m not equipped to comment on her reading of Barthes, but this amounts to the idea that the Neutral is the assertion of desire (in this case, for artistic production) crippled by the reluctance to be constrained by anything easily categorized within existing models of understanding. Whatever already has a clear meaning is a trap. The desire for an active neutrality is the imagined way out of this dilemma.
I think this is an absolutely critical phenomenon in contemporary artmaking, and it is not merely theoretical. It strikes at the heart of an artist each day in the studio: the incredible contradiction between a powerful, idealistic urge to make a report on one’s experience of the world by means of an artistic practice, and the paralyzing fear of co-optation, repetition, banality, and so much else that threatens to render one’s fruits unpalatable to society’s maw. (As Edith Wharton would have it, this is the “modern symptom of immaturity”.)
But this viewer’s experience of Guyton’s show was less about the Neutral and more about the Dull. For an artist, the positive attributes of flatness, affectless, and uninflectedness are only arrived at with great effort. That is, bringing the elements that constitute one’s picture into proper alignment, such that a viewer’s experience proves the embodiment of those qualities, demands immaculate calibration. The calibration can be the removal of one’s self to a degree previously unimagined, or the injection of the self to the opposite degree; but on this occasion, this viewer felt merely indifferent. The flaws are there in the prints, but were neither so subtle as to amount to a pea beneath a stack of mattresses, nor so assertive as to conjure any sort of envelope-pushing experimentation. In the end, the canvases were very prescribed, in keeping with their undeniable presence as a desirable commodities. And the black painted floor just did nothing, other than make one think of that annoying artist - what’s his name? - who does the salt and rock stages and gets so much love from the Whitney.
I find Guyton to be an interesting artist. The torn magazine pages with the overprinted X’s carry that static charge of relevance. The principle of operating at a technological remove is a good one; giving voice to the wariness of investing in images is a good path. This most recent show did not quite get it right, and to this viewer, no amount of rhetorical bolstering can stand in for seeing the artwork and understanding that the gaps in one’s experience can be filled with the “trembling desire” so profoundly named by Barthes. It’s not just that it’s possible to have this experience; it’s completely necessary to be endlessly reminded that the articulations and rhetorical excess must always flow downhill, as any plumber will tell you.