“High & Inside” at Marlborough Chelsea until June 7 (211 W 19th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, 212-463-8634)
Bruce Pearson: Paintings & Drawings” at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts until June 14 (31 Mercer Street, at Grand Street, 212-226-3232)
It takes a real pro to pull together a group exhibition that identifies a significant trend in contemporary art. That is what veteran curator Maurice Tuchman (formerly of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) has done in an important show, High & Inside, which closes this weekend at Marlborough Chelsea.
The ostensible commonality binding these nine artists, according to catalogue essayist Judd Tully, is “mapping, scheming, surveilling and plotting.” Each artist in his or her way balances the yin of the microscopic and the yang of the telescopic – although how quaint these scopes now seem in an age where DNA and satellites define our horizons.
However much they respond to the notations of geography, geology, sociology, or cell biology, these artists, who mostly emerged in the 1990s, are anything but a throwback to the systems-obsessed 1960s and 1970s. (Unless, of course, they are intent on adding a layer of retro-reference to already dense stylistic configurations: the peel-on readymade abstractions of Brad Hampton, for instance, simultaneously satirize the artistic formalism and techno-gimmickry of the 1960s.)
The artists in this show are post-conceptual in their concern to reintegrate the cerebral and the optical. Even the two flow-diagrammists among them, Beth Campbell, who makes tree of life configurations out of terse statements of variable outcomes to simple life situations, and Mark Lombardi, with his persnickety conspiracy-theorist constellations analyzing international monetary investments, avoid the anesthetic anti-form drudgery of vintage conceptualism. Their handwriting, their touch, has formal significance that integrates with the (superficially) predominant “message” or narrative in their work.
Others in the show veer in an opposite visual direction, towards overload: It is not form giving shape to information so much as information rendered as form. Steven Charles, for instance, paints gaudy, pseudo-psychotic contour lines that glow in enamel paint. In a meltdown of layers and categories, manmade roads and geological strata splice into one another.
In “High & Inside,” artists make raw form out of cooked information. In semiotic terms, they turn signifieds back into signifiers. You could argue, of course, that is what collage has been doing since Picasso and Braque discovered it. But here it is not just objects but systems that are being abstracted. Lisa Corinne Davis and John J. O’Connor make pretty patterns out of ugly data: racial stereotyping in her case, disasters and social vices in his. It is left to Fred Tomaselli and Daniel Zeller to force an equation between method and madness, making a magical connection between density of data and the zaniness with which their work is crafted. With Mr. Tomaselli, this has to do with the trance-like effect of his psychadelic collages, where high and inside are psychological states as much as depictive prospects. With Mr. Zeller, the nutty banknote-engraver obsessiveness of his renderings of aquifer retention maps unites form and content, as both bring to mind desperation and dryness.
Bruce Pearson’s new show at Ronald Feldman makes something truly sumptuous out of semiotics. Like the High Insiders discussed above, he comes out of an aesthetic investigation of language and systems. In terms of reduction versus complication, he and his peers are to conceptual art what Baroque was to the Renaissance. Put a better way, they put back with a vengeance the opticality shunned by conceptual art.
Mr. Pearson came to public attention in an important group exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art project room in 1998, in which Mr. Tomaselli was a co-exhibitor. He is also part of the Williamsburg scene where the trailblazing gallery, Pierogi, exhibits Messrs. Charles, O’Connor, and Zeller. In Mr. Pearson’s work, however, it isn’t mapping but language that is deconstructed to head-spinning and eye-dazzling effect.
He appropriates wacko statements from the mass media. These have gotten tamer recently but a suitably off the wall example from the current show is “Cybergasm machines and male hysteria.” The typography is subjected to computer-generated distortion (not enough, regrettably, in some recent pieces where legibility threatens the balance of power between texture and text.) From these patterns, letters are hot wired in Styrofoam. The eventual carved and contoured surfaces are painted in scorching fluorescents and other funky hues.
His modus operandi and how it influences our view of what he is doing may seem to have a whiff about it of the kind of art for which you need to know the process to understand its point. But the first and last impression of a Pearson is sensual, not cerebral. Mercifully, in other words, there is madness in his method. There’s a compelling, psychedelic otherness at play in what could read as lunar landscape or nuclear fission.
One has to go back to Jasper Johns to find a visual artist so intently locking horns with type as a visceral, physical presence. It is almost tempting to read Mr. Pearson’s project as a riff on Mr. Johns, sending up the grayness and monotony of the older artist. But unlike so much art of the last few years, this isn’t conceptual art with a smile. Rather, there is a sense of something much bigger: the reinvention of abstract painting.
The key to understanding Mr. Pearson’s achievement – and that of the best among the “High & Inside” artists – is to realise that language and system and mapping are at the service of form, not the other way around. In a way, the semiotic and the systemic are to their abstraction what gesture was to the first generation New York School: something at once arbitrary and personal, determined yet unconscious, circumscribing yet unpredictable, and equally about structure and chance.
This article first appeared in the New York Sun, June 5, 2003print