The Matrix: Tim Kent at Slag Gallery
Tim Kent: Dark Pools and Data Lakes at Slag Gallery
September 7 to October 7, 2018
56 Bogart Street, between Harrison Place and Grattan Street
On a visit to Slag Gallery to view Tim Kent’s solo show (his third with the gallery), the artist was found deep in conversation with a visitor about the history of the electrical grid system. Somewhere between his description of “the largest machine on earth” and his deliberations on the “efficacy of coal-powered plants,” however, I tuned out the lesson and entered the painting on the wall behind him, Isotopia, a large landscape where a yellow matrix hums though a desiccated valley. While Kent has an encyclopedic mind for his chosen subject, in Dark Pools and Data Lakes, the paintings themselves are where the titans of technology, politics, and ecology are battling it out.
The paintings are large, over eight feet, and Kent evidently made them quickly, with all but two stretched and painted since June. The energy of that physical struggle, the speed of the attack, is palpable. His forms are at once complex and boldly wrought. Their roughhewn quality, counterintuitively, endows them with history. They feel worn and corroded in a manner that more embellishment would have polished away.
The subjects of Kent’s paintings are threaded into a complex three-point perspectival framework, matrices that seem to trace invisible patterns: the electrical grid, microwaves, radio transmissions, or, in the case of Isotopia, radioactive particles leftover from atomic testing. Yet, these forces unseen are figuratively present in Kent’s bold paint lines. He has left the indentation of rulers and tape, which act like sizzling wires, and paint splatters, which spark and fly off the frame.
The grid structures themselves are colorless. Or, rather, they adopt the color of whatever is around them. This is no doubt because they have no physical reality. We can see them, but the figures in the pictures cannot lean on them. There is no solid scaffolding, only void. The cloaked walker in Stored Memory is a rare figure who is grounded in the landscape. However, ringed in blurry, monochromatic static, she feels like an apparition from the past. You don’t trust that she’s actually there. And then you begin to distrust the blue landscape around her, as if everything might be a projection.
The particular species of desaturated ultramarine in Stored Memory is related to what Rebecca Solnit calls “the blue of distance.” Beginning art students learn to use this color to carve out deep space in their paintings. Yet, this blue that should sit all the way back in the traveler’s imagination becomes just one more component in Kent’s matrix. The Phthalo blue-greens beat electric behind it in Stored Memory and in Data Lake and Order Types. They glow from underneath like the operating system itself.
Colored light doesn’t warm or cool the figures in Kent’s paintings. The segments of bodies, screens, and landscape in Order Types, for instance, don’t affect one another because they are not really in the same place so much as dialed in separately. This disjunction of color, paired with large areas of monochrome, leaves the paintings to be governed by their value structures. They often feel black and white with a high chroma overlay, like early hand-colored film.
A great strength of these paintings is their vast depth of field and playful spatial structure. The eye delights in lowering itself into the scaffolding and seeing how far back it can go. In descending these layered planes, we wonder, how frightened should we be? Perhaps we are in a video game, with fake stakes and nine lives. Data Lake certainly suggests a half-built virtual reality, with its hyper-saturated palette, disjoined forms, and still half exposed digital bone structure. But it has none of the clunky surrealism of computer graphics. And the figures in Order Types and Schism are fleshy. The ground, when it appears in Kent’s paintings, is earthy, organic.
Are they futurescapes then, the fanciful equivalent of a doomsayer’s sign? Guarding against that is their relationship to painting history. The weightiness of the figures suggests grandfathers in German Expressionist painting. The disjointedness suggests fathers in Neo Rauch or the Leipzig school. Data Lake reads as a spawn of Hudson River School painting. In fact, many of the works have roots in American history, with sources including John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence and a Washington press image of John F. Kennedy. These usher in a creeping sense of the familiar. The work materializes as more mirror than invention.
The figures in Order Types gather around empty treatises, wringing and clapping their blood clot hands. Caught between the human – the imminent rot of those fleshy protrusions from suits – and the floorless web, vertigo sets in. Kent offers no escape: no solid footing, no brighter character to choose, no space outside the grid. Rather, the paintings give us a chance to feel the awesome weight of the systems, often invisible, that implicate and imprison us, intricate structures built with our sliced and severed parts.