A Blast from the Past: David Cohen on Charles Spurrier in December 2000
Charles Spurrier opens in Brooklyn this evening, alongside a show by Jesse McCloskey, at 490 Atlantic Avenue, 6-9pm, prompting me to look for my last piece of writing on Spurroer. Lo and behold, it was published in December 2000 in the defunct Wburg magazine! Feigen Contemporary has also long moved on, renamed and relocated. Luckily all my writings are buried somewhere on a hard drive. So here is what I wrote back then, a blast from the past, in anticipation of new wonders from this indefatigably inventive maverick.
The Chelsea gallery building at 529 West 20th Street is the Mount Purgatory of the artworld. Purgatory, not inferno, mind. There is no “abandon all hope” to all who enter its portal. On the contrary, there is bound to be some garden of earthly delight to warrant one’s efforts. But the prospect of eleven floors of new art exhibits can fill even the most hardy and optimistic of art watchers with a pang of weariness. My way of coping is to take the elevator to the top floor, to Paul Judelson’s spunky I-20 Gallery and work downwards (which I guess is more Inferno than Purgatorio) but it means, usually, that after 529 disgorges me on 20th Street, my first port of call on moving West is Feigen Contemporary. I’m usually pretty desperate for a fix of something strong, original and bracing.
At the start of this Fall Season that’s exactly what was waiting in the form of Charles Spurrier’s second solo show at the gallery (or his third if you count Feigen’s Chicago space where he exhibited in 1995). His show was a breath of fresh air. Literally, in fact, as the first piece one encountered, “Imitation of Prayer”, suspended 49 different flavors of tree-shaped car freshener across its surface, blasting the viewer with a dose of sickly saccharine syntheticness. The “viewer”? As often as not the experience of a Charles Spurrier is kinesthetic. As well as the olfactory, as in this case, his works can sometimes generate real heat as is the case in “Tongue Snatcher” with its sheer density of affixed multicolored lightbulbs.
This tendency to confound the polite division between metaphor and literality – work that IS a breath of fresh air, DOES generate warmth – goes to the essence of Spurrier’s aesthetic. Everything in his witty yet sustaining art subscribes to some kind of dualism. His art is “about” art, but at the same time, works formally. It’s components therefore necessarily put in double duty, servicing meaning and form, the conceptual and the expressive. His is a sensual art at the service of the mind: an alchemy which, let’s face it, eludes most art most of the time.
Charles Spurrier lives in the East Village and works in a studio in Williamsburg, in the same building as Pierogi 2000, the pioneering gallery in the area. Originally from the Mid-West, Spurrier studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art and at Yale. He has a very Yaley attitude towards the language of painting, constantly testing the meaning of his medium, its intellectual as well as formal possibilities. Where a contemporary Yale graduate like John Currin teases the threshold of tolerance with his cheesy, sexist figurative mannerism, Spurrier works with similar insouciance on the viewer’s endurance levels of decorative overload and synthetic effect. His palette is gaudy, his form-sensibility baroque, and his attitude towards kitsch is as invigoratingly ambiguous as Currin’s.
In earlier work, Spurrier was much preoccupied with issues of identity and the body, though not – mercifully – in the heavy-handed politically correct kind of way that was the bane of the art of the 90s. In lieu of the brush-stroke (Spurrier is a “painter” who uses any medium except paint!) the digital component in his painterly vocabulary might be the finger print or a dental record: things that are unique to each individual while being instantly recognizable and universal – a twist which appeals to him. The dental record was registered in Spurrier’s case in chewing gum. Assemblages made out of this unlikely medium took on the feel of funky 1960s abstractions, whether the gums in question were all white or in a spread of lurid colors. Of course, as the art savvy will realize, Spurrier is not alone in chewing his way into the art history books. Roughly contemporary with this work was that of such artists at Tom Friedman, with his ball of bubblegum, and Janine Antoni, with her statues gnawed out of chocolate, or washed away from soap. But what makes Spurrier more lasting and satisfying than these artists, in my opinion, is that his worth does not expire once the viewer “gets” the conceptual implications of his choice of medium. Meaning, on the contrary, reverberates in the tension between medium and affect. The gum pieces have a strange, otherworldly shimmering quality that amounts to more than their reference to the body or to other art.
The artist’s imagination – if not indeed his jaw – has since tired of gum, but the finger print is retained as a motif in his recent work, though first among equals with a whole host of devices which range from plastic beads to lightbulbs to collaged wallpaper or wrapping paper to – as noted – air fresheners. The finger print, though, has a special touch of class, “touch” being the operative word. Again, it is a matter of double entendre, a pun on touch, because actually his surfaces are insistently undemonstrative, ungestural, and ever so elegantly crafted. The fingerprint is also literally digital, thus tightening another join in the conceptual superstructure of the work.
In the dense mosaic-like (or equally, quilt-like) picture “Course for Gratitude” the density is built up from a six foot square grid of tiny cubes of adhesive tape sporting a myriad of multi-colored collaged elements. In “Invitation of Now” a red pulsating orb is similarly achieved, this time in a Chuck Close-knit arrangement of finger prints pressed into scotch tape. The orb is rudely cropped, however, by a strip of fake wood, a diptych format that Spurrier often favors. There is a similar no-nonsense, in your face juxtaposition in “Tongue Snatcher”, where a battery of brilliant party lights dangles in front of a mirror on one side, while on the other an illusion of depth is created by a layering of collaged stars and beads. At once seducing the eye and playing on the nerves, Charles Spurrier’s art is ready to party.