The Cognitive Dissident: Bruce Pearson at Ronald Feldman
Bruce Pearson: Shadow Language at Ronald Feldman Gallery
April 27 to June 8, 2019
31 Mercer Street, between Grand and Canal streets
New York City, feldmangallery.com
For the seventh time, a Bruce Pearson exhibition fills Ronald Feldman Gallery in Soho with deliberate and emphatic color, convoluted surfaces that verge on sculpture, and cryptic texts which might equally be profound insights or italicized clichés. Pearson has been sifting the airwaves for signals in the noise –– or perhaps noise in the signals –– since the early 1990s, when he first began to make complex, layered abstractions that derived from the outlines of his titles’ lettering. Fear of Death Hope of Heaven Trip to Disney and Not to Interrupt your Beautiful Moment, (2018) from the current show are typically pregnant phrases the artist has plucked from the spectrum of incessant communication, whether talk TV, Language Poetry, self-help manuals or cultural theory. Pearson also works with more epigrammatic texts which lend themselves to reflexive double entendre, such as “Loophole,” “Already Gone,” “Soon Enough,” “Fat Chance.”
The exhibition includes a number of crisp gouaches, and some intriguing experiments with photography and collaboration, but the main event is a baker’s dozen of remarkable paintings on intricately carved layers of Styrofoam that follow Pearson’s well-established practice. The hand-drawn outline of a chosen text is the germ; to this Pearson adds interfering layers of more text, geometry, and/or traced images, the latter often derived from natural phenomena. Next, Pearson transfers the densely crisscrossing pattern onto Styrofoam sheets, interpreting every line as a fault which thrusts forward while slipping backward. The newly topographical surface that results is, lastly, lavished in acrylic and/or oils with painstaking attention to every bump, sidewall and niche.
Encyclopedia 6 and Encyclopedia 7 (both 2017-18) idiosyncratically obey the constraints of an ongoing series. In these spectacular oils, the lengthy texts (available in the gallery as subtitles) have been fractured into perhaps a thousand curvy cusps and hollows, each of which is lacquered in a different hue. This anti-formula, like an adjacent mapping theorem gone rogue, creates perceptual overload, but somehow also pictorial purpose, particularly in the lush, dappled Encyclopedia 7. The title text of Code Breakers (2018) is disintegrated by swirls of illustrational overlay in a similar manner, but here the color constraint is inverse: all surfaces must be unique variants of a seductive, but unreliable, white.
In some paintings, color defies the corrugations of the surface, creating its own imagistic counterpoint. Pools of consolidated whites, blacks and greens, for example, glide over the fractured text of Shadow Language (2017) –– although Pearson, ever the cognitive dissident, lays on the watery camouflage with an acutely dehydrated touch. More consolidated still, a single high-contrast image of stone buildings from a “legendary” Catholic pilgrimage site (as the press release informs us) meshes with the strange title text in Fear of Death Hope of Heaven Trip to Disney, calling attention to the ageless affiliation of religion and theme park. The true drama of the painting, however, is in the sculptural play of positive and negative projection. “Disney” emerges almost intact at the painting’s bottom, where the word is imposingly stamped like a huge cattle brand into the wobbly, whitish ground. But ultramarine blobs and sprinkles, residue of the image, invade the letters’ tops, flipping these areas meticulously forward like periods and commas on typewriter strikers.
Pearson includes an imageless throwback, Not to Interrupt your Beautiful Moment, (2018) which appears to be part of a grid-and-text series going back at least twenty years. Here the arch, if not contemptuous title is inscribed in a mod, concentric font that disturbs a checkerboard of luminous Albers yellows and oranges, blues, grays and greens like a musical pitch generating harmonic waves in a shallow pool of water. Despite the sobriety of grid and palette, the painting oozes with demented overtones of Op and psychedelia, two much-abused art movements frequently cited in Pearson’s critical response. I’ll add here that a number of Josef Albers’s dispassionate, pedagogical works were included in “The Responsive Eye,” MoMA’s definitive 1965 Op show, and that Victor Moscoso, a founding father of the psychedelic poster, studied with Albers at Yale –– a wonderfully tangled lineage that Pearson knots in a braid.
Some paintings can be read as commentary on their own making, such as Fat Chance, (2018) Trip in Progress, (2018) and A Fresh Pair of Eyes, (2019) the last rendered as texting acronym and featuring a forensic splatter of red. The intrusion of what might be advisory text on the anxious artwork, of subject on object, calls to mind Sigmar Polke’s hilarious “Higher powers command: paint the upper right corner black!” which ratifies its title.
Yet Pearson’s impeccably realized works are the very opposite of Polke’s anarchic facture. Raphael Rubinstein, writing in Art in America in 2009, identified Polke with “Provisional Painting,” a term with both nuance and legs that the critic coined to account for “works that look casual, dashed-off, tentative, unfinished or self-cancelling.” But Rubinstein himself had put his finger on the counter-trend some years earlier in the same publication. Placing Pearson alongside generational peers including James Siena and Fred Tomaselli (and we could add numerous others, such as Joe Amrhein, Mark Dean Veca, Lori Ellison, James Esber and Charles Spurrier), Rubinstein surmised in 2003 that “By employing often eccentric techniques that are minutely detailed and sublimely obsessive, artists such as these may be looking to establish orders of excellence that don’t rely on old-fashioned formalist criteria.” Instead they looked, in part, to underground aesthetics, not only for subject matter and vocabulary, but for paradigms of non-provisional, anti-modernist craft standards. Psychedelic posters and comics, for all their counter-cultural disruption, tend to adhere to populist “orders of excellence” in which every “I” is dotted and every “T” is crossed.
Pearson’s earliest Styrofoam paintings, before he began to use text, were looming extrusions (some projected two feet off the wall) derived from the artist’s manic, bio-Baroque drawing practice. In these early charcoal drawings Pearson’s line never stops wiggling and digging, and never settles for pattern. A dense graphic texture emerges nevertheless, with visceral forms shimmying forth like specimens of disease that Art Spiegelman or Robert Crumb might have drawn as medical illustrators. Pearson’s lively hand can still be seen, although at a technological remove, in the quivering delineation of letters punched by laser into photographic scrims (in intriguing collaborations with poets Claudia Rankine and Anselm Berrigan, and photographer Zack Garlitos). These experiments put the text forward –– literally, as if the poems were sculptures in a landscape. In doing so, they focus sharply on Pearson’s hand, and on its conceptual constraints. Who knows? This relentlessly inventive artist may one day constrain his hand to disappear entirely, or to go rogue.