The recent history of painting gives us two conflicting theories of the brushstroke. The first comes out of Abstract Expressionism and German Expressionism, and casts the brushstroke as painting’s existential protagonist and guarantor of an authentic deep subjectivity. Here, we see celebrations of the primal urge-to-touch crystallized in graphic space, with the implication that these strokes have something to do with a pre-visual sense of tactility that is at the core of emotional life.
The second of theory of the brushstroke derives from Pop Art -- think Roy Lichtenstein’s works from the early 1970s that deploy a carefully painted, comic-book-style version of the stroke as an arabesquing graphic emblem. Here, the actual brushstrokes that produce the painting are hidden in favor of presenting an image that can self-consciously "signify and simulate" the idea of the brushstroke.
Here, Frank Stella’s doctrine of "what you see is what you see" prevails, meaning that an esthetic of strict visuality has moved into the foreground so as to emphasize the efficient delivery of pre-conceived strategies of social signification, implicitly downgrading the consolidation of pre-existing subjective states of being in favor of a fantasy of "radical" self-invention.
These are polar positions, of course, and since the 1960s the post-Pop position has come to the forefront in contemporary art, in part as a cynical parody of the questionable idealism that was once conferred on the earlier model, and in larger part as a capitulation to an omnipresent "designerism" that seeks to make everything esthetically acceptable to corporate art consultants.
It may now seem fair to ask whether or not the latter attitude can be said to represent some kind of phobic contempt for the former -- but rather than pursue that line of thought, I want to focus here on several artists who either split the difference between the aforementioned theories, or synthesize them into something completely beyond the overheated polarities of their rhetorical antagonism.
In the case of Griff Williams’ octet of mid-sized mixed-media paintings at Andrea Schwartz Gallery on 2nd Street in San Francisco, shapes that initially appear to be brushstrokes turn out to be precise pourings of vinyl animator’s paint affixed to surfaces formed of a thick, shiny resin. Seeming at first glance to be Rorschach blots that were re-configured as texture maps topographically wrapped around invisible three-dimensional shapes, these colorful little webs of flat pigment slowly reveal themselves to be based on silhouette versions of Charles Darwin’s zoological sketches from his voyage on the Beagle in the early 1830s. Each of these seem to float in any given work’s pictoral space as if they were characters in an old-time lantern show, reminding the viewer about the way that complex imaginative dramas can be made from the simplest of formal molehills.
When layered on top of one another, interesting juxtapositions come to the fore, casting each individual shape as a caricature that plays off of adjacent forms as if it was a ship passing in an endless night of arbitrary arrangements. This floating ship effect is created by way of color and texture, as the opaque, brightly colored vinyl paint forms ideographic figures that stand in front of the shiny resin surfaces upon which they are poured like gesticulating stage actors positioning themselves against Gerhard Richteresque backdrops.
But there is more color still behind the resin, albeit of a very different kind made up of smooth gradations of cooler, darker hues that suggest amorphous atmospheres receding into a deeper, seemingly infinite space. One is tempted to ponder whether or not these atmospheric backgrounds are the result of many hours with a blending brush or a few minutes spent with a computer and a large format printer (Williams presented some digital works in previous exhibitions), but the authentic interest that they garner stems mostly from the viewer not being able to tell one way or the other via any naked-eye examination.
On the other hand, there is no doubt about the digital provenance of the seven large collage works and other miscellaneous works in Rex Ray’s ebullient exhibition at Gallery 16 -- Ray was one of the very first artists in the Bay Area to incorporate digital output into his work, which in the past has included sets of limited-edition digital prints. Such prints were nowhere in evidence in this recent exhibition, which was made up of large and brightly-colored collages/paintings that feature the careful geometric deployment of elegant shapes of carefully cut-up computer printer output that seemed to have been specifically developed for the purpose at hand.
Most often, these seemed like elaborate variations on the themes of Illustrator gradients and elegantly torqued postscript geometries seeking a synthesis of the mechanical and the biomorphic, creating tentacle-like shapes that in turns bulged and tapered. When massed together into clustered figure-ground configurations, these shapes take on the attributes of architectural forms floating in an ethereal space where gravity is optional, each disengaging the ideas of mass and volume only to reconfigure them as hyper-decorative quasi-gestural hieroglyphics signifying a disembodied bodiliness.
There is an eerie post-human association that the viewer can make between these works and Matisse’s late cut-outs -- in the case of the earlier master’s work, spontaneity, sleight-of-hand and a devil-may-care improvisation were at the very forefront of the work’s creation, while in Ray’s more strategically elaborated efforts, the viewer witnesses an intriguing dialectic of pure design, manual dexterity (the gluing of the paper shapes on the large canvas supports is consistently flawless) and inventive pictorial arrangements that also seem to have some elements of improvisation to them, although, like the efforts of an accomplished jazz soloist, those improvisatory elements cooperate in a cunning dialogue with tight and regularized compositional structures.
Finally, at LINC Real Art, Omar Chacon and Jose Sarinana are two artists whose work seems to operate in several states of dialogue, and even though the exhibition under review presented their efforts as an array of collaborations, it was easy to spot the moments when one or the other of these artists was taking the lead in terms of strategy, procedure and technique. In general, Sarinana’s contributions were more sculptural and sported a rougher handling of more overtly referential material, while Chacon’s hand was most clearly felt when brilliant colors and abstract patterns came to the fore. But one thing was certain: Both artists made use of a rather novel riff on the idea of brushstrokes and their signification that initiated this short essay.
I am referring to the fact that many of the works on view seemed at first glance to be made of overlapping drips of brightly colored, high-gloss acrylic pigment, but slowly revealed themselves as very calculated applications of decals made of previously applied and previously dried paint. Every art student knows that when drips are deployed in a painting, they should activate space as judiciously as the most decisive flourish of a master draughtsman, and the drip-decals that one sees in (and on) these oddly hybridized works accomplish this end with playful aplomb.
What is interesting about what these two artists do goes right to the heart of our ambivalence and confusion about the artist’s hand as a conduit of affect, or a manipulator of effect. Or both.
"Griff Williams," Aug. 31-Sept. 30, 2005 at Andrea Schwartz Gallery, 525-2nd Street, San Francisco, Ca. 94107
"Rex Ray," Sept. 9-Oct. 14, 2005, at Gallery 16, 1616 16th Street, San Francisco, Ca. 94103
"Omar Chacon and Jose Sarinana," Sept. 8-Oct. 9, 2005, at LINC Real Art, 1632 C Market Street, San Francisco, Ca. 94102
MARK VAN PROYEN is associate professor of art history, painting and digital media at the San Francisco Art Institute.