Painting Without Paint

John Haber
in New York City

Raha Raissnia, Rory Donaldson, and Ghostly Photography

Painting is dead. Abstraction is dead. Not so very long ago, Postmodernism insisted on it. Now they both seem everywhere, but not necessarily in paint and not entirely abstract.

If anything, the postmodern dogma of painting as a system of signs on canvas has found new life. Several artists bring it alive with media from audio tape to slide shows to simple photography. In the process, they have the gallery-goer imagining just who else is staring back. An accompanying article will soon look at several painters for whom abstraction gets along just fine with schematic, often funny, and very down-to-earth imagery. Rory Donaldson's SQBLUE08 (Winkleman Gallery, 2008)

Raha Raissnia might seem quaint at first, for she applies white paint to black gesso. Her traditional materials, however, play a surprising role: they illustrate an accompanying slide show—or is it the other way around?

She helps explain why concerns for hidden cameras and hidden structures survive, too, in mixed media by Lansing-Dreiden. And Rory Donaldson again finds in the crisp edges of photography and city streets alike a model for clarity, but without actually painting. When photography meets abstraction, does the camera have designs on the viewer? The post in Postmodernism and post-painterly abstraction has become a mark of painting 2.0.

Paint as subtext

Raha Raissnia inverts the expected order of black and white. Black gives her surface thickness and visual depth, while white darts across the surface like streaks of artificial light. It parallels the literal motion of a slide show, but it feels more visceral, especially when the traces draw thin as nerves. So does its insistence on the handmade and on excess. Paint makes these mappings physical, just as formalists promised all along. Something gets trapped in the surface, but not something passive—the eye.

Paint and vision alike appear here as active and yet as constrained as a projection. Film in fact plays across one of two adjacent slide shows, adding hints of color and random juxtapositions. The handmade slides mix things up further, through a combination of paint, drawing, scratch marks, fragments of found filmstrips, and human x-rays. The collage and the constant cutting allude to the early history of cinema. However, Raissnia really tallies the same set of concerns as in her paintings. In both media, she hopes to encompass geometry and chance, handwork and appropriation, systems and processes, layering and cutting away.

She treats art as analysis—a way of looking through things, be it paint, acetate, or human skin. The eye and x-rays just happen to rely on different parts of the spectrum, from visible light to invisible radiation. For the same reason, both have limits, corresponding to the limits of analysis. Arguably, the slide show has more meanings and materials than the paintings, and the artist's statement spends much more time on it. It even has a charmingly off-kilter sound track by Charles Curtis, clicks that one could mistake for the natural rhythm of the slide carousel. For all that, I found the constraints of canvas more interesting.

They reminded me of constraints in a debate over abstraction at least a generation ago. Peter Halley, for one, took up color-field painting back when it meant something, but what exactly did it mean, other than painting itself? Halley gave it a subtext. His patterns look like highly simplified, color-coded microchips, and their simplicity has grown more striking and even quaint over time. I am typing this on a laptop, after all, with chips he could never have imagined. Yet he insisted that his patterns mime structures that coerce and control human lives.

Where formalists insisted on purity, Halley added words. Where others, as late as Brice Marden, found meaning in the fullness of light and touch—what philosopher Nelson Goodman termed replete—Halley banished freedom itself. He made it possible to think of irony apart from nuance.

Raissnia could have even me believing in subtext, but with room for nuance as well. If Neo-Geo had embraced chance and vision, it might look something like this. The black and white in her paintings stays roughly vertical and horizontal, enough to suggest a fairly rigid armature. It also thickens and thins, overlaps and interlaces, at lightning speed. (In even more suggestive monoprints at the same gallery five years later, in 2013, the blur hints at interiors that she might have inhabited, in an architecture of more warmth and space than one can possibly see.) If this maze has trapped anyone, the surveillance cameras will never know.

Signing off

Halley's critique of abstract art and society came briefly to stand for Postmodernism. After more than twenty years, it ought to sound strange that they did. By 1996 Hal Foster was calling Neo-Geo "an early sign of a crisis in critical art." Somehow, critics who had learned from deconstruction to see every metaphor as unstable accepted this one, a slightly paranoid politics affixed to geometry like a bumper sticker. However, Halley's images looked just bold, bright, familiar, and technocratic enough for a time before laptops and iPhones. Even more, the textual strategy served a need, and at least one collective feels its urgency to this day.

Lansing-Dreiden presents a catalog of abstraction's signs, but with the pages torn and muddied. Most of their new paintings entail two or three panels with similar images but distinct surfaces. One might have a gritty, cracked, but otherwise uniform black. The others might approach the tiling motifs of Mary Heilmann or Jasper Johns, but the tiles have come loose and slid off to one side. The appearance of sedimentation or movement in geologic time becomes explicit in sculpture, as do the artists' common most materials. One corner of the floor holds a good-size meteorite of blackened, crumpled paper.

One can thing of art as a strategy for getting people to look at what they cannot see. Christian art got people to look at the realm of their beliefs. Documentary realism, political art, and Surrealism each obliged them to look where they had averted their eyes. Photorealism and abstraction had them looking for its own sake, with the subject matter inseparable from the looking. Conceptual art dispensed with a subject entirely, so that one could look only at the act of looking.

Like all definitions of art, this one runs into problems, from biased selections to what the art actually means. A march of history like this has a way of leveling differences, and it threatens to contradict itself. Is art, in the end, a set of signs pointing to nothing and without rules for posting them? How, then, can they mean anything at all? Oh, and is that good or bad for the art? Do not answer all at once.

This is where Lansing-Dreiden steps in. They pursue a Structuralist's talk of a sign system, but without the system. The artist collective wants just that combination—a hyper-intellectual project that refuses to add up. Instead, one can only look at it spinning out of control. For yet another paradox, it already sounds a little too mainstream, like a course in deconstruction. It also does not spin all that fast or all that far, nowhere near the level of Jennifer Bartlett in Rhapsody, but that turns out not to be such a bad thing either.

Like Raissnia and like the group's past work, the show sticks to black and white, but with a narrower focus than ever. Instead of trying to catalog all of drawing, from primitivism and architectural studies to film noir and doodling, it settles for plain surfaces in two and three dimensions. It does the better for it, too. The artist collective prefers to call itself a "company," and it thinks of the impersonal design as a commentary on art as commerce. In practice, the work calls attention to gaps, cracks, and illogic in its own making. If art is commerce without goods of any practical use to sell, one might almost want to touch—or to look.

Color field 2.0

For all these signs of the time in painting, photography can push back that much harder toward abstraction. Photography that emulates abstraction has often gotten a bum rap. But what of photography that simultaneously evokes abstraction, sound art, technology, and a late-night art scene, like that of Christian Marclay? What of photography that improves upon abstract art? Not that Rory Donaldson improves on its merits, but his SQCITY series does achieve a kind of Abstraction 2.0. Just wait till v2.1, with the bugs worked out.

Formally, Donaldson's color prints put color-field painting through its paces. Each divides neatly into four rectangles, in unnervingly close or contrasting colors. For a second, I mistook them for separate acrylic panels. Forget Ad Reinhardt and Reinhardt's black paintings, Clement Greenberg, and pure painting, they seem to boast, with just a bit of arrogance. This is what a new century's technology can do. The exhibition title accentuates the grid by arranging the letters in PLOT as two by two.

Dividing the grid, bands of lighter shades or white approach the brightness of neon tubes. As a next attempt, one might take them for photographs of a Dan Flavin installation. As it happened, Zwirner & Wirth gallery recently recreated Flavin's breakthrough solo show, at Green Gallery in 1964. I had imagined an arc in the Minimalist's career, from cool-white tubes to more fanciful explorations of color. In reality, Flavin found a range of hues at the hardware store from the start. His diagonals, parallel lines, squares, and corner pieces did not simply emulate Mark Rothko or relegate the painter to history, but also teased a palette out of their relationship to the gallery walls.

Donaldson can hardly make that kind of history, but he does complicate it. Up close, one discerns the actual subject matter, in the fraction of the surface where the elements of the grid intersect. The photographs depict urban spaces, all public but not all equally open. They include avenues, intersections, and graffiti-scarred walls. The extended bands recall traffic patterns, like time exposures of headlights, and the enameled colors and stripes evoke automobile hoods. The grid reflects the logic of New York streets.

Computer manipulation has stretched the visible into the formal. It comes at a good time, too. Abstract painting is back—give or take obligatory nods to irony and representation—and so is photography willing to play against it. Did abstract photos once seem like a betrayal? Now one is seeing more digital painting, as by Carla Gannis or Sherry Karver, as well as photographers who take color and texture as their subject, such as Liz Deschenes and Eileen Quinlan. For all I know, Louise Lawler might once have photographed an actual Flavin installation.

Implicitly, each equates appropriation at once with beauty and with spying, and some explicitly take the point of view of a surveillance camera. One has to imagine its presence in Donaldson's brutally confined public spaces as well. I could swear I actually spotted one in his Spanish subway station. Should one interpret the pairing of post-painterly abstraction with the all-seeing eye as a critique of art institutions? Come to think of it, Halley made that point about constrained global networks in his abstract paintings long ago. In updating Halley for the high gloss and pace of New York City, this really is version 2.0.

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Raha Raissnia at Miguel Abreu through October 19, 2008, Lansing-Dreiden at Rivington Arms through November 26, and Rory Donaldson at Winkleman through May 30.


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