11.16.17 — Breaking the Code

Let me pause this week to catch up, with some reviews that somehow never found space. It means looking back, but give it a try. I shall post a little extra, meaning Tuesday and Thursday, as well. Here is a show that puzzled, frustrated, and intrigued me earlier this year.

Sarah Morris has some of the liveliest abstract art going. Only one problem: it means something. Those bright, glossy colors rippling across the surface? They represent, she promises, “codes, systems of control, and power structures that characterize urban, social, and bureaucratic typologies.” Oh, right, I should have known.

But I did not, and is that really a problem? Not necessarily, not if you believe that a painting should speak for itself. You can then accuse her message of pretension and irrelevancy, but still allow the paintings to speak. The jagged color fields, their avoidance of easy primaries, and their love of black accord with a revival of geometric abstraction, with such artists as Gary Petersen and Don Voisine. Smaller works reduce to thin diagonals, while earlier series build on arcs and circles, in rows that rarely come to completion. They could be deconstructing Damien Hirst, just when he and his audience are souring at last on his mass-produced dots.

Even there, though, they refuse to stand apart from critical theory. They see painting itself, like Hirst’s, as wrapped up in shared codes and global markets, and they care more about the failure of markets than of paintings. They become, as the show’s title has it, “Finite and Infinite Games,” with the players keeping their hands close to their chests, at Petzel through this past April 8. It is only a short step to see them as diagrams of cities that Morris has visited, studied, and filmed—most recently, Abu Dhabi. An earlier film saw choreographed movements in both athletes and political leaders at the Beijing Olympics. For her, mass entertainment helps sustain political and financial empires.

She has an obvious precedent in an older code breaker, Peter Halley, who refuses to believe in the primacy and purity of self-expression. They have even exhibited together in what the Guggenheim called “The Shapes of Space.” Halley’s Cellblocks look abstract, too, and use commercial Rolotex, much as Morris sticks to house paint. He riffs on memories of a prison in the Spanish Civil War, in paintings by Robert Motherwell, but for a later and more domestic system of control. Unlike Motherwell, too, he has no sense of those memories as incidental to Abstract Expressionism on the one hand—or discernible without a cheat sheet on the other. Morris just happens to make code breaking a lot harder and a more overtly political act.

Still, Halley thrived when Postmodernism all but demanded an end to painting. Does it still work when the subject of critique mostly shifts from painting to politics? Is there a serious disconnect if one, like me, can walk through an entire show seeing only jagged colors—and still, for that matter, cannot make head or tail of their structures and typologies? When Morris paints on film posters for Dune and Exodus, is she continuing her assault on spectacle and tales of freedom, and how would one know? Does it help that older art, such as the Renaissance, depends on shared understandings, too, for its religious significance and the “truth in painting“? Allow me for now to have my doubts and then some, to look forward to learning more, and to indulge for now in the colors.

If these paintings serve as choreography for a highly constrained dance, Jorinde Vogt treats works on paper as musical scores for a collaborative performance. Song of the Earth, its title after Gustave Mahler, fills a long wall with drawing, painting, gold leaf, and text, at David Nolan through March 25. It also serves once during its run as the backdrop to music by Claire Chase and Pauchi Sasaki. Vogt’s previous work incorporates curves and donuts out of a physics class in electricity and magnetism, and here the bright, pale shapes look like portions of continents drifting across the sky.

Does it matter that I could not read, much less interpret, her all but indecipherable scrawls—no more than the codes for Morris? Maybe, but they are anything but systems of control.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.