The Modern Art Museum, Fort Worth
Closed March 29
by Katie Anania
Focus: Jeff Elrod at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth left me divided. One part of me became the art history apologist concerned with materials and process. Elrod begins each work with drawings that he creates on a computer using a mouse; he then fractures them with simple graphic programs (such as Illustrator, Freehand and, more recently, Photoshop) into shuddering, seismic compositions heavily indebted to the behemoths of abstraction. Finally, he projects the compositions onto canvases and carves them out with acrylic paint and an X-Acto knife. In short, Elrod explores ways in which computers retard the hand. His work manifests an obstruction of gesture within the painted image. [great] (2003) is an example par excellence; white letters, starting with the word great, cascade against a black ground, descending into total unreadability because of the awkwardness of the computer mouse.
Enter the second half of my divided critical self. This other half is a cynic, a litigator, a naysayer nursing skepticism about what I believe to be an inflated public delight about Elrod’s work. Passages appear cheeky and sophomoric, and this body of work seems annoyingly devoid of anything but the most empty of concessions to the history of painting. The Out Door (2005), rather than adhering to Elrod’s layered dance of computer-drawn lines and awkward hooky loops, positions a vaguely figural white passage near a pink parallelogram on a black ground. These bright forms float inside a mocking black ooze like Cy Twombly’s stepchildren, bearing the “authentic” traces of the artist’s hand and refuting that authenticity through digital means. It’s brooding, a tad adolescent, but not unpleasant. Maybe this is why I think too much has been made of these things: their re-play of abstract drawing goes no further than affected teen artifice. They contain an archive of a digital practice now long obsolete, and it’s too much like stumbling upon my own bad Paint drawings or first emails from tweenhood.
Works like Endgame (1994), a mostly turquoise work that combines a Barnett Newman-esque zip with dancing characters from the video game Space Invaders, confound both halves of me as well. Here Elrod better marries the historical freightedness of painting with the simultaneously embodied and alienating (ha!) qualities of human-computer interaction, but the present-past overlay seems too pat: behold the specters of the 40s and the 80s! Both sides of this “divided critic” suspect that viewers like Elrod’s work for the same reason they like Christopher Wool’s: it feels masculine but also effete, embedded in art historical narrative but also not at all timeless (in fact, pleasingly “retro”). Their seeming spontaneity and go-anywhereness (Elrod often produces some of the paintings when they arrive for installation) makes everyone happy: history and ephemerality, reverence and cheekiness, meet in a single package. I, however, choose in the end to side with my jaundiced double. Elrod’s play with history intentionally mocks it, but the retarded fun leaves me cold.
Katie Anania is a curatorial researcher at Fluent~Collaborative and an assistant editor of ...might be good.