Nothing to see here, move along
CTRL Gallery, Houston
Through March 6, 2010
by Wendy Vogel
Natasha Bowdoin, The tiger's wife, 2009
For complete caption see image gallery
Nothing to see here, move along, a phrase that might be uttered by police to onlookers at the scene of a crime, describes the way in which the subject matter approached in CTRL’s current show of the same title tends to be overlooked (or consciously ignored) by society. The exhibition brings together four artists’ work that explores various ideas of the unseen, particularly in the sense of the psychically or culturally suppressed. Alexis Granwell and Angel Otero exploit abstraction and repurposed materials; Ry Fyan exposes hidden metanarratives; and Alexander Tinei represents subcultures in an exuberantly stylized idiom. The artists in Nothing to see here... revisualize the invisible, from excavating personal memories to mapping relationships between the ideologies of capitalism and colonist expansion.
Works on paper by Tinei, Otero and Fyan, three artists known primarily as painters, share CTRL’s north gallery. These objects provide testing grounds that shed light on the artists’ conceptual and structural processes. Angel Otero’s silicon transfer drawing procedure imparts his images with the diaphanous quality of hazy memories. Using this process, he creates the background images to which he then applies “paint skins” as an additive, sculptural layer. In Bingo (2010), Otero depicts a bingo card printed in reverse. The grayscale palette and numbered grid recall early Jasper Johns works, but Otero adds a personal layer to Johns’ strategy of appropriation of the banal. Still exploring abstraction and symbolic systems, Otero’s impressionistic renderings also suggest a half-remembered domestic space. On the opposite wall, Alexander Tinei’s works depict life-sized portraits of pop cultural icons (and their hipster prétendants), followers of a subculture that is a relatively new Western import in the artist’s native Moldova, a post-Soviet state. In Some bad seeds (2009) Tinei draws the notorious frontman Nick Cave in black-and-white. His veins and clothes are filled in with contrasting looping skeins of neon paint that represent the lifeblood of rock n’ roll rebellion. Tinei’s subjects, instead of being stylized in a macho manner, are accessorized with queer, found trinkets such as costume jewelry and faux flowers. These gaudy adornments suggest an ambivalent relationship to the development of consumer capitalism in Eastern Europe—with increased personal freedom also comes the disillusionment of grim economic prospects.
A queer, decadent sensibility carries forth to Ry Fyan’s three collages, barely contained in their small frames. These works carry a message of warning that we are headed toward global cultural and financial catastrophe. Just Like We Planned and Avatar (both 2010) contain metaphors about capitalist exploitation. A shipyard and an oil field, the sites of production for imperialist fantasies, are adorned with ancient artifacts glorifying war. Fyan vertically divides these works between a larger narrative on the left and a right-hand column that displays pairs of objects of conspicuous consumption (from meat to jewels to press-on nails.) Rug Analysis/Dripper (2010), less hyperactive in its aesthetic, brings to mind Cyprian Haris Epaminonda’s cross-cultural collages. Visualizing a relationship between colonialist expansion, corporate takeover and capitalist decadence, Fyan’s work visually and thematically rhymes with Tinei’s portraits, and illuminates the most satisfying strand of the main exhibition.
Alexis Granwell’s works adopt an ecological and chance-based approach. Her prints, mostly on handmade paper, represent cartographic vortexes such as tunnels and clouds. Will the Circle Be Unbroken (2007), a collograph, reveals handmade marks of various depths and sizes, from pinpricks and light hatchings to dark, thumbprint-sized smudges. Her sculptures, wall-mounted abstract nests, contain repurposed plastics and materials, as well as embedded reference. The wood grain wallpaper in Primary Flight (2009) is an obvious nod to the first Cubist collages, whereas cast paper and industrial plastics commingling with branches and exposed thread suggests a return to nature via culture. The works’ reference to the unseeable is less convincing than the others; nonetheless, they allude to the insistent presence of the artist’s hands and body in the work.
Gallery artists Heimir Björgúlfsson and Natasha Bowdoin contribute new works that are framed around the exhibition’s theme of visibility. Björgúlfsson’s collages, backed by photographs of graffiti and urban blight in LA (the city he now calls home), are joined by birds and nature. Part of a larger autobiographical project, Björgúlfsson’s work follows along the lines of Granwell’s work by straddling the urban/rural divide, yet offers little seductive way in. Bowdoin’s cut-paper reliefs, however, are standouts that add complexity to the question of what can be read in a work. Bowdoin brokers the legibility/illegibility dyad in these painstakingly constructed works. Composed of layers of narrow strips of paper on which the artist copies iconic texts by hand, the densely layered forms allude to motifs expressed in the narratives. Sometimes these forms are quite easy to interpret, as in the tiger of The Tiger’s Wife (2009), based on a recent short story in The New Yorker set in WWII-era Dresden. Others are more abstract, forcing the viewer to read more closely and deeply.
It is this work, implying the thankless labor of methodical transcriptions and theories of subjective and historically rooted (mis)translations, that provides a satisfying wrap to the show. In the dense weave of its paper layers, Bowdoin’s work reconsiders interpretation and narrative through form. Throughout the exhibition, the work that proves itself the most successful engages dialogues ripe for re-interpretation. In other words, the works that are able to be seen and seen through.
Wendy Vogel is a Critical Fellow in the Core Program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.