Lora Reynolds Gallery, Austin
Through January 8, 2011
by Katie Geha
One winter when I was living in Chicago, my best friend was squatting in a tiny apartment with no heat. We spent many lazy nights wrapped in blankets, smoking grass and listening to records. Her TV sat prominently in the room but she almost never turned it on. This changed one evening when her roommate, a fellow art student, placed a remnant from a sculpture—a metal grid the exact size of the television—in front of the screen. “Just wait,” he said, and casually taped a large piece of vellum paper to the front of the grid and turned on the television. Blended hues of yellow, blue, orange and magenta danced across the paper. We were amazed. The television was seemingly de-pixilated into digital abstractions that morphed and moved into one another. What was once a commercial for diapers was now a stoner’s dream of light and color.
If my friend’s makeshift de-pixilated TV was the catalyst for the detached associations of a drug experience, then Ewan Gibbs’ recent drawings on view at Lora Reynolds, guided by the grid, are more akin to a tension headache. The tightly compressed renderings of architectural sites in Austin (in the front room) and everyday hotel rooms (in the back room) highlight the grid’s rigorous precision. Whereas in that apartment in Chicago I witnessed the grid’s expansion into something loose and amorphous, in this exhibition, Gibbs’ works contract into obdurate objects, unyielding to the viewer’s gaze. There’s just no give.
The compactness of the images work best in his Typical Interiors, flat-footed images of hotel rooms that he’s drawn from photos in brochures. The airless nature of a hotel room, with its seemingly identical vast expanses of beds, sliding glass doors and side tables with lamps, reflect the taut nature of his process. The non-specificity of the site, that is, any old hotel room, works well in relation to the gesture of such accurate, specific mark making. Like Ed Ruscha’s Gas Stations, the Typical Interiors’ accumulation of architectural effects makes the images appear uniform and boring. The dullness in Gibbs’ interiors is enlivened by his system of marks, the small Xs and Os placed in their designated box that recall the seriality of the arrangement of the rooms.
Unfortunately the works featuring Austin landmarks do not fare as well. Take, for example, the sectioned image of the dome of the Capitol building with two flags billowing nearby. The architecture of the building is astoundingly realized, unmoving and monumental in its detail. Yet the flags also share in this solidity, almost as if they too were carved out of lifeless stone. It felt like a gimmick, these easily recognizable images of Austin for an Austin gallery. I would have preferred a show featuring only the interiors, displayed like the methodical marks on the paper, one after the other after the other.
Gibbs is upfront about his process. Having done away with his former use of graph paper, he now embosses the grid onto the page. The resulting image begins to look a little like a sewing sampler, something you might affix to a pillow. However, the sweet naïveté of a hand-sewn pillow is nowhere in this exhibition. These works impress in their cool precision, in their blatant use of the grid, and in the tiny pencil smudges that add up to a recognizable image. Yet Gibbs is not the first to pay homage to the grid, and these works don’t end up doing a lot more than what Vija Celmins or maybe Chuck Close have already mastered. They simply dazzle and then quickly fade. It’s a neat trick for sure, the artist as magician, but how long can we be awed by rigorous skill alone?
Katie Geha is a PhD candidate in art history at the University of Texas at Austin.