Issue #175
Mystic Truths & Offbeat Revelations September 30, 2011

Seth Alverson
Chair, Chair II
2009-2011
Oil on canvas
36 x 29 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Art Palace, Houston

View Gallery

Seth Alverson

Art Palace, Houston

Through October 7
by Melissa Venator

Seth Alverson’s newest body of work isn’t new at all, and that’s the point. For his current exhibition at Art Palace, the artist painted copies of all of the works that didn’t sell at his last solo show and installed them in groupings that invite comparison between the old and the new, the original and the copy. Part meditation on artistic and commercial failure, part critique of the cult of originality, Alverson’s thought-provoking and accomplished work engages in a level of institutional and artistic critique absent from most gallery shows.

Alverson’s detailed handling of paint contributes to the viewer’s sense that all is not well beneath the surface of the everyday people and things he depicts. In Chair (2009), the eponymous brown velour recliner, such a popular feature of 1970s suburban living rooms across the country, assumes monumental proportions. Its familiarity is literalized in Alverson’s virtuosic rendering of the fabric; the way he captures the sheen of the velour as the light plays across the chair’s surface. Despite its massive presence, the empty chair seems instead to signify its absent occupant, a melancholic impression compounded by the painting’s strange perspective, harsh lighting and the disparity between the sharp focus of the chair and the soft focus of its surroundings. Like the work of Luc Tuymans and Martin Kippenberger, the artists in whom we find Alverson’s closest counterparts, the work’s hyperrealism questions the relationship between appearance and truth, rather than reinforcing it.

Failure is another theme Alverson insistently revisits, both in individual works and across the show as a whole. Of course, the premise of the exhibition is defined by failure; after all, the show centers on works that didn’t sell, and selling works is the definition of a successful gallery artist. But, for Alverson, failure as a concept plays a more fundamental role. In works like Best Part of a Bad Painting (2009), he highlights the failed moments of artistic creation: the canvases in which the only salvageable parts—a gnarled hand or a landscape background—are preserved while the failures survive as inchoate masses of sketchily applied paint. Alverson wears his self-criticism on his sleeve in the installation of Hole for Bad Ideas (ongoing), when he pastes a small-scale copy on the original canvas, positioned so that it’s consumed by the black vaginal hole of the work’s title. According to Alverson, then, the Hole for Bad Ideas is itself a bad idea, an artistic failure. But Alverson’s work is not an artistic failure; the individual works are competently executed and strikingly composed, and the extension of his project via the copied canvases adds a new dimension of self-referentiality and meditation on the processes of artmaking and exhibition.

Melissa Venator is a PhD student in the Department of Art History at Rice University.

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