It just has to be interesting
Written by marina may
Four artists Shawn Burkard, Vaughn Davis, Conor Murphy, and Nick Schleicher have come together for a second show, quadrupled. SSSS* is an extended investigation into the subversion of norms surrounding consumerism, process, beauty, “painting,” and social constructs.
Each of these artists is working individually (meaning the show lacks the ‘prompt and response’ format), but in tandem, one can ascertain a certain attitude towards image making, and this could be debatably defined as a reduction of self-importance art.
To quote Michael Fried, “The object has not become less important. It has merely become less self important.” Through varying degrees of subversion and fallacy, factors present in each individual body of work, each artist is relying upon formalist principals, if only to then dissect and reformulate those sets of constraints in such a way that the viewer is forced to reconsider how they engage with the work.
“I think [SSSS*] kind of started with Shawn and me working together on some collaboration pieces,” says Schleicher, “And I liked how our work, at the time, was deconstructing the way painting was made and was playing with the materials of painting and reassembling them into a work.”
We sat down in the gallery and discussed the ways in which each artist’s practice functions individually and how they may be in dialogue with one another.
Davis’s work, pigment dipped canvas surface hung on a wall, then tattered, shredded, pulled and meticulously stripped, appears to peel slowly from the gallery wall.
“[The works are] kind of a take on anti-craft. Instead of putting things together, combining things, strengthening things, which is what I feel like the craft movement is usually associated with, I’m choosing to deteriorate things and aesthetically deconstruct the object. I think this work specifically has always been the negation of the brush, as far as the painting process is concerned,” He says. “Usually when I pigment these works, I’m using a sponge or literally dipping them in a stew of color. Then, I wanted to make this mark with my hand instead of a brush.”
The dip dyed process lends a richness to the works that starkly contrasts with the texture of the surface. This dichotomy encourages the viewer to consider the work’s trajectory. His works reside in the absence. They are innately archival. The canvas displays and retains all the previous actions taken by Davis and lay them bare for the viewer to absorb. The strength rest in the voids, the negative space created by its tattered skin. And even though the works are positioned flesh with the wall, like a traditional painting, the works appear to occupy the space in front and behind the pigmented plane.
“I wouldn’t say anti-painting,” he says, “Because there are definitely many things around the idea of painting, but for myself I wanted to negate the mark or make a mark that was a negative instead of a positive, subtracting - but not really subtracting something - more like dividing the canvas because nothing is ever truly subtracting of the works. Like the way they’re start is the way they’re finished. It’s just that they are arranged in a different way.”
Additionally, Davis’ work is informed by the geography of St. Louis. By subverting the processes of potentially devastating events like natural disasters or neglect, Vaughn re-contextualizes the work, speaking to both place and site specificity.
“Being born and bred in St. Louis I saw a lot dilapidation, whether it’s synthetic or whether it’s natural, you know? I saw so much of that and I kind of saw it as this way of nature taking hold of things, specifically natural disasters. But overall dilapidation. I kind of want to, well...not beautify it, but in a way kind of take it and put my hand into it and deconstruct something that would not actually harm anything.”
Schleicher’s work, color-field paintings created by squeegeeing layers of paint on top of one another, form vast landscapes predicated upon science and theory. Using astronomical photography and pop culture as a point of departure, Schleicher manipulates the application of paint to form ethereal compositions.
“I recently landed on this body of work that I’m calling ‘Colors in Space.’ I was researching how they make these images that scientists use to represent nebulas and how much they look like these false images of space that are represented in some of these Marvel movies [among other galactic pop culture references] and how they are basically made the same way, with artists, or scientists assigning colors to these images, whether they are real or not, to make an aesthetic decision,” he says.
“The scientific - the astronomical photos are fact - they are real, they are just not observed light. They call it false color. And I thought that was really interesting and I kind of wanted to play with that in painting.”
His artistic choices mirror those of as an astrophysicist. Adhering to a set of rules, color theory and position of matter (respectively), and he then uses a cultivated sense of aesthetics to divine a final image. The basis is fact, or formal, but the product is a matter of manipulation and judgement.
To delve more into his process and how that relates to both theory and judgement, Schleicher describes how he formulated “the big yellow one” or SOL-920, 60x42.
“I started with a bright pink base, its actually the painting that’s on the card. It a pink base and then I built 10 or so layers of transparent yellow over it with isolation layers,” he says, “It makes this beautiful orange that I never directly apply. It’s just kind of an optical thing with the pink and the yellow. And then I focus on when I’m making the marks with a squeegee, seeing where the colors cluster, where the pigments pulls and playing with that compositionally. And making decisions, layer by layer, when the painting will be complete and when I need to emphasize more color in an area and how that is supposed to go.”
Burkard’s Next Season’s Shade, a human-sized palm tree cut out of plywood, printed on both sides and suspended by a metal chain hovers inches above the floor of the gallery. On one side, Kendall Jenner’s almond brown eye immediately confronts the viewer as they walk into the gallery. On the other side, a surf scene, cast in vibrant yellow. He deals with the construction of identity, the projection of self, and the manufactured cultural signifiers of success associated with the “American Dream.”
“There’s the internet that increases the space of a theater of mind, of an expansion of this idea of freedom and creating almost Americana as a brand. Now, individually, we can create our own brand. It’s like when people create their own campaigns and so what better place to use, I guess in a sense, the California landscape,” Burkard says.
“The palm tree represents California, but also globalization. So basically the palm tree is like the symbol for America because globally, everybody is looking at one place. I mean, New York a little bit, right, but it’s basically a coastal thing. So most of the influence is Hollywood driven and how that’s basically a construction of reality or an individual.”
By virtue of its positioning, the giant palm casts multiple shadows on the back wall of the gallery. The piece is expansive, with multiple points of access, and deeply psychological. The chain suspends the facade, as we are tethered to our own constructions of self represented by a queen of Calabasas and social media sensation, brought up in an “idyllic reality” manufactured by E!. All of this posturing is backed by a sun-soaked, hyper saturated landscape of California surf culture, which for many, embodies ideals of the “American Dream,” a nostalgia steeped concept that is as enticing as it is unattainable. And we are left with the shadows. Multiple, duplicitous and malleable. Who we are at our core, hidden behind our projections.
In relation to painting, Burkard has presented a sculpture, but it reflects his attitude toward painting and the larger process behind creation.
“Sometimes I approach painting without painting at all. I have this thing about it and I think that’s what drives my painting. When I am working a painting and I guess its dealing more with attitude than I am with a finished product,” he says.
“And I always thought the attitude of making a painting was more about what its really about instead of the final finish of the thing…Kind of like how they saywest-coast Minimalism is all about painting. Like a Larry Bell was all about painting, but it’s not a painting. So that's kind of my drive, when I am not making a painting then I’m making a sculpture or something.”
Murphy’s Screen Thing Squared 1 and Screen Thing Squared 2 are just that: 2D purple squares, inlaid with four red squares, each baring the word “SQUARE,” positioned in a square formation within each square surface.
“I was kind of exploring American consumerism and a little bit of capitalist ideas and just American taste specifically through the use of materials. I set up restrictions or limitations by wanting to make a painting or something that is read as a painting even though its pretty sculptural. I think the frame and the format creates a painting at the end of the day. And with those limitations I wanted to create with American household materials, you know just consumer product materials,” says Murphy.
Composed of painted garage siding, painted screens, and material used to fabricate toy blocks, these works challenge the viewer to consider the space around them. To move around and assess the materiality of the work, their scale, and the choice of color (which is sourced from industrial tools). The work changes as the viewer moves in space. From a distance, the red squares appear to float in a matrix of painterly gestures, but shift sideways to reveal a gradation from an almost solid color to nearly liquescent movement.
“I think control is an important word that I use to talk about these,” he says, “because of the constant push and pull between being completely in control and having no control at all.”
Murphy plays with constraints, and pokes at the rigidity of minimalism. Touting the inherent difficulty of working with the materials, getting them to behave in the way in which he intended, as an exercise in control or lack thereof. The work lends itself to problem solving by both artist and viewer.
“It’s also just a little satire of minimalism specifically with the use of the word ‘Square’ in a square. So then it gets into a field of logic and problem solving which I am interested in, in terms of making art in general. Taking the expression or the romance out of art making specifically painting by sets of rules and just logic. You know, if I do one thing, how am I going to react to that or if I do one thing, what is the other thing going to do?”
The various strands of thematic tissue connecting each artist’s body of work in the show are diverse, and made increasingly complicated when placed in the context of one another, but that’s the point. According to Murphy there is no explicit end goal.
“I think a lot of our practices involve deconstructing painting. It’s not like necessarily as a group we have an idea of ‘This is what should happen, this is how we should deconstruct it, and that’s that!’” He says.
“It’s clearly not what we are doing, but also if we were to do that I think it might be a little counterproductive or counterintuitive to the philosophy of deconstruction.”
The show is markedly open-ended, and its ambiguity allows for a range of interpretations. One could easily extrapolate upon the themes presented how they connect any given artist. Being in the space with the works is, in the simplest sense, an invitation to think, which will gladly be accepted.