Adah Rose Gallery in Kensington, MD. If nothing else, the exhibit represents how awesome and supportive Adah Rose is about her artists, because the exhibit represents a clear departure from one of the two directions I take with my work.
Yeah… two directions: implying a third. The first is a more conceptual socio-political commentary—a vein of production I'll attribute to time I worked with Randall Packer and the U.S. Department of Art and Technology. While Randall had no direct influence over pieces like Note 2 Self, JOB Creation Project, or Acting Presidential—and to some extent the DIY Conceptual Artist—working with him gave me the permission I needed to explore veins of operation outside of painting: interactive works that were somewhat performance-based, and using everyday objects or familiar design methodologies to fool the mind into receiving and then question the work: trompe l'esprit. The second direction was text-based. And though some of my socio-political projects rely heavily on text (bumper stickers, campaign posters, books, printed newspapers), these works were simply text… or the absence thereof. The work of mine that Adah Rose typically exhibits are four letter words, alphabets, and erased newspapers.
The alphabets have been highly successful. Several prints have come close to selling out, and there is demand to add to the series. And though few want to own an erased newspaper, or a single from a suite of four-letter-words, each series creates conversation. So, I think it is pretty awesome that Adah Rose was willing to take this brand that I have developed within her gallery, put it aside for the time being, and let me explore a different body of work. Though, the work was not entirely alien to her.
When we first met in 2011—about five months prior to my first exhibit in her gallery in Feb. 2012—I showed her a series of shaped paintings I was thinking my way through, and mentioned this other body of work. It was a series inspired by a staircase in Hurst Hall at American University.
In 2006/07 I was working for the Center for Teaching Excellence at AU, and my job was to oversee the Faculty Corner, a lunge where faculty could checkout laptops, podcast equipment, edit videos, and seek some help with Blackboard. It was located in Hurst Hall, a building that only had bathrooms in the basement, and I worked on the second floor. So, I was regularly going up and down the stairs during the time of my employ. And, the stairwell did something to my perception. Inspired, I photographed the stairwell up and down. Eventually, I started composing from the photographs with the thought that these could become shaped-canvas paintings. And, then, I discovered the work Frank Stella accomplished after his protractor series. About 100 photographs and over 50 drawings were immediately shelved.
When I shelved the series it was less than two years after I finished graduate school, and one of the ghosts of grad school was the fear of making derivative work. Anytime I thought I was advancing in my work, I would later discover that I was bumping into Jim Rosenquist or Robert Rauschenberg or someone else. And I was typically ignorant of the works of those artists (as I was of most work of artists after 1940) throughout graduate school. There were several critiques where i was lambasted for making works that looked like this, that, or the other—or why wasn't I using some medium other than oil paint— and I eventually threw up my arms and threw out my paint brushes (both figuratively, of course).
After shelving the project I would start reading more about Elizabeth Murray, and Al Held. Pile up enough influences (after the fact) and at some point it seems credible to ignore the superstitions of graduate school. While it is essential to be knowledgeable of the works of other artists, it's also pertinent to—at some point—acknowledge that it's okay to move forward. I probably came to that conclusion a couple of years before 2012, when I began to give consideration to starting the works.
The Hurst Series, or the Staircase Series—a series of untitled paintings, some of which have received kitchy nicknames after the fact—does what it set out to do: upset the conventions of looking. By no means can I claim that these works are ground-breaking. Shaped canvases go back to the Renaissance, if not further back in history. Works that deal with spatial imperfections probably precede Escher. It is doubtful that the confluence of both is anything new. Regardless, there is still something magical about a work that can visually pop off the wall thanks to the shift in paint values or because of how it is shaped (or both). This happens to me when I see some of Ellsworth Kelly's work (from the right angle): simplicity jumps off the wall and tickles my mind. It's what I love about the works of Robert Irwin and James Turrell. Elisabeth Murray doesn't do that for me. Stella's work never did it for me either. Al Held's does, but he was mostly beholden to the rectangle. And, the work of Lee Bontecou does the inverse of what I'm trying to accomplish with these shaped paintings.
If anyone is doing this kind of work, I don't know it. That's not to say it isn't happening. There are probably 100 graduate students across the U.S. doing something similar, as well as another 100 in a few art programs I am unaware of, at universities I have never heard of, in some huge city in China that I have also never heard of. Quite frankly, I could care less. Because, the series represents one of the first times I have used art to make a problem and then solve for it, rather than using art to try to solve a problem, comment on problem, or comment on a problem in an effort to make more problems (for the recipient, not for the art). It feels authentic: which is not to say past works have felt inauthentic. There are times that past projects and works have felt gimmicky (art masquerading as bumper sticker… or perhaps the other way around), but the gimmicky was more-or-less embraced as another medium of the work (Art can be cheesy). Perhaps that authenticity comes from the fact I was pushing some paint around. Art always feels better when its possible I might get dirty or injured in the process of making.
The show runs through December 28, 2013, at Adah Rose Gallery in Kensington, MD.