(Raffle Solo Show)
As part of a panel discussion held at USC in conjunction with the DH-curated show at INMO Gallery entitled Between Representation , one audience member was awarded a DH-curated solo exhibition including a curatorial essay.The winner was painter Reed McMillen.
Reed McMillen: STATIC
The question of content in contemporary painting is crucial, and often overlooked. It is painting that led the way through Modernism and the subsequent Dematerialization of the Object as well as wading first into the dubious swamp of 80’s postmodernist pluralism. In spite of it’s low rung on the academic totem pole, painting is still held to higher, more exacting criteria of conceptual novelty than any other medium – many of the oddball contemporary sculptures that thrill the Kunsthall elite would be dismissed as Surrealist kitsch if they were realized in oil on canvas.
Similarly, what passes for groundbreaking video art often relies on technological fetishism to bolster what amounts to the record of a tableau vivant of a mildly interesting pictorial conceit.But a painting has somehow come to be expected to recapitulate the entire history of what is arguably the oldest and most continuous of the plastic arts, while paying lip service to the market and the dozens of academe, who insist on periodic patricidal inversions of lineage (AKA planned obsolescence) and an on-file signed confession to the abuse of a corpse, respectively.
There’s also the internal lineage of painting practice, with a different set of criteria altogether (it’s vast and solemn discipline of exact craftsmanship, for example, rendering every glitch a cryptographic commentary on the medium) as well as such trifling concerns as what the artist actually wants to do.
It’s a lot of balls to keep in the air; in Los Angeles in particular, where for the last decade embarrassingly self-conscious painterly pratfalls by artists with only a cursory familiarity with the language OR adherence to a strictly referential decorative formalism have been the twin rages, upping the plausible deniability ante even higher for anyone daring to push pigment. Or spray it.
Which makes it all the more surprising how neatly Reed McMillen’s suite of eight airbrushed panels depicting frozen screens of television static dovetails into Los Angeles’ recent dialogue with late 20th century painting practice, without ever appearing to pander to any one-liner agendas.
McMillen’s STATIC paintings are beautiful: superficially reminiscent of such West Coast painting touchstones as finish fetish, Vija Celmins, and the artist’s immediate predecessors in Los Angeles abstraction. The visual content of the work, taken from snapshots of absent or off-register television signals, amount to alleatory compositional gestures (as befits the circumstances of this show*), painstakingly realized. Grabbed frames from an endless stream of functionally meaningless variations, they testify to the futility of arresting the flow of information, of attempting to fix even an arbitrary point in experience so as to be ‘permanent’ or at least recoverable, i.e.: making art.
The paralyzation of such an immediately perishable phenomenon brings to mind the practice of inserting memento mori (reminders of death – a skull or dead flowers) in more traditional versions of still life painting. Isolating a sliver from the torrent of visual information that flows through our nervous systems each day, then submitting it for the prolonged non-hierarchical contemplation that interesting painting evokes, the paintings act like a door swinging between two different modes of visual perception, allowing for osmosis, and the possibility of equilibrium.
Their curious double-stasis is a reminder of the countless individual configurations of electrons that pass away in the seemingly inextinguishable fountain of entertainments, even in the meaningless ground that carries the signal. On the other hand, there is something fetishistic in their simulation of high tech monitors, floating off the glowing wall, like artifacts in some post electronic cargo cult that seeks to pay tribute to (and possibly catch some trickle-down juju from) the primary visual medium of our culture.
And possibly flatter the vanity of the artist’s patrons, who surely, as is true for most of us, identify more with TV than they do with one another. This is surely the epitome of contemporary decorative painting – give the people what they want to look at, stripped of content. A window looking onto a soothing, impersonal field, undermining it’s own iconic authority by choosing as it’s subject matter an arbitrarily sampled moment of electronic visual noise.
And always, by implication, an Absent Eye, an interruption of the surveillance underlying both TV and painting, and all the other subject/object operations we class as culture. The content is a picture of the absence of content, and painting can’t get much emptier than that, without playing dumb or playing dead.
Doug Harvey is Art Critic for LA WEEKLY , Contributing Editor to Art issues. And an artist. They disconnected his free cable while he was writing this. [Which was just days before 9/11, after which our cable was out for almost a year.]