A number of recent exhibitions in New York featured artists whose main aesthetic vernacular is rooted in a formally reductive contrast of colors. Suzan Frecon at David Zwirner, Ricci Albenda at Andrew Kreps, Mark Barrow at Elizabeth Dee, Roman Opalka at Yvon Lambert, and Ryoji Ikeda at The French Institute all utilize in differing implementations the contrast of dualist color schemas. Whether it be high or low-keyed, contrast is used to instill in the viewer a rudimentary aesthetic education, and its existence today means the increasing depravity of viewing that is extrinsic to it. The simplicity of the work is a mirror of the simplicity of modern subjectivity. With the democratization of art leading to viewing experiences of distraction–viewers jumping from one exhibition or website to the next, glossing over reflexive experience, rarely constituting material via reflection–artists are pushed into a competition for the viewers’ attention. As such they paradoxically implement manipulative aesthetic devices as a last-ditch attempt to retain whatever exists of the reflexive primacy of viewing experience. The contradiction here lies in the manipulation enacted in order to preserve an aesthetic experience that has repeatedly throughout history pretended to have overcome any divisiveness (with its absolution claimed by the analytics of conceptual art). In these shows the artists rely on one of many devices that surfaces as acutely as possible in an era when devices might have been overcome entirely.
Contrast of color has been a debated aesthetic conduit for decades. Most significantly, Michael Fried defended the low-key diversity of color in Kenneth Noland’s paintings against the infiltration of highly polarized colors in op-art that berate the viewer by robbing them of extended attention. This contentious issue continues to manifest today in odd permutations, like the low-key dualities of Ricci Albenda’s recent show at Andrew Kreps. Albenda’s color palette consists of baby blues, muted greens, and pastel purples, set against a consistent sky blue background. One wanders the gallery absorbed in conscious awareness of viewing, yet it is brought about by manipulation through the colors that toy with their perception. Albenda’s brilliance lies in the enacting of an op-art dualism paradoxically rendered in the most subdued tonalities, wherein the viewer is challenged as in a puerile science perception experiment to pick out shapes amidst a homogenous color field. Albenda perhaps only achieves this effect due to the extrinsic factors of language, as the viewer is simultaneously reading the arbitrary texts while also looking at shapes, and the experience, no matter how minimal, is still one of distraction and a schizophrenic viewing experience, even if minimized. Polarizing modes of comprehension – primary aesthetic reflexion, and literary comprehension – align against the viewing subject.
Similarly, Roman Opalka’s exhibition at Yvon lambert, titled ‘Passages,’ implements monochromatic color use of a more Ryman-esque ilk. Just as Ryman used a process of painting white lines on a solid colored background until the brush ran out of ink, Opalka painted his signature numbers until they filled the picture plane, each number only articulable by the singularity of the stroke that started its left-most digit with a pure white and with its last fading into the background. Like Albenda’s, Opalka’s viewer is assailed with both numbers and colors, and the meaningless of the former as mere vehicle for mark making, is a mere excuse to make shapes. Ryoji Ikeda’s exhibition of printed gray numbers against a white background at the French Institute was something of a pastiche of Opalka’s paintings. Ikeda, however, deepens the crevice between content and form that Opalka and Albenda want to collapse but can’t technically resolve. Ikeda stresses instead of understates the metaphysical importance of the numbers themselves, through mathematistic fetish, while in a lapse of subjective resolve underscores the picture plane by using ultra low-contrasts. The numbers are so small and monochromatic that the picture plane becomes a minimalist object.
On the other hand, Suzan Frecon at David Zwirner utilized nearly complementary color contrasts as well as monochromatic fields. Rust orange opacities with glossy reflective surfaces that pop out from the matte backgrounds perpetuate an op-art dialect through considerably downplayed illusory technique. Similarly, the almost serialist shapes seem to be mere vehicles for facile color experiments inherited from an archaic dialectic that now serves as a blueprint contemporary artists follow either begrudgingly or unconsciously. If aesthetic development in modernism was merely about restoring the crudest fundamentals of perception that were destroyed by industrialization, then it appears we haven’t strayed in the least, let alone progressed. Frecon’s canvases delineate the most rudimentary of shapes and challenge the viewer to assemble the most basic of aesthetic constituents, which proves to be a difficult task for their diminished subjectivity. The use of contrast is an exercise for the viewer to develop a subjectivity that doesn’t yet exist, to teach one how to look in an age where industrialized cultural imagery is afforded more subjectivity than the viewer.
Odd then that the curatorial statement for Mark Barrow’s exhibition at Elizabeth Dee triumphantly proclaims a progressive distance from “reactionary modernist nostalgia” instead of the artist’s burrowing into it in order to show our collective non-identity with it. Is it possible that the mole, when burrowing through its lair believes that it has already come out the other side and seen a different light instead of the exact same one from a different angle? Barrow’s pattern painting on his wife’s weavings are perhaps the least contrasting of this constellation of artists, but nevertheless use contrast to embolden whatever remains of the viewer’s attention. WHF, for example uses darkened pseudo-geometric color opacities reminiscent of many of Paul Klee’s strictly color mosaic paintings. However, what appears as solid color fields are actually problematized by overlying painted lines, which are difficult to discern from the woven background, and vice versa. Are the painted dotted-line patterns autonomous from the background, or are they merely tracing it? Barrow’s brilliance here is the display of a latent nature of collaboration. With all the lip-service paid to collaboration in interdisciplinary practices, Barrow implements such ideology within the seemingly limited confines of the materialist picture plane and shows collaboration to be the exploitative, confusing thing it often is, but is not recognized as, due to abstract ideology.
Obviously, one could glean a somewhat vulgar metaphor through Barrow’s work–does the postmodern (or anti-modern) drawing on top of modernist form eradicate or illuminate it? Does the layering demarcate an autonomy from its substratum or exaggerate it? With all the ‘revolutionary’ nonsense of immaterial practice overthrowing modernism, Barrow’s work proves more progressive in its materialism that understands that it can merely add upon the past and erect permanent fixtures with it, in an otherwise decentralized spiraling world, and thus transform it through, in Susan Buck-Morss’s words, “bringing to consciousness what was before only dimly perceived, so that it becomes available for critical reflection.” Within the violent ephemerality of dematerialized contemporary life, in all its poverty of physical and intellectual experience, a project that doesn’t try to eradicate the only thing that we have left–history–but understand it through active material engagement, is perhaps the only chance for redemption. •