As human activity is increasingly made technical—molded to autocorrected, auto-tuned, or photoshopped standards—what happens to the productive potential of error? While the standardization of human experience promotes a smooth integration of individual action into a calculated and seamless collective fabric, it’s often slips of the tongue that issue neologisms or poetry, and botched experiments that bear scientific breakthroughs.
Borrowing its title from the acronym PICNIC, a slang term used in technical circles to communicate a user error, Ethan Cook’s exhibition takes up what is productive in the balance between perfection and imperfection. In Cook’s paintings, it is the very instances of snag and inconsistency that offer complexity and composition. Hewn from hand woven cotton canvas that is stitched together with store-bought canvas, the fallibility of the human hand is emphasized by its abuttal to the conformity of what a factory can produce. Cook drives the repetition inherent to factory labor to the picture plane, practicing over and over the construction of similar forms, colors, and compositions; not to exhaust them, but rather to extract something different from each iteration, marking incremental changes with each result.
With a modest economy of gesture and form, Cook allows mutations to be traceable. In hand woven passages, produced on a loom, stitches grow subtly off-register, pulling and distorting the performance of a tidy pattern. The incongruity of textures, seams, and fibers becomes the content of the work, while the nuance of beige, white, and peach geometric shapes pushing in and out of positive and negative formal space usher the work into an aesthetically sharp dialogue with late-modernist traditions of painting and structural/materialist devices of deconstruction. Cook’s rectangular forms—so wedded to these discourses and their acknowledgement of the boundaries of the picture plane—tug and waver, allowing those boundaries to bleed and warp.
Here, the parameters of artwork and architecture are also tested. Cook pushes against the white cube of the gallery—another Modernist frame—with a monumental piece constructed specifically for the back wall of the space. The work, swelling to nearly touch the ceiling and floor, enters a direct dialogue with the structure that supports it. Two large bar forms stretch horizontally across this piece, emphasizing the exhibition’s themes of dialectic and contrast. These forms also exemplify Cook’s investment in the indexical connection between the labor that goes into each cross of cotton yarn and its material presence. Each of these shapes is the result of a complete run of canvas; determined by the width of the loom, the number of heddles, the availability of fabric, the warping board dimensions, and the hours of labor time available in a day. As such, they become records of performance.
Stripped to the elements of support and frame, Cook’s abstractions celebrate the articulation of handwrought materials that are often mass-produced and homogenous, or rendered invisible by their ubiquity. Likewise, also arranged within the gallery are “failed chair” sculptures, produced using refuse studio plywood bearing industrial crayon and spray painted sku numbers that here become abstracted gestures. These works, mimicking the forms of Donald Judd’s simple, boxy chairs, tease the artist’s dictum that “a good chair is a good chair,” as these are ultimately non-functioning constructions. While Judd maintained his chairs were to be thought of as furniture, not artworks, Cook’s productions belong entirely to the realm of art, by way of their error, and their un-usability. These works underscore the framework proposed by the title—that the problem is in the execution, not in the design—but it’s what occurs between those points that is worth considering.
Ethan Cook (born 1983, Texas) lives and works in New York. He has recently presented solo exhibitions at Galerie Jeanroch Dard (Paris), Rod Barton (London) and at Artissima (Turin). Recent group exhibitions include "Space Whole Karaoke" at Middlemarch in Brussels, "Equilibrium" at Ritter/Zamet in London, "Xtraction" at The Hole "This Is The Story Of America" at Brand New Gallery in Milan and "Imago Mundi," curated by Diego Cortez, at the Luciano Benetton Collection in Venice.
Upcoming solo exhibitions include T293 in Rome, Bill Brady in Kansas City, and Retrospective in Hudson, and he will be featured in group shows at Luce Gallery and Sadie Coles in the spring.