FLICKER is an exhibition of black and white monochrome works organized by Jan Tumlir, featuring: Justin Beal, Phil Chang, Eduardo Consuegra, Brendan Fowler, Mark Hagen, Nick Herman, Brian Kennon, Christopher Michlig, Katrina Umber, Kaari Upson, and Bobbi Woods.
Steadily dwindling since the sixties and seventies, the production of monochrome paintings has been resumed in the past few years with the sort of insistent enthusiasm that is generally reserved for the outré. To many of us, the actual work of coating canvases a uniform color is perplexing to the point of absurdity. To the cognescenti as much as the lay public, it comes shrouded in the thick fog of occult mysteries, while at the same time radiating the light of reason. Since the work in question comprises so few decisions – proportion, scale, preparation of surface, texture – they must all be absolutely “right.” The monochrome exudes a sense of inevitability, as if it could not have been made any other way, and one can be wholly convinced of that fact without quite knowing how to take the measure of its “rightness.” Are the criteria universally set or idiosyncratically chosen? Depending on where one stands, that is, the monochrome is either the selfless fulfillment of a reductive process that answers only to the command of history, or else the last gasp of the solipsistic ego that has been chasing its tail for too long. Of course, there are many more ways to get at it – literally, no end of ways. In this regard, the monochrome is the epitome of the open work, but it does not follow that it is therefore generous, agreeable, or even remotely user-friendly. Often enough, the opposite is true: this is a work that tends to remain steadfastly indifferent to the audience demand for empathetic communion as a matter of principle.
Pure pigment promises communicative immediacy while also hinting at cover up, a refusal to speak, and this is made all the more evident when the chosen color, or non-color, is either white or black. In the black and white monochrome, the polarizing questions that subtend the genre approach their breaking point. Accordingly, in 1963, Ad Reinhardt set out to explain his Black-Square Paintings by way of a long list of negations: “A square (neutral, shapeless) canvas, five feet wide, five feet high, as high as a man, as wide as a man’s outstretched arms (not large, not small, sizeless), trisected (no composition), one horizontal form negating one vertical form (formless, no top, no bottom, directionless), three (more or less) dark (lightless) no-contrasting (colorless) colors, brushwork brushed out to remove brushwork, a matte, flat, free-hand painted surface (glossless, textureless, non-linear, no hard edge, no soft edge) which does not reflect its surroundings – a pure, abstract, non-objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless, relationless, disinterested painting – an object that is self-conscious (no unconsciousness) ideal, transcendent, aware of no thing but art (absolutely no anti-art).” In other words, remove everything else from the painting and all that’s left is art, and in Reinhardt’s estimation this is something that no longer has anything to do with life as we know it. “Art-as-art,” as he puts it, is sent spinning into tautological orbit. “The one thing to say about art,” Reinhardt continues, “is that it is one thing. Art is art-as-art and everything else is everything else. Art-as-art is nothing but art. Art is not what is not art.”
Such purist thoughts do not survive into the present uncontaminated, however. If Reinhardt’s endgame system remains beholden to an intrinsically religious ideal of transcendence – of spirit released from mortified flesh, or from the “body” of painting, with its stretcher-bar skeleton and canvas skin – then this is precisely what must now be sacrificed. The late Steven Parrino may have set a precedent in this regard when he described his own black paintings as a form of “newly risen zombie-abstraction.” Monochrome painting today is not about resurrection so much as reanimation, the earth-bound, base-materialist return of damaged goods. The pursuit of a singular, grounding truth at the end of the reductive process gives way to an embrace of radical heterogeneity, or in Parrino’s words, to “something that is deflated, debased, distorted, contorted, distended, dislocated, removed, bent.”
Flicker, the title of this exhibition of contemporary monochrome works, takes a cue from Parrino’s hyperbolic language inasmuch as it can suggest the condition of being neither on nor off, but “flickering” between. Also, it alludes to the psychotronic machinations of Tony Conrad’s Flicker Films, which transport the reductive principle of the monochrome into the territory of inter-media, once so stringently off limits. In cinema, as well, the experience is two-sided since it is inherent in the operation of the apparatus that it alternate between the poles of darkness and light, presence and absence. On-screen, the images come and go, and much the same can be said for the viewer’s attention, which is itself caught in a flickering state between waking and sleep. Clearly, the vacuum that Reinhardt was so keen to preserve on the canvas surface was unstable from the outset, and his radical acts of negation would increasingly take on a positive charge of attraction. What has been emptied out must in turn be filled up; it might even be that it is the present function of the monochrome to invite a return of the repressed, and yet a crucial element of discrimination remains. From film to the form of the photographic print, the poster, the magazine and picture book, from music to sound art and noise, from fashion to politics, and so on, the monochrome will accept only that which is most like itself, now on, now off.