White Walls' walls are whiter than usual lately. Temporal Surfaces was retired last weekend--you might say prophetically--so as the art commanded a once-removed affect, so will my post-mortem. Once-removed? These are paintings of the already-painted, an update to a long tradition dating back to the salon and beyond. Kevin Cyr and Jessica Hess are the two vandals-by-proxy, and they evince their appreciation for urban decay contrastingly. Their one binding agent is the strict avoidance of traditional spray cans and markers, opting instead to transform or at least translate the source media. The relatively small scale at play, and lavish detail within, seems to have driven the shift to more delicate tools.
Kevin Cyr is a van man, an enthusiast...or at least a completist. His 5x4 matrix of 1980s conversion vans is painstakingly rendered in exterior detail, slavish down to the rear windows, door handles, reflectors, and turn signal placements of particular models. Collect 'em all! Instead of spiriting Warhol's mechanical monotony, these 20 wooden panels embrace their unique man-made skins. So consistently rendered in profile view, it's the van, rather than the panel, that becomes the canvas. It's a vanvas. It's jarring how Cyr mimicked this mode across the gallery using model vans, first finely painted (What? With a one-hair brush?) then photographed familiarly as a profile. Each model, posed on the slight jut of a simple ledge, stood before its pinup photograph. I gained a strange distrust of his imagery from these pieces. How could I anymore assume the existence of those first twenty vans? It was unsettling, and more gripping because of it--kinda like this.
Unlike Cyr, Jessica Hess charts the deep, layered world, not the transient vanvases that pass through it. On canvas (and less effectively, on paper) she radiates the fever of process colors on the squalor of urbanity. Shock-red dashes through a puddle. Flecks of aqua and sea green glimmer off wet dirt in a vacant lot. Deep teal floods across a wooden floor. Decay is highlighted here by its improvement at Hess's hand, the piles of bricks, dirt, and drywall, piling and reaching for the angle of repose. In one piece, Pittsfield Tracks I, even the foreground rust is electric. Conversely, the untouched, verdant background fades to a patina of sepia. Human presence seems to activate her spaces.
Then there's her handling of graffiti. Spray paint drips are brushed, depicted, not replicated. By all appearances, she lays full graffiti pieces down (or her approximations of their hidden bounds), then layers on newer ones, climbing toward the surface. She's an archaeologist attempting to simulate the accumulation of artistic hands. Her paintings are warmer than Cyr's, partly inherent of the canvas, and partly the mottled brush technique. In some places it's frothy. She adopts sci-fi angles to emphasize the atmospheric perspective beyond her painted bridges, lots, and overpasses. Hess, like Cyr, makes a kind of beautiful ugly with man-made exteriors in the way Lucien Freud and Jenny Saville did with people.
Cyr does it in a seemingly methodical way. Transposition of a line design is what graffiti is (in its popular form)--more muscle memory than improvisation. It's pre-arranged and designed for speed. Cyr takes this idea with a grain of science in his Utz potato chip truck paintings. Three trucks, over baby blue backdrop, appear to have started identically: large package trucks with factory paint. Only one manages to maintain this state, left as a control subject, as Cyr skins two others with faux-spray paint veneers. The buildup is reminiscent of 3D modeling. It goes wire form-solid model-textured surface. My interest in his graffiti application is how he seesaws between straightforward graffiti writing on flat truck surfaces and masterfully faking it on the sculptured surfaces, those flares or bends in the metal. He fills it in instead of stroking it, but in both cases he's dutiful to the authenticity of his craft, captured within the taut black outlines of his trucks and vans.
Like the grasses sprouting through the train tracks in Hess's Eureka paintings, graffiti relies on regrowth. The progression of horizontal tracks reads like time ticking, with plants reclaiming the land that 19th century infrastructure abandoned. Temporal Surfaces presented scenes mostly undisturbed except by the inevitable--not painted over by cops or rogue neighborhood watchdogs. It's an ongoing unfolding of artistic handiwork out there, and it's ours.
- Andy Ritchie