By: Jan Tumlir
“Battery” (2008), Steven Bankhead’s last exhibition at Circus Gallery, comprised a series of
mediumsize charcoal renderings of collaged material that the artist had culled from billboards,
posters, flyers, stickers, T-shirts, graffiti, and other ephemera. Much of the imagery was lifted from
the rock milieu and testified to rock’s ongoing recycling of a lexicon of mythical symbols originating
in avant-garde art (as described by cultural critics such as Stewart Home and Greil Marcus). A sense
of historical unfolding was suggested in the emphatic numbering of the drawings on view: twentyfour
in all, arranged into four groups of six, each work bearing its date of production as title (Sept.
18, Sept. 19, Sept. 20 . . . ). Winding chronologically around the gallery space, these drawings closed
the circle of eternal recurrence while also opening out of it at every juncture. In the missing dates
between works, as well as in the sparse composition of each one, which left large section of paper
void of all but the smudged traces of process, historical blind spots intruded.
Although at first glance there appears to be little connection between “Battery” and “Location,
Location, Location,” Bankhead’s recent exhibition, it gradually becomes evident that the newer work
is answering the older. Carrying over the serial deployment, middling scale, and strict colorlessness
of the earlier drawings, Bankhead now gives us what look like abstract paintings, each one
emblazoned at its center with starlike motif of jet-black pigment radiating outward onto unprimed
canvas. I would call it “goth minimalism” were it not for the vaguely politicized tone of the titles,
some of which allude to a history of urban uprisings. White Nights, Disco Demolition, Tenderloin (all
works from 2009): Whether the reference is to “official” acts of war, terrorism, or civil unrest, these
titles are our first clue that the paintings my be representational as well.
Steven Bankhead, Undie 500, 2009, spray acrylic on canvas, 49” x 36 ½”
Interestingly, it is the discourse surrounding contemporary photography that poses the most
daunting challenge to the notion of abstraction as self-generated, or “wholly made,” as
Adorno would say, since a photograph, even an abstract one, is always “of” something else.
As it turns out, Bankhead’s “dark stars” are based on photos of broken windows taken in
the neighborhood of his studio. The sharp contrast between black paint and white ground
positions the viewer ambiguously, either inside looking out or outside looking in. Either way,
one is left staring into a void that keeps snapping back into form of a positive shape. This
is an “idea” the could have been exhausted within its first iteration. However, Bankhead is
shrewd enough to know that the point of variation is to modify the theme, and accordingly
he puts his shatterd panes through enough the affective paces: Here, the lines of impact are
jagged and cutting; there, as soft and woozy as a sea sponge. Some evoke that affably brut
écriture of that old syndicated comic strip B.C., whereas others court a more diffident sort
of grandeur, begging comparison with the works of Clyfford Still and even Ad Reinhardt.
The violence of the rock “spirit,” conjured by means of cut-and-paste rituals in Bankhead’s
first solo show, is now channeled onto the built landscape of the city. This, too, constitutes a
simple equation, but one that yields a surprisingly sophisticated range of results.
In his 2008 show, the artist had installed a pink neon sign spelling out the words PRETTY
VACANT on the back wall of the gallery’s narrow loft space. Positioned at a height that kept
in hidden from visitors in the main gallery downstairs, the work appeared only as a lurid glow
spilling over the balcony—a louche invitation. This time around, Bankhead installed three
makeshift benches in the second-floor sparse, each made from boards resting across DJstaple
milk crates situated atop standard sheets of unfinished plywood. Unlike the gallery’s
resin-coated plywood floors, these sheets retained signs of the viewer’s presence: the dirt we
track in from outside. The accumulation of shoe prints and smudges actively demonstrated
the principle of productive destruction that under wrote the show as a whole, taking in
everything from record scratching to the Gutaï Group’s assault on the picture plane. It was
perfectly appropriate, then, that this gallery furniture should be dysfunctional:
Once one was seated, the work on the ground floor disappeared from view.