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David Rhodes: Nocturnes

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David Rhodes: "Nocturnes", Some Walls, Oakland

Michel Ragon writes in the opening paragraph of his essay about the Russian-born French artist Serge Poliakoff (1906 – 1969) published in 1958:

There are a great many people who refer everything back to the past. Does the present frighten them? Perhaps not, but historical remoteness reassures them. You are unlikely to go wrong in admiring a still-life by Chardin. Whereas, even with Braque, for example, you never can tell… Looking at a modern painting, the public will say: "One might take it for a prehistoric picture." Or before another: "Isn’t it just like a new Greco or a latterday La Tour?" It may be that I have yielded to the opposite deformation, for I am in the habit (which has become second nature) of referring everything to the present. Anyhow, past works of art, I readily admit it, interest me only insofar as they help me to understand, to explain contemporary works. Thus, the reason why I am so passionately fond of certain Italian Primitives is that I can exclaim before them:

"Oh, what a fine Poliakoff!"[1]

On a Sunday afternoon driving across the San Francisco Bay Bridge on the way to Golden Gate Park, on the upper deck of the western suspended span that leads into the City, the vertical suspender cables or rods, called hangers, snapped past peripherally as line and texture, angle and light, suddenly and clearly making me think of David Rhodes’s recent black and white paintings, which I’d hung just a few days before. Rather than the bridge experience helping me see or understand Rhodes’s work, instead I said to myself something like:

"Oh, what a fine Rhodes!"

I have driven across this bridge hundreds of times, and that moment of recognition or resonance seemed more than simply a loose association, but instead an instance of visual leap, overlap, acknowledgement, and synthesis. I thought it interesting that the bridge was seen differently after the paintings, rather than the paintings seen as secondary to the bridge. That changed my relationship to Rhodes’s work; art came first and illuminated life, an experience reduced and dense that makes the paintings, the kind that we call abstract, themselves more real, the actual primary source rather than the painted image abstracted from life.

My attention shifted to the road itself: a straight path, the multiple lanes of blacktop and white lines flickering by, cars moving side by side and shifting across lanes, threads of movement, speeding and slowing, the possibility of exits and on-ramps, narrowing in the distance, the inevitable splitting of directions and departures, the buzz of layers of movement, shifting space, various trajectories: road to Rhodes.

And more: that moment, probably just a few seconds at 55 MPH, opened me to consider something else: on the radio played a favorite Sunday afternoon program, and just then a bluegrass track played featuring guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and bass. That’s a lot of strings; total it up: four + five + four + eight + four = twenty five, all together a lot of vibrating and resonance, harmony and rhythm, interweaving and synchronizing. The sound of the strings cross each other, going higher or lower, supporting each other, drawing each other out, competing and aligning; I "saw" for a moment a sound that looked like a Rhodes painting.


Let’s play a game. I thought of this game in an instant when, as I sat down to write, I put on Rubber Soul with the original tracking order, not the American release.[2]

The game is called, "Which Beatles song sounds most like how a particular artist’s paintings look?"

It works like this: Strawberry Fields Forever sounds like a 1960’s de Kooning clam digger. Pollock’s Blue Poles looks like how Birthday sounds. Glass Onion sounds like a vitrine by Paul Thek. A late Joan Mitchell looks like Tomorrow Never Knows. Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross is the sound of Taxman ("…if my work were properly understood, it would be the end of state capitalism and totalitarianism"). Philip Guston and Why Don’t We Do It in the Road? Thomas Nozkowski and I Dig a Pony. Rocky Raccoon is Spiral Jetty. A giant Bourgeois spider is I’m So Tired. Just to name a few off the top of my head. Try it and get your own results.

As the first notes of Drive My Car spun out of the speakers I instantly thought of David Rhodes’s recent work.

In Rhodes’s images there are hints of signage, design, planning, mapping, traffic, interchanges, grains, wedging, fitting, each which their own conditions of place and space, layers or flatness: compact, energetic, open and closed, pressed and stacked, fitted and busting out, the world seeping in, the world beyond the painting, all struggling at the edges of the the conventional, containing rectangle.

David Rhodes’s work prior to that with the reduced palette considered here, is rich in color, with repeated circular and oval shapes, some solid and some like thick rubber bands, or squares with rounded corners. Some solid shapes are independent of each other, others overlap, or are cut into sections and occupy larger areas of the canvas. The acrylic-painted shapes may be layered in a glaze effect, making new color where they cross each other. In other works, ovals of the same color touch and form a flat, planar, silhouette image. The rubber band or rounded squares loop, cross, and circle over each other, suggesting a shallow space.

In all of this the circular shape or loop is a record of the artist’s bodily movement; the arm and elbow naturally extends out to make a circular motion. In these simple, natural, body-based motifs the artist exercises several virtues, which become his subject and make his meaning: no hesitation; remain playful; color is to be used freely; don’t fear decoration; repetition is good; working for the sake of working is good; "abstraction" is a real thing; making and seeing is essential to the pulse of life.

Rhodes’s recent work, all untitled, comprises a body of mostly black, white, and sometimes gray with occasional color, chevron-like paintings that have occupied him for the past few years. Earlier works used perhaps a more standard, wider-banded chevron motif (say, the Kenneth Noland-like image, or even the oil company logo, that comes to mind when you hear or read "chevron"). The current pieces are more black than anything else, across which thinner, light bands range, inverting and shifting the chevron to three successeively alternating bands of steep angles, pushing the "V" or its inverted form to "N." Variously thin, taped, near-verticals, under which paint bleeds, make soft-edged lines that zip and zag, running up and down, not quite matching or aligning.

A feeling of casualness and speed result from the artist’s focus and decisiveness at play during the work’s making. Directions of line that are rhythmic and balanced may actually be random; the artist works to determine an effect, but only really knows a procedural consequence once the tape is removed. Using a relatively narrow array of components is refreshing, eye-opening, and validates the sensation of making and seeing. Images range from dense to open; the pace and angles of lines build a range of structures, from stable to in-motion to unsteady, which encourages glimpsing, tracking, and hard looking.

Chris Ashley
Oakland, CA
February 2013

[1] Ragon, Michel. Poliakoff. Golden Griffin Books, Arts, Inc., New York City. The Pocket Museum. Edited by Georges Fall. 1958.

[2] The Beatles. Rubber Soul. Capitol Records. 1966.

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2013-02 Trees Are The Best Sculpture

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Saturday, March 16, 2002

Trees Are The Best Sculpture


Trees are the best sculpture. Trees have presence, a stance, a body that is dynamic and full and, at the same time, porous and engrossing. Trees occupy space, command space, define space.

Trees are undeniably tactile and material, living and breathing, perfectly sited in their environment, perfectly responding to their environment. As one walks around a tree the view is constantly changing, offering something new to see, another angle to consider, another way to see that the form of the tree is complex. This reminds the viewer that the environment in which the tree is seen is also complex, and a multi-leveled system of roots, light, water, earth, and animal life.

Trees are a tangle of forms for the eyes and mind to unravel, a visual, cellular, vital, thriving puzzle to try to hold in memory. This is never quite a successful venture, and so, by definition, trees are continually changing sculpture, continually offering something new: a form alive in the world, alive in their site, alive to the eyes, alive to the mind.

Most trees are neutral in color– grays, browns, and varieties of green. To name these colors simply is something that we do to hold the colors in our mind, but the names can’t adequately hold the real color in our minds. The variety of grays, browns, and greens in real life is more varied, and so can only be verified with one’s eyes. The act of looking at trees is always to look again anew.


Hills are the best scultpure. Hills seem predictable: they rise, and then they fall. In the mind, hills are round, smooth, and rolling, either brown or green. Think of how a seven or eight year old draws hills, a series of arcs one after another. Even many adults draw hills like this, but perhaps with the additional sophisticated element of overlapping arcs.

But hills don’t stand alone. Hills are rarely separate and distinct. They meander and bend, fold and merge, one into another. They have multiple sides, and ridges, gullies, and peaks. The form of each may seem distinct, with it’s own shape, volume, and area, but each is also part of a larger form.

The viewer can only assess this by looking and, like most good sculpture, by moving around it. In the case of hills, to get close enough, this means walking, getting close. One must move around the hill to discover the hill’s form, its shapes, colors, lines, and textures. By walking the hill one sees how it is distinct from the hills that roll from and into and merge with the individual hill.

Hills involve at least two kinds of viewing. First, most likely, one looks at the hill, views it from a distance. And then, second, one takes in the views from the hill. Like scultpure, one sees it, and then one sees from it a world different from before. The hill is both a sculpture to look at and also a form that provides the viewer with a position from which to look.


Sky is the best sculpture. Sky is relief sculpture, with a flat background that contains figures projecting forward. Sky is an environment, an area, a container, a gallery, a situation.

The sky hosts clouds, forms that have volume and color. Cloud forms give the sky definition by creating a sense of scale, of height and distance. This sense of scale is created by the contrast of flat and round, infinite and finite, and this fluctuating tension defines distance, space, and depth.

Sky blue is the background, the ground, the foundation and the room. Clouds are the figures. They pose, provide the action, are the center of attention, the objects. Because of this dynamic, which is the relationship between the open background, sky, and the figures it holds, clouds, the blue is the background, and clouds are the subject.


Yesterday afternoon I drove out to sparsely populated West Sonoma to stay for four days in a small house on a ridge that in another couple of miles descends into the Pacific Ocean. From the road I can look south about thirty miles to see Mt. Tam. I can follow from Mt. Tam west along the Inverness Mountains on the south side of Tomales Bay, and see the actual land’s end opposite Bodega Bay.

From the road higher up the ridge I can look just about northwest and see, I think, around Jenner, where the Russian River comes out to the Pacific. The pale silvery ocean then stretches out west beyond to meet the horizon in a perfect straight line where dense gray cloudy air seals and mutes further vision.

I am alone here. Mostly what I hear is the wind in the trees. At night I walk out to look at the sky. A ring of trees forms a black wall around me, and I look up at the fearsome night sky to see an unbearably dazzling star-filled theater. It is almost too overwhelming to look at, my eye skittering from star to star, from star to planet. The dome of black-blue filled with pulsating, brilliant yellow-white points above me is incomprehensible, too vivid for me to restfully look at, too stimulating.

Today I walked back about a mile or so up the road to a preserve of old growth redwoods. Walking among these mammoths I am shut up, made small and insignificant. This is a good thing for me. I feel comfort in my smallness, as if all my failings are exactly what I should be accepting, as if finally there really is nothing at all wrong with me.

One old ancestor must be twelve feet in diameter, and I can’t see the top. This mother tree bears the scar of a powerful lightning strike, the base seared open to form a natural teepee. One can walk inside the tree and look up at least thirty feet into her innards. The interior of the tree is charred in that irregular checkerboard way that wood burns, and growing extensively and evenly on this burned surface is a moist, rich, deep green moss. The gridded charcoal with a mossy green growth is like the surface of an alligator’s, amazingly unexpected and beautiful. Trees are the best sculpture.

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2013-01 By the eye

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By the eye
a star was seen—
surrounded by
in which it glowed
and shone
it burned
and was
from afar.

And by that
captured and
to become
part of…

In the hand
a star was held—
it burned
too hot
and was
cast off
quickly abruptly
into the blackness
in which it glowed
and shone


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Eva Lake: “Photomontages”

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Written for the exhibition Eva Lake: “Photomontages” at Some Walls, October 6 – December 23, 2012.

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Eva Lake: Photomontages

Photomontage is collage made with photographic material. In terms of image making, photomontage has a short history; it seems obvious to say, but of course photomontage can only be as old as photography itself, dating from the mid-1820’s, and more specifically, only as old as photographs printed on paper, beginning in the late 1830’s[1]. Some artists generate their own photographic material, but it’s more common to use found photographic materials that come from specific contexts and times, and that carry meaning from those conditions, about which there are pros and cons. The artist’s challenge is to use that meaning effectively, or to intervene in and steer that meaning in another direction, or to defy or defeat the given meaning to make something new.

About her collages[2],which she began making in 1978, Eva Lake says, "I’ve called it a Bedroom Art as often that was the only place I had to work in." Made with old magazine images and colored paper, Lake’s resulting images and series address numerous cultural, social, and gender issues as well as formal, craft, and decorative concerns. In addition to her heroes, John Heartfield, Hannah Hoch and Man Ray, there are a range of practitioners with whom Lake’s collages keep company, such as Romare Bearden, Richard Hamilton, Martha Rosler, Robert Heinecken, Jerry Uelsmann, Barbara Kruger, Bruce Conner, and Jess, among others.

The year 1978 is significant; at that time the Punk ethic of DIY[3] had emerged and was spreading. The idea that anyone could play an instrument and start a band became reality, and that ethos spread to other areas of creative work, including art, photography, fashion, literature and poetry, criticism, and publishing. Anyone remotely familiar with the era will recall the use of collage to make posters and flyers advertising band gigs as well as album covers. Perhaps a most widely known case is the cover of the Sex Pistol’s Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, though there are literally thousands of other examples that take to a greater and more effective extreme[4] the use of words, letters, and photo fragments cut from magazines and photocopies and reused, often "hostage letter" style. But there are more significant aspects of the punk aesthetic and ethos that Lake shares. Her willingness to use bright, sometimes even jarring color is tuned with genuine sensibility and skill. She has a commitment to using pre-existing material, which not only has ecological significance given the materials many artists typically consume, but also is a recycling that keeps old images in circulation both as a form of preservation and, more importantly, as an active ingredient for dialog and new meaning. And Lake’s body of work exemplifies how it is possible for anyone with a stack of magazines, scissors, glue, and a tabletop to make meaningful art.

Lake has created several series of photomontages. In "The Judd Montages," she transplants images of Donald Judd’s sculptures into unexpected settings, tweaking scale and space, and transforming images of art objects often thought refined and rigorous (think tough, severe, and perhaps macho) into something friendlier and appealing, even lush. The large series "Targets" sites the familiar faces of numerous starlets and beauties within the target motif, simultaneously showing how these women are historically the bulls eye of male vision and desire, while at the same time appearing strong and able to withstand, even outclass and transcend, anyone’s intention of making her an object, victim, or outcast.

In examples from the "Anonymous Women" series, images of female models from ads and fashion magazines are precisely cut and opened, pulled apart and segmented into isolated features. Parts and pieces are beautifully integrated into surprising backgrounds: the Colosseum; a brightly-colored, multi-layered cake; a Mondriaan painting; a coastal view of rocks and sea; an ornate canopy bed; a vista of parcels of farmland; and a night scene of missiles launching. These combinations might ordinarily be used to create expected and summary political commentary about gender and history through ironic or humorous juxtapositions. Instead, rather than attempting to directly retrieve and elevate the women from the ranks of anonymity in obvious ways, Lake’s further anonymization tinged with a nod to Dada, a taste of Surrealism, and the nostalgia of almost domestic-seeming materials and tools—magazine pages, scissors, knife, and glue—summons a deeper sympathy for and empathy with anonymous women from the past who were remunerated for lending their bodies and faces to the grinding commercial machinery of publishing and advertising that trades on hopes of the eternal present through beauty, glamour, and luxury.

On the floral rug serving as the background of Anonymous Woman 15, a woman’s main features in three quarter view—shaped eyebrow, sparkling eye, shapely nose, lip-sticked mouth, and snuggly ear— have been carefully cut out and positioned, floating where they belong spatially but without the rest of the face—forehead, cheek, jaw, chin—that would hold these parts in place. The neck remains, an odd abstract shape without a face or a body. Her pearl earring echoes a flower in the rug’s lower right corner. A sunflower at the rug’s center is right about where the point of the cheek bone would be most prominent. Three barrels of immaculately curled, chocolate hair comically rest on the rug’s top left corner. The soft and smooth color and texture of the printing make her "best" features like candy in a box, precisely cut pieces highlighted, isolated, and presented as choice bits, perfect examples detached from real life. Her eyes shifts back towards the middle and up, looking far pleasantly past us, unable to acknowledge her plight of reduction to ideal parts with little identity.

The Man in the Moon changes gender in Anonymous Woman 6 with the placement of a single, long-lashed, right eye, a tight, smiling mouth, and an orange, wrap around hat atop the detailed, pock-marked Moon. In the space vacated by the missing left eye is a cluster of three craters, including Ptolemaeus, an ancient lunar impact crater, seem to instead create multiple eyes, and which connect to an effervescent span of more edge-to-edge craters leading up to the hairline. Ptolemaeus is of course named after Ptolemy, the Greek-Roman mathematician and astronomer who lived in Egypt, and who is known for his Handy Tables, which organized the data used to compute the positions of the Sun, Moon, and planets, eclipses of the Sun and Moon, and the rising and setting of the stars. Anonymous Woman 6, lifted from the pages of a vintage fashion magazine, looks directly and confidently at us with her one eye, while the Moon, which has become her head shrouded in a hat topped with a bow, is a mysterious container of information, distant and turning slowly, even introverted, alternately reflecting light back and turning dark.

Anonymous Woman 39 is black and white, though obviously blond, well turned-out, self-contained: a full head of coiffed, wavy hair, a large pendant earring, bare shoulders, and a single eye, lid closed, not acknowledging the viewer, are all that remain. Sections of her face are cut away,with the remaining features set in front of a Gothic church’s vaulted ceiling. The perspective of the ceiling recedes at a steep angle down to the lower right; this sharp direction, and the sweep of the vault’s structure, rapidly propel her face to the foreground, stately and statuesque as if carved and classic. Just around and below the shoulders, the lowest part of the woman’s depicted body, the photo is raggedly torn rather than cut, revealing the white paper beneath the printed surface, as if the soft chiseled edges of a marble bust. She is exalted in her setting, yet strangely indifferent, perhaps even aware she’s not who she is held up to be.

The theme of anonymous women is, no pun intended, well known:

  • In A Room of One’s Own, 1929, Virginia Woolf wrote, "I would venture to guess than Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman[5]."
  • First published in 1979, Mirra Bank and Phyllis Rose’s Anonymous Was a Woman: A Celebration in Words and Images of Traditional American Art and the Women Who Made It is a "…collection of American folk art by "ordinary" women of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries…" such as, "…samplers, quilts, paintings, and needle-pictures along with excerpts from diaries and letters, sampler verse, books, and magazines of the period…[6]"
  • The Anonymous Was A Woman Award provides unrestricted grants of $25,000 that enable, "women artists, over 45 years of age and at a critical juncture in their lives or careers, to continue to grow and pursue their work[7]."
  • A collage titled Anonymous Was A Woman by Miriam Shapiro, 1976, is in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum[8].
Lake has said about making collages over the years, "Because it was so personal and often private, it could survive. And because it often was not shown, it became even more personal[9]." And because they became more personal they gathered power over time through practice and persistence. Though more visible, Lake’s Anonymous Women still remain unknown as individuals, yet through her art we examine and think of ways to dismantle the mechanisms that have made them anonymous.


Chris Ashley
Oakland, CA
October 2012

[1] Public Broadcasting System. History of Photography. 2008. October 1, 2012

[2] Lake, Eva. Photomontage: Eva Lake/ 1978 – 2012. October 1, 2012

[3] Wikipedia. DIY ethic. October 1, 2012

[4] David Ensminger. The Center for Punk Arts. October 1, 2012

[5] Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. 1929. October 1, 2012

[6] Bank, Mirra. Anonymous Was a Woman: A Celebration in Words and Images of Traditional American Art and the Women Who Made It. 1995. St. Martin’s Griffin October 1, 2012

[7] Anonymous Was a Woman. October 1, 2012

[8] Shapiro, Miriam. Anonymous Was a Woman. 1976. October 1, 2012

[9] Ibid.


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Daniel Levine: “Marker” at Some Walls, Oakland

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Daniel Levine: “Marker,” at Some Walls, Oakland, July 1- August 26, 2012.

Daniel Levine: “Untitled #1,” 2011-2012, oil on cotton, 9″ x 8-13/16″

Daniel Levine has made a lot of white (and other color) paintings over the past couple of decades.

Youthful memory: the first time some jerk, upon overhearing talk about abstract painting, held up a blank sheet of paper and jokingly claimed, "Look, it’s a landscape in a snowstorm." Haven’t we all heard this one? It wasn’t funny then, and it hasn’t improved with age. Tell that one to Camille Pisarro[1].

But still, what is it about abstract painting reduced to a (almost) single color, small in size, with exposed canvas and a relatively thin surface?

In an interview with John Zinsser in NY Arts Magazine, Levine answers, "…my paintings aren’t as "outwardly friendly" as yours are. You’re the "friendly" abstract painter – the "A" side of a great single; I’m the "B" side, in a minor key[2]."

The minor key is of course often thought to evoke a sad or blue edge in music; this isn’t 100% true, and in some non-Western cultures definitely not the case, but generally this notion otherwise applies. The minor key doesn’t call attention to itself; it’s content to take a back seat, to deliver the goods on the sly, to engage the listener more contemplatively. For example, in the rock genre, think of The Beatles’ "Eleanor Rigby," or Bob Dylans’s "All Along the Watchtower," or Neil Young’s "Like a Hurricane": all of these songs have a slightly ominous, distant feel, as if holding back a bit and slowly building and unfolding. Not many great rock albums try to grab the reader with a first track song in a minor key. The sound and message may ultimately be no less momentous or epic than a typical I, IV, V three major chord head-nodding, toe-tapping basher, but it’s a lot less in your face, and invites a less visceral and more sensitive physical and emotional engagement requiring the listener’s awareness, observations, and reflection.

Daniel Levine’s paintings might also be called "low key."

Information, observations, thoughts:

  • Five painting’s, sent from Manhattan to Oakland for this exhibition, hang in a single row on a wall: Welcome to California!
  • They are dated 1991, 1997, 2000, 2004-2006, and 2011-2012; many have lists of dates handwritten on the back recording successive work sessions.
  • They are: acrylic and ink on cotton over panel (1991); gouache on cotton over panel (2000); and oil on cotton over panel (1997, 2004-2006, 2011-2012).
  • The cotton used in each is often a slightly different color from the others, and of a looser or tighter weave.
  • The smallest is 8-15/16 x 8-3/4 inches, and the largest is 12 x 11-7/8 inches; all are close-to-square vertical rectangles.
  • Each are stretched over panels of different depths, with thinner or thicker profiles that are closer to or further from the wall.
  • Some are noticeably painted with brushes, others are very smooth; some looked rolled or scraped, many are made by pressing a loose piece of canvas into wet paint and transferring the paint to the painting in progress, layer after layer.
  • Surfaces vary from matte to shiny, thick to thin, pristine to crackly.
  • Prior to painting, each canvas is taped about one eighth or one quarter of an inch in from all four outer edges, creating a border of exposed fabric around the inner painted plane that, once the tape is removed, sits physically on the canvas’s surface; just a thought: it’s as if the rotated square in Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: White on White is pulled out of the painting, adjusted and straightened, and repositioned squarely in a shift from painted picture to painted surface.
  • Each painted rectangle is unique but bears a family resemblance, the white crisp-edged rectangle’s precise presence an update to the stenciled hands at Lascaux and Altamira.

One might say that all of these paintings are white, but to say that they are simply "white" is misleading. While in Western culture white often represents purity or innocence, in Asian, Slavic, and ancient Egyptian cultures white represents death. Can any color other than black be this extreme? White light is the effect of combining the visible colors of light in suitable proportions—it is everything, but white paint can’t comprise the suitable proportions of light. Picture any of these:

  • Artist’s colors: Chinese, Cremnitz, Flake, Foundation, Lead, Radiant, Safflower, Titanium, Transparent, Zinc.
  • Decorator colors: Ghost white, Snow Ivory, Seashell, Cornsilk, Old lace, Cream, Beige, Linen, Antique white, Champagne, Eggshell, Bone, Vanilla, Navajo white, Ecru.

These color names telegraph difference. Although for convenience sake Levine’s paintings might be called monochromes, as they tend towards Monochrome Painting, let’s not choose convenience. Let’s say that Levine’s paintings are not reductions from or to anything, not representations of anything but simply themselves, works made by an artist from skeleton to skin, packed with tissues and organs of material and touch, and invested with the breath and fluid of idea, intention, and process, all the essentials any painting needs.

Levine’s paintings are not programmed or artificial; there is no sameness here, no production. He cannot be accused of enacting the quote often attributed to Albert Einstein: "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Instead, they seem as natural and new as each full moon.

To make a painting is to want something new to look at; painting is, by definition, difference. Levine’s paintings exploit convention—rectangle, paint, surface, wall—and embody determination, even perhaps orneriness—sleight-handed repetition, subtle variations, long distance perseverance and endurance. In Levine’s work are found the pleasures of making and looking, of realization and surprise.

What is for the viewer? A painting must be visual, a thing worth looking at, and it must be conceptual, a thing worth thinking about. A work of art is evidence of the artist’s values. In Levine’s case there is craft, care, attention to detail, patience, and nuance. They are physical and delicate, matter of fact and intimate. Small differences loudly resound. White offers fullness and a sense of light and presence, not void. The artist risks our time and indulgence, a request worth meeting; the empathic viewer will participate, but no matter, the paintings continue to be made and to exist. This is what the artist does, to which he bears witness, and which in turn is witnessed. As an object, a picture, and an idea, the painting is something to be looked at and to be held in the mind, in the present and as a memory. What Levine makes and presents seems to follow naturally, to make sense, to seem intuitively clear and logical, to be part of living activity.

In Alexander Pope’s (1688–1744) An Essay on Criticism[3], written in 1709 and first published in 1711, we find fair guidance for the artist and how to look at his work, in that Levine follows the nature of light, the qualities of paint, the paths of process, and the hints of direction that longevity, making, and long looking open and indicate. As when looking at a painting, one must slow down to read:

First follow NATURE, and your Judgment frame
By her just Standard, which is still the same:
Unerring Nature, still divinely bright,
One clear, unchang’d and Universal Light,
Life, Force, and Beauty, must to all impart,
At once the Source, and End, and Test of Art.
Art from that Fund each just Supply provides,
Works without Show, and without Pomp presides:
In some fair Body thus th’ informing Soul
With Spirits feeds, with Vigour fills the whole,
Each Motion guides, and ev’ry Nerve sustains;
It self unseen, but in th’ Effects, remains.

Chris Ashley
Oakland, CA
July, 2012

  1. Pisarro, Camille. The Louvre under Snow. National Gallery, London (July 3, 2012)
  2. Zinsser, John. In Conversation: John Zinsser Interviews Daniel Levine. NY Arts Magazine. 2012. (June 15, 2012)
  3. Pope, Alexander. An Essay on Criticism. 1709. (June 20, 2012)

Lisa Rock & Sam Carr-Prindle: “Splitting Image”

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Lisa Rock & Sam Carr-Prindle: “Splitting Image” at Some Walls, Oakland, April 7, 2012 – May 27, 2012

Lisa Rock and Sam Carr-Prindle are painters with separate studio practices who also share an ongoing collaboration in which both make paintings based on a non-representational drawing or collage either of the artists produces and both agree to work with. While the resulting paintings, which would commonly be labeled abstract, share certain characteristics—image, shape, color—each artist inevitably applies her or his own sensibility and touch to the painting’s process, surface, and edge; the resulting works aren’t duplicates or copies, but rather something more like fraternal twins. Since the paintings produced are based on a shared source, they are not really abstract but are closer to representational, though they are not attempts at reproduction or realism; that is, both artists work from the same given source, and each painting attempts a translation, interpretation, or painted representation that resembles, but doesn’t reproduce, the source.

It’s not uncommon for artists to work from the same source at the same time; anyone who has worked from a model or still life in a studio, or has ventured en plein air and shared a landscape, knows this. But it’s much less common—in fact, surprisingly, no precedent comes to mind—for two abstract painters to share an absolute, single source in order to each produce an independent painting. Certainly, there are many artists who produce paintings that share certain characteristics and imagery with those made by others, though this is more in the realm of influence and emulation. But to intentionally share the same source, as Rock and Carr-Prindle do, is unique.

There are of course precedents for duplication, but these are quite different from Rock’s and Carr-Prindle’s case. For example, Robert Rauschenberg’s well-known pair of nearly-twin 1957 combine paintings, Factum I and Factum II, are of course produced by the same hand. Bernard Piffaretti makes abstract paintings that are divided down the middle; on one side he makes a painting, usually rather gestural, and then does his best to duplicate it on the other half of the canvas. This approach allows him to paint just about anything he wants, since his art’s main idea is based on replication and its success or failure, not in the single image. Of course, there are many examples in history of painted copies, some by students or apprentices in workshops or studios, and some by the original artist; Clyfford Still painted copies of his own work, and Giorgio de Chirico is know for practically cannibalizing is oeurve, but an extreme example is now known from the recent revelations about how the Prado Museum’s copy of the Mona Lisa was likely made by someone working next to and following Leonardo’s process during the making of the original. In painting, however, given the variation in medium, tools, and individual ability, we will never see the level of literary replication achieved in the version of Don Quixote produced by Jorge Luis Borge’s character Pierre Menard.

The pairs of paintings by Rock and Carr-Prindle under discussion are actually quite different from each other, similar to how various musicians or singers will cover the same song differently; consider the differences in texture and impact of Buddy Holly’s recording of his song Not Fade Away against The Rolling Stones’ version. Rock’s touch is painterly, with brush strokes and soft edges, and her layers of paint and buildup of strokes show her in search of the image, drawing in mass and shape. Carr-Prindle’s paint is even and flatter with firmer edges, and his process is more premeditated with a graphic-like quality. Seen together, the different approaches are striking. Rock’s version of Happy Recalcitrant contains a shimmery, blurry field of indeterminate depth on which a shaky, two-fingered, yellow armature is improvised and leaned together, while Carr-Prindle’s presents a precisely constructed and stable version of the yellow armature on an even, gray field. In Untitled (pink), Rock’s stack of multi-colored, boulder-like shapes settles into a somewhat expected and believable feeling of pictorial form and gravity, yet the sense of space and layers of Carr-Prindle’s stark, planar, silhouetted shapes, though crisp and orderly, is ambiguous and unsettled. Family resemblance compels comparison and contrast. An initial sense of sameness turns to close looking and double takes. An uncanny, resonating twinness gives way to strange yet significant difference, ultimately revealing each work’s individuality. We find that a common source does not lead to a common art work.

Within the project’s context, and during simultaneous exhibition, the finished pair of paintings give rise to a number of interesting ideas about artistic production, originality, quality, and cooperation.

For example, consider an artist’s search for imagery and subject matter: Which matters more, what one paints, or how one paints it? Is one idea or image as good as another? How much do artists trade in ideas or images, and what is the balance of the two? If an artist’s focus is on ideas then perhaps how it’s expressed or communicated—painted, printed, projected still or moving, performed, or using words—matters less. If the artist is a painter, and that medium is primary to the artist’s work, aren’t ideas ultimately in the paint? Willem de Kooning, whose work shuttled back and forth between abstraction and figuration, said, "In art, one idea is as good as another," and also, "It’s really absurd to make… a human image, with paint, today, when you think about it… But then all of a sudden, it was even more absurd not to do it." In other words, why shouldn’t a painter do this or that, and remain flexible and adaptable and open to suggestion?

The conditions of Rock’s and Carr-Prindle’s collaboration questions notions of originality and authenticity: What does it mean for artists to share and copy a common image? Although artists want to claim originality, most ideas and images are received, so given one or the other the artist will typically attempt to make it one’s own. Personal taste, sensibility, age, ability and other factors will affect the use of an image or idea and contribute to meaning, so the place of idea and image may be secondary to medium. Artists can’t always identify or control their work’s ultimate and various subjects, content, or meaning, and in the long run they can’t control their work’s relationship to that of other artists. Art’s use and standing is arguable, fluid, and mutable. Art operates in the domain of openness and arbitrariness, social situations and influence, accident and reaction, reflection and iteration, and even the absence of choice. Overarching intention can shut down dialogue; instead, honest, unconditional, and agreeable exchange can extend art’s reach, touch, affect, influence, and communication. Rock and Carr-Prindle confront this head on by accepting idea, sharing image, and focusing on painting. Evidenced by their individual and collaborative work, both artists here maintain a high degree of exploration,

Given two contemporary paintings based on the same image, how do we know which is the better painting, especially when each artist has a different material approach? Perhaps it comes down to personal taste: one viewer likes brushwork and more paint, and another prefers a flatter, cooler approach. It’s likely that these two collaborating artists don’t even think competitively; there is no race to be best. In the project considered here, judgment of aesthetic quality and success is circumvented and suspended, instead turning assessment into a case of difference—each artist’s performance and production—and dependence—the similarity of works by two artists hanging in proximity, establishing affinity, gurgling individuality, co-exiting peacefully. This is an interesting and potentially fortunate situation in which an artist can operate: making and exhibiting one’s work within a context where failure is moot and dynamic exchange is long as the two works are exhibited simultaneously. Recognition that the artists have cooperatively exercised conceptual foresight and providencethat ensures meaning and life for their art is compelling, even if unplanned.

Lisa Rock’s and Sam Carr-Prindle’s joint project is a demonstration of friendship, trust, and generosity. For many, and perhaps especially artists, setting aside one’s specific interests and direction to work collaboratively is not easy; the idea of collaboration is a sign of rapport, but the continued act itself is unselfish. The context in which these two artists have chosen to operate beyond individual studio work locates social acts within art. Engagement in joint process, production, and exhibition is an affirmation of alliance and solidarity, empathy and support, commitment and reliability.

Chris Ashley
Oakland, CA
April, 2012

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