R. H. Quaytman: chapter 12: iamb at Miguel Abreu Gallery
December 14, 2008 to February 1, 2009
36 Orchard Street, between Canal and Hester streets
New York City, 212-995-1774
The motif of a reading light recurs in “chapter 12: iamb,” R. H. Quaytman’s rich and strange exhibition at Miguel Abreu Gallery. Indeed, the viewer’s tendency is to approach these dissimilar yet interrelated works textually, to pore over the smallish, reticent, meticulously crafted panels and puzzle out their collective meaning. The show’s title suggests that each work may be construed as a metrical foot of verse, making the assembled 14 the equivalent of a couplet in iambic heptameter. (For the record, here “chapter 12” refers not to bankruptcy but to the twelfth distinct body of work this accomplished, mid-career artist has to date produced.)
Formerly a director of the now defunct Lower East Side gallery, Orchard, Quaytman mainly works in a mode of painting/silkscreen hybrid, an at once middle-brow and mass-produced liminal form that is ideologically adrift between the elite and the unique in a way that recalls Warhol. The show quietly crackles with ideas about production; perception and legibility; the nature of the “image;” and the play between painterly and photographic values.
Retinal issues are aired in the very first painting the visitor encounters, the intriguingly contradictory Chapter 12: iamb (Fresnell lens). The image itself is a blur, a blue field faintly ruffled by pale streaks as wispy as cirrus clouds. Narrowly spaced, concentric rings, visible only at close range, impart an optical buzz; a corruscating coating of “diamond dust” (finely ground glass) refutes,in persistently material terms, the painting’s intimations of immateriality. Warhol comes to mind again, as the Prince of Pop added sparkle to his canvases with this stuff throughout the eighties. (Fans of the work of Rebecca Quaytman’s father, Harvey Quaytman, will recognize in this surface treatment’s tactility his masterful use of rust.) It also recalls the reflective, “night vision” treatment used on street signs and emergency workers’ gear. The painting confounds vision, yet its title refers to a 19th-century advance in lens technology that allowed light to be focused and projected — and perceived at great distances — as never before.
In five other, generally grainy photo-derived paintings, that ultrafunctional modernist reading light shines dutifully but inadequately on grid-based works, the originals of which hang nearby, as if to signal that a clear and cogent “reading” of these works is not going to be possible. With its hot glare and enveloping penumbra, the bulb provides either not enough illumination, or too much: we are blinded by the light. Linguistic and pictorial meaning may coexist but are of different species, sometimes of different orders. One painting here — among several titled simply Chaper 12: iamb — is one of the best ever to address the epic battle (or guerilla conflict) between painting and photography. In it, the gooseneck lamp, as ominous as the alien spaceship in War of the Worlds, casts its nasty glow on nearby, grisaille painting. A juicey, vertical, house-paintbrush-wide stroke of safety yellow partially obscures the image of the bulb, mimicking the sun flare of the camera’s lens or the video monitor’s feedback.
The superimposed stripe, which is both distinct from yet convincingly melded with the underlying photo, has a ghostly presence that recalls the heyday of “spirit” photography, when hoaxers (capitalizing on the layman’s unfamiliarity with double exposures) laid claim to the camera’s alleged ability to portray the invisible. In that form, a photograph’s pictorial, visual meanings were given over entirely to their anecdotal, evidentiary value.
This show divides into two classes: primary or source “Quaytmans,” and derivative works depicting those source works in situ. The source paintings are gorgeously impersonal: tight checkerboard grids suffused with whispering chroma (rose fading to mustard) or the subtlest of moiré patterns. The aspect ratio of many is derived from the Golden Section, the proportions the ancients took to possess divine harmony. Chapter 12: iamb (lateral inhibitions in the perceptual field) straightforwardly presents an optical illusion known as the “scintillating grid,” in which a white dot is placed at every intersection of a pale gray windowpane pattern on a black field. A dark afterimage eclipses every dot surrounding the one that the viewer happens to be looking at, a mildly maddening effect.
In a smaller painting derived from a photo of this work, the optical jitter survives. In this case, the camera doesn’t lie. The same source panelreappears, barely emerging from low-resolution shadows, in Chapter 12: iamb (blind smile) in which Dan Graham, mentor of the Orchard crowd and master of the two-way mirror, appears trance-like or in ecstacy as he beholds it. He is bathed in light, himself a “text;” we read his response. He luxuriates in the cascading photons, as if in a shower of gold. Or: he looks like an unkempt sage, Diogenes with his lantern. Or: a burly Lucia, patron saint of the sightless, whose eyes were gouged out, whose name means “light,” and whose attribute is a flickering lamp.