Jean Alexander Frater: Painting Between the Means at Guest Spot by Joseph Shaikewitz
Something unfamiliar happened as I roamed the domestic interior of Guest Spot—the site of Chicago-based artist Jean Alexander Frater’s current exhibition, Painting Between the Means. Comprised of eleven paintings (to use the term rather generally), Frater’s show demonstrates an assured formal continuity yet teeters on conceptually sporadic. Typically, I experience a body of work and walk away with a feeling of keen wholeness where moments spent before numerous artworks coalesce into a satisfying gestalt. What happens in the midst of Frater’s exhibition is something quite different.
Walking from painting to painting, stepping back and assessing the whole, and returning to examine its constituent parts, my thoughts wander freely and in surprisingly disparate directions. The associations that I make with one work are distinct to that meeting and I launch into a completely separate series of thoughts as I continue onwards to mentally unpack the next piece. Where I’ve grown accustomed to identifying an art historical or phenomenological or personal thread that I follow over the course of an exhibition, here the associations are both numerous and divergent. Each piece functions as a rogue player in a largely discursive system, prompting ample ruminations that feel unique and independent from the others. It’s a contemplative whirlwind of ideas that at its best exhilarates and at its most potent overwhelms.
Across a curatorial and artist statement, Painting Between the Means touts itself as an investigation of technology’s displacement of the gaze: we fixate on digital displays between our hands, on our desks, and in our homes, purportedly leaving much of a lived experience to be overlooked in the process. Frater appears to emulate this paradigmatic shift with cyclonic patterns, undulating swaths of canvas, and forms that actively reject the illusionistic tradition of the picture plane. However, abstraction is a particularly difficult envoy to communicate calculated social ideologies to a viewer. The act of translating screen culture to the picture plane constitutes an ambitious undertaking, but it is ultimately one that emerges most lucidly through secondary writing on Frater’s work as opposed to inherent allusions embedded in the works themselves.
Alternatively, I wish to propose, this exhibition offers a specifically psychological and personal account of the artist’s outlook on shifting temporalities, immersive technologies, and the spectator’s increasingly subservient role in dismantling the tightened grip of mediated experience. These notions in particular represent one of the few ways in which I’ve been able to grapple with Frater’s work and an experience that otherwise sends me (and my thoughts) adrift.
A large canvas titled “Yellow to Red grid” (2014) is one such work that establishes a sense of rapt bemusement. The work’s eponymous pattern forms the basis of the image, presenting a gradient of vertical bars that steadily shift inwards from yellow to red. Pale yellow bands sit horizontally atop the chromatic spectrum to create a checkered design that revels in its sheer optical effect. A chain-link fence motif flatly superimposes this image. Rendered in thinned black acrylic, the design simultaneously responds to the arrangement that it overlays and distances the viewer as an outsider to the visual pleasure of the near-optical illusion beneath it.
The discrete layering of temporalities through pronounced distinctions in the strata of marks, in part, hints at Frater’s attitudes towards the relationship between the refined opticality of the background and the evident handiwork in the fore. The fluctuating grid of reds and oranges and yellows recalls the prevalent aesthetic tendencies of the mid-late 20th-century with artists from across the Western canon—including, notably, Josef Albers, Ernest Trova, Bridget Riley, and Herbert Bayer—forging hard-edged, saturated images of absolute visual complexity.
Where “Yellow to Red grid” flourishes is in the dripping, dark lines that act as retroactive musings on the capacity of these minimal and at times decorative marks of the past to carry forth a vision par excellence. They appear to challenge the simple visual appeal of a chromatic grid and instead insert subjectivity into the succinctness of the design, virtually with the formal qualities of Surrealist automatisim or even Rorschach’s inkblot tests. The effect is astutely palimpsestic with the dark mesh of dribbling lines overwriting and complicating the simplicity that it flatly obscures. Moreover, by stymying the viewer from fully accessing the brightly colored forms of the background, Frater dismantles the peering gaze of the spectator; what was once welcome and benign is now piercing and estranged, an effect that pulls the viewer away from the picture plane and toward an inward consideration of the very act of looking.
Directly across the room, “Spiral squared to ground” (2015) furthers this personal dialogue through a distinctive set of allusive strategies. Cradled askew on the gallery floor by the excess of its surface material, the square canvas bears the mesmeric image of a black-and-white pattern spiraling into a deep, almost limitless space. The viewer is forced to look downwards onto the work in a very Hitchcockian moment of vertigo and suspended disbelief. Simple in premise, the piece is fraught with Frater’s interpretation of the resilience of virtual space.
The hypnotic illusion of the canvas here functions as a shorthand—albeit a rather undemanding one—for the allure of technology, its backlit screen, and its promise of interconnectivity, answers, and paradoxically, escape. What physically props up this idea and even tips it off-center into its dizzying effect is a wad of crumpled raw canvas—its own material form. As such, not only does Frater’s painted image reflect infinity, but so too does the self-replenishing, self-fulfilling support of the surplus canvas mass. How can we break free from the lure of technology when it has itself become an independent and irrepressible enterprise? Frater seems to pose such a question and the outlook is not favorable, as she too succumbs to engrossing visual imagery to divert the viewer’s gaze into a spiraling vortex of distraction masked as optical magnetism.
The force of folded canvas continues elsewhere in the exhibition, most notably within the picture plane of “Blue Squares soft folds” (2015) and the narrow standout “Gradient Stripes fold” (2015). In the latter, grayscale stripes are folded diagonally across a surface such that half of the creases, angled outward to one side, reveal the subtle gradient while the others are composed chiefly of negative space—sweeping waves of raw canvas. The stretcher bars are nearly engulfed by the sculptural pleats, which both soften the work’s edges and skew any sense of defined frontality. Instead, the viewer is required to shift vantage points in order to apprehend the image in any sort of whole.
The work ostensibly presents two perspectives to the spectator: one of a jumbled gradient and the other of a relatively clean slate. This duality forces a specifically corporeal investigation of the piece where viewers must eventually settle on one angle through which to frame their experience, lest they accept the work outside of this dichotomy and in a state of optical flux. This process of calibrating oneself to a set of images feels especially analogous to the act of finding oneself amidst increasingly immersive technological innovations. The body becomes secondary as altered states of vision take over as the primary means of experience. The result is a strange confounding of the familiar primacy of the body as it grounds lived experiences and—on the other, emerging end of the spectrum—the unearthly potential of new media, ideas, and perception. Frater smartly re-positions traditional theories of phenomenology as it succumbs to a virtual or even mediated reality and presents this condition through condensed and impactful forms.
Painting Beyond the Means is brimming with potential for a rich and thoughtful contemplation of many of the exhibition’s major themes, but this can quickly become onerous. Frater presents so many ideas throughout one confined space that her work begins to lose focus despite a strong thematic linchpin. Her interest in optical design wavers between formal, symbolic, and conceptual; color takes on visual or referential associations depending on the application; and the surface passes through a number of interventions that muddle the use of painting as the apt medium in the first place. To employ an admittedly dated metaphorical trope, the process of comprehending the exhibition is comparable to piecing together a jigsaw puzzle in which the pieces all fit, but each fragment brings with it an incongruous image.
Philosopher John Dewey provides the most cogent framework for how I’ve been able to fully shape my critique of this body of work. In his 1934 essay “Having an Experience”—a text which, for me personally, best articulates how I undergo aesthetic encounters–Dewey writes:
“Thinking goes on in trains of ideas, but the ideas form a train only because they are much more than what an analytic psychology calls ideas. They are phases, emotionally and practically distinguished, of a developing underlying quality; they are its moving variations, not separate and independent […] but are subtle shadings of a pervading and developing hue.”
What Dewey describes as a “pervading and developing hue” is hard to track down across Frater’s work. However, I remain hesitant to classify this associative disjointedness as a fundamentally negative trait. I will contend that it diminishes the satisfaction that I find after viewing a conceptually uniform body of work, but perhaps this sense of fulfillment is selfish or at the least self-serving.
What Frater achieves here is dizzying, disorienting—a perhaps intentional effect akin to many of her visual motifs and formal interests. I’ve grown privy to this de-privileging of the viewer and our professed invitation as spectator in the work of artists including David Hammons, Hurvin Anderson, and Pierre Huyghe; however, in the case of Frater’s vertiginous nexus of ideas and forms, the pill is simply harder to swallow.
If Painting Beyond the Means professes to present the actual state of materiality when so much of our collective attention has turned toward the virtual, then perhaps the process of pinpointing what exactly takes place as a visitor to this exhibition must follow suit. Much like a derailed train, thoughts travel awry until the object itself feels like a mere conduit for philosophical reflection. But, at the risk of being overly generous, perhaps this is where Frater intends to lead us: a mode of experience where the physical and the familiar are eclipsed by the infinite possibilities of the new.
Author Joseph Shaikewitz is a Baltimore-based writer and curator from St. Louis, MO. He is the Gallery Manager at Hamiltonian Gallery in DC and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.
Images courtesy of the author and Guest Spot.