Cut, Copy, Paste: It’s Not What You Think at Terrault Contemporary by Malcolm Lomax
There is something to be said for an object that can exist in two phases at once, especially those whose materiality is associated with common and sometimes religious performative acts. This polymorphic potential steps up to another level in the two person show at Terrault Contemporary entitled Cut, Copy, Paste: It’s Not What You Think.
Artists Alex Ebstein and Leah Guadagnoli upend the traditional uses of industrial and everyday materials to bring a lightness and humor to various abstract styles while also managing to be critical of the politeness of traditional abstract visual communication. The show’s penchant for pulling disparate elements together is indicative of an investigative sense that builds ambiguity into the objects and holds fast to the motto: “It’s not what you think.”
Works by Guadagnoli perform stylistic time jumps to the 1980s while maintaining an adherence to geometric formalist principles while Ebstein combines aquatic themed iconography with yoga mats, bringing the works into dialogue with beach art, home decor, and the constantly changing tastes inherent in consumer culture. Navigating non-traditional materials and employing them like painters, both artists nimbly bob and weave through image and object, center and frame, corporeal and cerebral to come out with pieces where the parts supersede the whole.
While grappling with the use of alternative processes and materials, like crusty terra cotta, commercial fabric, and yoga mats, the artists arrive at objects that perform in the guise of paintings. These are combinations that are typically vibrant in color, graphic in nature, and harmoniously composed. However, the object’s aesthetic function is at odds with the ploy each of them are staging. In these seemingly decorative pieces, we notice the materials first. Ebstein uses wood, plexiglass, yoga mats, and aluminum to create flat planes of bold color while Guadagnoli employs fabrics, vinyl, acrylic, pumice stone, PVC and a vast array of assorted domestic and industrial materials that recall beachy peach 1980s decor. In both cases, the artists eschew traditional and esteemed fine art materials for the everyday, the industrial, the decorative, and the utilitarian.
The scale of the work as largish paintings and blithe stylistic choices places the viewer in conversations with seemingly innocuous images, where the ideas embedded are more dangerous than the objects on the surface present. Although they are colorful, unassuming objects that present themselves as paintings, when you realize their unconventional means and materials, they become insidious even at some points saccharine — acting as decoys for ‘fine art’ in order to question what that actually is and who gets to decide.
“Number 4 Song in Heaven,” Guadagnoli’s black and white gridded wall work, sets a tiled surface as its background with smaller gridded canvases adhered to the structure — made of acrylic, patterned vinyl, and fabric. When met with formal abstraction, it is of common practice to suggest what a work looks like or decode it’s elements of figuration. But in this case, there is more of a phenomenon of which I’m reminded — and it’s the camouflaging of cuttlefish, observed in tanks attempting to mimic their surroundings. Guadagnoli’s works have a disorienting effect because of the nature of their frame. The viewer is looking at a structure on the wall while simultaneously feeling that one is looking down at a table/floor or watching a tank from overhead.
With a combination of materials that suggest both Sci-Fi and kitsch furniture aesthetic referencing the Memphis Group, the tension generated in “Number 4’s” placement of the elements activates them. Disrupting the ground with framing elements to create feelings of hostility, Guadagnoli highlights the tension established amongst elements at odds stylistically with each other.
Similarly, in “Number 5 Song in Heaven” (vinyl, digital print on velvet, acrylic and pumice stone) the artist combines materials that retain their own properties. These materials are heterogeneous in nature with no attempt at synthesis, and the artist’s moves of making are quite visible; the parts themselves overshadow the whole. The rounded arches at the top of each and the work’s titles suggest the works as contemporary altarpieces, but without the religiosity — principally used as another structural device to reference both Medieval churches as well as McMansions.
In works like “Slick Rick II” and “The Last Eight Hours,” a monochrome palette and their sculptural leanings give them a deeper level of specificity than Guadagnoli’s other works. The dimensionality of these structures takes them out of the conversation of the image and illusion of depth; they stand alone as elegant formalist oddballs.
Ebstein’s works explore painting conventions and the body in it’s various iterations through the lens of art, and specifically painting’s, history. In her works the treatment of the figure is carried out in the form of yoga mats as surrogate for the body.
Obvious reference points for Ebstein are formal modernists like Matisse, Stuart Davis, and Hans Arp. However, her implementation of yoga mats (an object whose typical use takes the impressions of hands and feet while it’s being covered in sweat) as a medium and substitute for paint, allows us to have a conversation about the index. The use of the body indexically in works by artists like Jasper Johns and Yves Klein, where figures haunt a surface in paint or graphite are conventional artistic mediums and nod towards the absence of a figure.
Ebstein’s use of the yoga mat medium explores the figure in a nonconventional way — there in fact are no impressions, but a mental leap one must make to assume their presence. An even more distant set of references are the depictions of The Stations of the Cross, particularly The Deposition, where you see the trial and tribulation of a martyr’s body lyrically carried out over fourteen stages of a narrative.
These works, whether by Rogier van der Weyden, Pontormo, or Fra Angelico, deal with the corporeal presented by the vessel of Christ. This trifecta of painting’s history turns yoga as a practice centered around the body and the mind into a space where Ebstein has set up allusions of the spiritual, allusions to the body, and homage to absence.
The formal accuracy and conventionality of the pieces stage the works in such a way that they aren’t as much about what they look like but what they refer to — nodding to ideas more conceptual than aesthetic. In the work “Either With or Without You,” three shapes are placed from left to right scaling up in size, a conventional way of establishing depth.
Yet, something new is happening in “Wave Fans and Electric Eyelids,” through the attachment of aluminum forms on plexiglass, to create an actual layer of space and shadow — making the frame, the surface, and its figures more object than image. Yoga as a spiritual practice seems to be moved into the space of consumer product and becomes analogous to the way contemporary abstract painting is viewed, sold, and implemented in capitalist culture.
The collaborative wall work by both artists, a section of patterned wallpaper presented as a confetti backdrop made of vinyl stickers in primary colors, felt more decorative than conceptual. For me, it was fun but didn’t manifest some of the deepr ideas most pertinent to the works on display. It became to some degree a simplification of object/image/environment and betrayed some of the logic structure established in the show by maintaining its decorative nature without being critical of it. Yet, there is still potential for engagement here. The artists combined their iconography on the wall, creating a kind of key for all the forms utilized in the show, an allusion to the parts and symbols each of them used in the works on view.
While there is some implicit spiritual/religious association with titles like “Number 3 Song in Heaven” and the use of yoga mats as painterly surface and color, the rootedness in binaries and the performative potential of an object stays at the foreground of ideas presented here. Both artists use and repurpose objects with which culture has inscribed so many notions about how they should appear and how they should be read as paintings, and these objets insist on being considered differently.
Since the show highlights a wide range of disparate elements, styles, and approaches, it is essential to note the way a collage-oriented aesthetic is a contemporary mode of both forming identity and creating lifestyle. In their use of everyday modern materials, Ebstein and Guadagnoli establish tension in their anachronistic styles. These works suggest that the viewer can practice yoga, study religion, science, and artist history and can approach such endeavors light-heartedly or with serious precision.
Through their penchant for duality, the works embody a kind of code switching that’s central to a world saturated with media and technology. How do we perform for each other? How do we present ourselves? How do we not lose the core of who we are? These works are pleasant to look at, but more importantly, they push us to be nimble, to find more varied and nuanced ways to communicate.
Gallery Photos by Lauren Castellana
Cut, Copy, Paste. It’s Not What You Think: Alex Ebstein & Leah Guadagnoli is up through February 17, 2018 at Terrault Contemporary.