At the end of the twentieth century, discussing contemporary art in relation to formalism is tricky business. Too often, formalism as a term has been used in an almost synonymous pairing with modernism, despite the fact that the former doesn’t necessarily imply the latter and the latter has only in certain instances involved the former. Nonetheless, in a cultural climate that has been described as “postmodern” with increasing frequency since the discourse surrounding postmodernity began to solidify in the 1960s, to link contemporary work with any term that might in turn be linked to modernism is to risk labeling the work as a throwback to a practice or aesthetic now outdated, passed by, or discredited.
I can recall more than a few art-school conversations with individuals staunchly offering unsolicited evidence as to how their ideas or practices were clearly postmodernist while pointing out how the ideas or practices of others were clearly modernist and thus behind the times and not worthy of attention. Accompanying this way of thinking and talking was a general aversion to using any aesthetic cues that might cause a viewer to associate the work with modernist precedents (particularly geometric abstraction, abstract expressionism, color field painting, post-painterly abstraction and any other variable subcategories that might fall into the broader category of mid-twentieth-century formalist art) unless such cues were served up with a smothering dose of irony.
There are many versions and manifestations of modernism. For the purposes of this essay, however, I would like to focus on modernism as manifested in the emphasis on an investigation of form initially fostered by critics like Roger Fry and Clive Bell in their writings about the Post-Impressionists. This emphasis later became, for a time, the closest thing we’ve ever had to a sort of monotheism of art theory in Clement Greenberg’s exaltations of nonobjectivity and the pursuit of purity in the abstract painting of the late 40s and 50s, a variation of which was championed in Michael Fried’s writings about abstract painting in the 60s. I focus on this notion of modernism because it seems to be that which sticks in the mind when modernism is mentioned relative to art, and because it burdened formalist art with the
heavy and conflicted role of trying to be simultaneously both the ultimate goal of art and the next new thing in art. It is also the kind of modernism which seems most commonly and conveniently referenced in discussions of postmodernism in art.
Postmodernism also has many definitions and manifestations, but I choose to think of postmodernism as an understanding that we presently live and operate in postmodernity—a climate or condition characterized by what Jean François Lyotard called, “incredulity towards meta-narratives,” or to paraphrase, by a reluctance to swallow sweeping, overarching arguments or explanations, which Lyotard also called “grand narratives.” In art, this condition has involved skepticism towards or reconsideration of a broad range of heretofore largely unquestioned narratives: the unitary and linear development of art history, the genius status of the author, the possibility of an ongoing radical avant-garde, and the primacy of formalism advocated by Greenberg. The positive aspects of postmodernity have included a reduction in the pressure on artists to pursue the “radically new” rather than the genuinely interesting; the beginnings of a more open, inclusive climate in the arts; and the possibility of a diverse range of investigations into medium, form, style, content, and opinion. The downside is that postmodernity, which to me makes sense as a condition, has been mistaken either as the next new style (which goes against the whole idea of doubting the possibility of any one dominant approach) or simply a backlash against modernism and thus a backlash against formalism.
In actuality, postmodernity allows for the investigation of any approach or multiple approaches to making art, and merely entails a doubt that any one approach can or should be regarded as dominant or legitimate above all others. Thus, while postmodernity would involve a reluctance to believe that, as Greenberg argued, an investigation of and emphasis on form is the highest pursuit in art, it certainly allows for the formalist endeavor as an option as valid as any other. It seems to me that this possibility—that while formalism no longer serves as the flagship of modernism, it can still be an interesting area of inquiry in a leveled postmodern artistic field—is something that has been recognized by artists faster than we writers and curators, who by nature are less in the business of envisioning as in the habit of seeing before believing. Thus, there has been what would seem an outbreak of work involving overtly formal concerns (often in conjunction with other concerns, as artists interested in form are not limited by pro-purity dogma from straying into other areas of investigation), though what would seem an outbreak is more realistically only formalism reclaiming a place in the expanded field of artistic practice.
The reinjection of formalist concerns in art—which is really more of a reinjection of interest in formalist concerns in the art market, exhibition circuit and published discourse, as plenty of artists have been making formally concerned work all along—has occurred simultaneously with emerging discourses about two “returns” in art: the return to an emphasis on beauty and the return to an emphasis on refined craft. These discourses have helped to reintroduce, among other categories of practice, formalism in a sort of backdoor manner. They allow us to talk about formalism in a limited way without ever having to dwell on a connection to modernism. The limitation that comes along with this dance of language, however, is that it tends to privilege particular types of formalist investigation over others which might be interesting, provocative and visually engaging but not necessarily focused on issues of beauty or technical refinement. It seems to me that we need to broaden this discussion. We need to say the “F” word, formalism, and we need to understand, value and question the development of formalism in connection to modernism while also allowing ourselves the freedom to consider them separately. We need to consider the possibility of a postmodern formalism—a formalism that can exist on its own terms, even question and stretch its own terms, that isn’t duty-bound to pursue purity or beauty, and that can connect with other concerns beyond the formal.
A Part to the Whole is an exhibition of works that I consider to involve formal concerns on an obvious level. I emphasize that this is an exhibition of works because I do not wish to pigeonhole the artists; rather, I want to focus on particular products and aspects of their creative activity. I also emphasize that the these works involve formal concerns, but are not strictly formal. Particularly, these are all works that were built, either physically or pictorially, out of parts. In many cases, the works are constructed according to a modular program or a grid, which has been identified as a hallmark of much modernist painting, sculpture and design. But I would argue that a grid or modular system is simply a way of organizing form, and so through the connection between formalism and modernism, there is a connection between these means of organization and modernism. I do not, however, regard these works as modernist or even late-modernist. On the contrary, I regard them as postmodernist in that they were made in a time when modernist rhetoric can not be relied upon to validate them, and they involve a consideration of form in combination with a scrutiny of a variety of other concerns, the mingling of which only a postmodern condition and approach can accommodate.
More than just bringing together works made of components, A Part to the Whole brings together works in which the status of parts as parts is not hidden, but made obvious, even emphasized, in the completion of the whole. Yet it is the completion of the whole, rather than individual relations between parts, that remains an apparent goal. In other words, in making selections for this exhibition, I wasn’t looking for work in which I saw fragmentation offered in the service of illustrating fragmentation, nor was I looking for the old idea of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. I was looking for work where the whole and the parts were truly as great as one another. This is a shared quality among the work in this exhibition, which initially occurred to some of the artists, who then, with Gordon Fuglie, the Director of the Laband Art Gallery, asked me to select the work for the exhibition and provide a context, which I hope this essay begins to offer. This exhibition is not intended as evidence of a movement, group or trend, but rather as an opportunity to examine how, in some of their works, six artists have negotiated a particular way of working.
I decided to avoid trying to present some sort of point-by-point comparison between the artists (sewing them up into a tidy package in which their works become conveniently indistinguishable in print though clearly and more interestingly distinguishable on the wall), as such an approach seemed both false and against the spirit of an exhibition which for me has become so much about understanding the integrity of parts within a whole. What follows are notes about a way or two of approaching works by each of the artists in this exhibition. Some of these approaches are geared more toward material, some toward composition, some toward representational issues. It should be emphasized that these are some approaches, or some ways which seemed appropriate to this show, but the works of each of these artists hold up under consideration in more ways and from more approaches than those introduced in this text.
If there is any artist I have come across recently who deeply understands a particular quality of a part, it would be Steve DeGroodt, and that quality would be potential. In the creation of any whole, parts must be considered for inclusion, and those selected more often than not would be those perceived as having the most potential when combined with other equally promising parts to generate a desired whole. This approach may be quite appropriate for fixing a bicycle or building a house, but in the making of art, the idea of a successful whole need not necessarily be present at the beginning. For the artist, the potential of a part might only be seen relative to the part itself, or relative to other parts. I was already familiar with DeGroodt’s work, and thinking about it from the perspective of this exhibition allowed me to articulate an aspect of the work that I had only sensed previously. I had always been surprised by the finished pieces, or wholes, that DeGroodt was able to create from materials that seemed lacking of any potential. A cardboard box can be a found form. A scrap of fabric is seen as a color coating. Multiples of the most ordinary things combine to become pattern. What I have realized is that DeGroodt makes works, wholes, that are indeed as great as the sum of their parts because he is able to see in a part greatness that I couldn’t have seen in an afternoon of staring. DeGroodt is able, and just as importantly willing, to view parts for their potential in possible wholes rather than in specific wholes, and the results involve composite forms that are visually elegant and material combinations that are poetically eloquent.
In Joan Kahn’s paintings, with the exception of subtle variations in thickness and the selective mixing of sand into the paint, hard geometric compositions exist within layers of pigment on a single, uninterrupted plane. The parts or fragments in Kahn’s works are thus pictorial rather than physical, which makes sense, as a core area of exploration in her work is how a collection of visual parts forms a painting. Though functioning on one level as a purely flat, formal arrangement of interlocking, complex shapes composed of straight edges and right angles, Kahn’s works begin to appear as sets of relationships between overlapping, rectilinear parts. In fact, all of the shapes in her recent works could be interpreted as the product of rectangles of the same color overlapping to create new shapes, or rectangles of different colors overlapping and thus modifying the shapes of one another in a negotiation of positive and negative space. In addition to allowing Kahn to “build” a composition, this approach also begins to imply illusionistic depth. Thus her paintings might be viewed as falling between pure abstraction and illusionism, and it is in this between state that the relationship of parts and wholes becomes most interesting. Through the color, scale, proportion, arrangement and texture of these parts, the paintings invite viewers to make associations as to what type of space could be depicted—landscape, architecture, combinations of landscape and architecture, interior/exterior, etc. It is in ascertaining such a sense of space that the viewer then reaffirms the identification of the parts. Thus part and whole are consistently and increasingly comprehended in light of one another.
Nancy Monk’s small, delicate and intimate works, which are not painted photographs so much as they are mergings of paintings and photographs, are both highly formal and playful. Beginning with black and white photographs of a wide range of subjects, Monk paints on top of the images. She does not tone, highlight or touch up as one might generally think of painting on a photo, but rather uses the composition of the image as a starting point for developing an overlaying composition in opaque acrylic. In so doing, Monk obscures much of the original visual information while isolating discrete parts amongst the newly added components in the whole photo/painting image. The results are pieces in which the relationships between parts of the photo are reshuffled. The flow of information is also rerouted, and the viewer left to ponder two wholes: the image that existed in the photograph prior to the addition of the paint, where one is also tempted to mentally reconstruct the original photo (it seems hard for the viewer to believe that the remaining photographic fragments could once have been part of the same image), and the new whole, in which parts of the photograph that once might have been deemed incidental now appear essential, taking on important formal relationships with the painted-in parts. Monk’s work thus involves a sense of both reward and frustration. One enjoys the revision while missing the original. Realizing that the artist made decisions to replace obscured parts of the photo with new painted parts in an effort to generate a more interesting whole in the end, one gains an awareness of the difficulty of choosing between one part and another to create a new whole while working within the limits of an earlier whole that no longer exists.
Laura Parker’s photographic works use ordered formal relationships between multiple images to explore photography’s capacity to pluck parts out of wholes and define them as new wholes in themselves. In any given photograph, what the viewer sees—what is framed by the photographer within the lens and might later be further cropped in the darkroom, let alone edited or manipulated—is a part of a broader whole from which it came, subsequently offered to the viewer at the exclusion of other parts of a scene that once surrounded it. The “slice of life” is exactly what the photograph becomes, a fragment of a larger picture both literally and metaphorically, and yet for the viewer, this fragment often becomes a new whole, or a the new “big picture” in itself, a seemingly closed, finite collection of visual information. In combining multiple images involving different subjects and variations in lighting, focus, circumstance and color, Parker reemphasizes the status of each as a fragment from a larger whole and also generates new wholes, quite literally new sums of parts for her viewers to add up for themselves. This addition can take place on a variety of levels, from the purely formal, in which even the most charged images can deny their loaded quality in favor of a supporting role in a larger composition, to the poetic and even the self-reflexive and critical. Parker’s works invite questioning, as they make explicit the severing of information that comes with the fragmentary while depending on such disconnection to create new connections in her pieced-together narratives. Curiously, by emphasizing the fragmentary nature of her image-parts, Parker allows them to function like representatives of unseen constituencies, encouraging the viewer to conjure the whole from which the parts came, thus allowing the new wholes she creates to invite a broad range of association.
Carolie Parker-Lopez makes visually clear that her works are made of parts. Images become like building blocks or basic units, sometimes laid out adjacent to one another on the same sheet, or placed individually on separate pieces of the roofing material on which she draws in pastel. These image-parts are consistently arranged in strict, ordered relationships along vertical and horizontal axes—left and right, top and bottom, stacked in a column, spread out in a row, or arranged in a grid or table. Parker-Lopez frequently uses images that suggest a reality mitigated and perhaps perverted by pop culture—fantastic topiary gardens, scenes outlined in what looks like pixie dust or lights from the Disneyland Electrical Parade, images reduced to caricatural or iconic abbreviations. In combining these images, and in repeating them in subtle variations to build toward wholes, the artist produces finished works that suggest a world in which understanding depends upon multiple impacts of images repeated and served in a variety of flavors, so to speak. The overt compartmentalization of imagery emphasizes the nature of the works as wholes made of individual parts, but it is the selection of specific parts, the relationships established between them, and the artist’s keen play with the idea of variations on a theme that leave the viewer with questions as to how whole ideas or messages are formed within culture. How does an image mean more when presented in two different colors, in positive and negative, reflected not once, but three times, or in combination with other images? How does a multiplicity of fragments offer a sense of wholeness? How might parts of fictions add up to a construction of a whole truth?
If the dry, gritty, hard surfaces of Danny Shain’s paintings call to mind a road construction zone, then one is near the mark. In fact, the great variety of marks, patterns and scorings on street surfaces, be they deliberately designed stripes, functionally necessitated grooves or joints in the pavement, or serendipitous results of material spills, patches or wear and tear—all provide a formative influence on Shain’s work. While his more recent paintings and collages seem less specifically referential to road layers, they maintain a clear connection to the way surfaces come together in an urban environment. Sometimes spanning across the multiple panels that make up any one of Shain’s paintings, and in other instances stopping dead at the edges where the panels butt up to one another, the surfaces converge to echo the way stucco wall meets concrete driveway, asphalt street and parched earth; or the way in which multiple alterations to a road—with old lines and markings interrupted in some places where pavement has been cut out and filled in and new lines bridging over multiple patches—create dense geometric abstractions. The multiple panels, all encrusted with a mixture of acrylic paint and a concrete-like patching material called Fixall, provide a physical metaphor for the way the urban scape is fabricated and mutated around us, sometimes in a seemingly planned fashion, sometimes in awkward grafts and splices. Somewhere between abstractions and very pared-down representations, Shain’s paintings, quite literally constructed out of their varied parts, generate a wide range of relationships between parts from harmony to near noise, while offering amalgamated wholes with an equally wide range of resonance.
a closing comment
If we think of each of the artists in this exhibition as a part in a whole, then, as I have suggested for the works themselves, we might consider the whole not as being greater, but as being as great as the sum of the parts. If we are to think of the six offerings of work in this exhibition as six parts to a whole, then going by what I consider to be the greatness of that whole, I would have to measure the parts as great indeed. If I might, even if only in my own head, allow myself to ride for a bit on the coattails of their work, as the curator and essayist always does, I would like to count myself in the company of these artists by considering this text at least as a small seventh part.