Seth Adelsberger's Border series featured at the BMA

Seth Adelsberger's Untitled (Border Painting) series featured in his solo show at the BMA. (Baltimore Museum Of Art / July 3, 2014)

When Seth Adelsberger speaks about his work, one gets the impression that he is madly in love with "painting" (the verb), but distrustful of "painting" (the noun). The act of creating a painting is undeniably pleasurable; there's a certain feeling of euphoric freedom that comes with smearing pigment and medium across a surface. The act of displaying a painting, however, is laden with a whole lot of baggage. As an art object, the painting is tethered to a seemingly bottomless pit of history, dredging the darkest corners of Western art's canon. The painting also exists in the plane of hyperconnected contemporary discourse. The painter is necessarily aware that his or her work functions as a thumbnail image in an endless Tumblr think piece about cultural hegemony, commodity, privilege, the market, the politics of representation, and all the post-Orientalist angst over the price of tea in China.

Adelsberger is uncommonly self-aware in his navigation of this paradox, and takes full advantage of the museum as context in exploring it. His Border Painting series riffs on the museum's collection of mid-century abstract expressionist works. The pieces are covered in an all-over abstract pattern of impasto brush strokes. They're somewhat evocative of a used palette one might encounter in a studio, but the strokes and distribution of color are homogenized like a wallpaper or upholstery print. The center of the canvases is cut out, further solidifying the association with decoration by reducing the abstract painting to a frame reminiscent of “Golden-Girls”-era interior decor. Adelsberger describes this process as a parallel to the trajectory of American painting, wherein abstraction has been "hollowed out of its content" and "reduced to a cultural signifier" to be commodified and consumed.

This concern is raised again in Carpet Sample Set, a series of digitally printed carpets hung like paintings in plexiglass vitrines. The series was inspired by a "cheesy, corporate, overdesigned carpet" Adelsberger found while shopping online. Carpet Sample Set was created by zooming in on the preview image of the rug and screen-capturing more tasteful compositions. The resulting images were then commissioned by him as digital prints on carpeting through a different online company. The process traces abstraction's path from its subversive roots through institutional acceptance to banal commodity and back again. Enclosed in display cases, the industrially fabricated, appropriated designs project a preciousness that's a compelling foil to those familiar photos of Jackson Pollock stomping around canvases on the studio floor, dropping cigarette butts and ash in his wake.

Although Adelsberger's hand is (uncharacteristically) almost totally absent from the process of fabricating Carpet Sample Set, it's a prime example of what he does best: Sample art-historical references and contemporary trends and turn them into something that feels close to personal. In the year 2014, artwork that originates from an ironic impulse often elicits little more than an eye-roll. Adelsberger's practice, on the other hand, has perfected a sort of alchemical elevation of cynical or didactic conceptual concerns into art objects that allow the viewer a subjective, aesthetic experience. It's a rare talent.

This ability is realized most fully in the Large Submersion series. These pieces are constructed by smearing white gesso across the canvas and then dyeing the compositions in magenta or cyan. They are not only utterly gorgeous paintings—nearly every visitor in the gallery seemed transfixed by their strange, luminescent quality—but are critically engaged with contemporary art discourse. They bear a striking (and seemingly deliberate) resemblance to German artist Anselm Reyle's mylar and colored plexiglass "paintings" (themselves a commentary on the hypercommodification of late modernist artworks). Adelsberger planned the glowing effect to mimic (and be enhanced by) the backlit computer screen, knowing that most viewers will not experience the series in real life, but will instead see images of it on blogs. Adelsberger even refers to the physical canvases as "surrogates or 'stand-ins' for artwork." This consideration places the work in dialogue with that of artists such as Parker Ito, who creates physical objects for galleries only so that the "real" artwork can be produced (the iPhone photo a viewer takes and posts to the internet).

Indeed, I saw the Submersion pieces as digital images prior to seeing the physical canvases—and had an entirely different experience of them. I first imagined their luminescence to be the product of meticulous glazing in oil paint, conjuring associations with historical genres. When considered as images, rather than the end product of a process, the paintings do almost read like an update of the classical still life; they evoke TSA scans of luggage—an array of objects made unfamiliar by intervening technology.

Without that layer of translation, the physical canvases with all their nuanced textures offer a different (albeit complementary) reading in the context of the contemporary wing. The cyan and magenta paintings are hung in alignment with Warhol's yellow 'Last Supper' in the adjacent gallery. The three canvases have a remarkably similar texture that has more to do with the squeegeeing action of printing than the brushstrokes of abstract expressionism. Together, they form a sort of CMYK triptych—a devotional shrine to art object production and infinite reproduction, commodity, and crowd-pleasing surfaces that have greater conceptual depth than meets the eye.