I see construction sites every day and ignore them, or find them to be a nuisance as I navigate detours and closed sidewalks. But every now and then something in these sites catches my eye: wooden pallets holding neat stacks of fresh red bricks, the repetition in a series of structural beams that eventually become a wall, or a vat of gray, gritty, wet cement. The materials themselves are attractive, along with the way they happen to sit there, waiting to be made into something. In their collaborative show “REAL ROCKS ARE HEAVY AND HARD TO FIND,” at Gallery Four through May 3, artists James Bouché and Ryan Syrell use construction materials to make work that often collapses the artists’ own individual styles into something else, making us question authorship and what even constitutes an “art object.”
The first part of the gallery houses a series of works that peel apart the act of making. In ‘Suspended Frame with Reflection,’ two low white platforms lie on the ground with pinkish-greyish painted rocks placed atop them. The rocks are arranged so that they appear to be a mirror image of each other, as the white wooden bones of a wall hang suspended between them by straps and eye hooks—the whole setup feels meditative. Through the beams you can see a subtle, sanded-over fresco on one wall; on the adjacent wall, you see familiar white markings on the grey drywall, but a few swipes of tinted joint compound make the broad white marks over them pop forward. Do those unexpected tinted marks make this more like a painting? Is it the placement near other, more oblique, less functional/utilitarian objects? From the substrate (the wooden wall structure), to the preparation (the drywall), to the painted fresco, which has been sanded so that you can only see faint shades of yellow archways, and is now ready for a fresh coat of paint, these elements work together to dissect the process of building.
With these collaborations, Bouché and Syrell wanted to find a method to forgo their egos and “operate as de-individuated makers,” as they put it in their exhibition statement/manifesto. They are mostly successful. In theory, that’s a risk because, as an artist, your style is your “brand.” But in Baltimore we can still kinda do what we want, because artists here are far less beholden to gallerists and collectors. And, though artists should definitely get paid, it’s energizing to see work that operates outside of anything like, say, New York’s grossly capitalist art market structure.
Still, despite their success in forging a cohesive collaboration, certain elements of both artists’ styles are indisguisable. The straps, hooks, grids, and general sense of tension that recur in many of the pieces are characteristics of Bouché’s work. The ‘Bricks and Rope (light shift)’ series, in which a length of yellow, coarse rope loops around a stack of painted red bricks sitting atop a blue plinth, appear in each partition of the gallery. As you walk farther in, the bright colors shift into much darker shades, contrasting the IRL-cartoon colors that Syrell often uses with the achromatic palette Bouché usually employs. The paint almost makes these materials look like they’re sculpted out of something else, they appear so light. Putting bricks and rope on a plinth elevates them, aestheticizes them, and places them in context with all other sculpture that ever was or will be.
In the next room, the painting ‘Annunciation’ references one of the Renaissance painter Fra Angelico’s many versions of the Annunciation. Syrell and Bouché take out the color, and the people, using blue painter’s tape to mask off the familiar-but-placeless columns and archways, while single brush strokes of white paint fill in what would be the outlines of the architecture. Strips of tape wrinkle and buckle where the lines curve, and small scraps of torn tape are stuck onto the wall above the canvas, as if it’s still in progress in the studio. Religious paintings in the Renaissance served a real purpose: altarpieces helped people remember biblical stories, especially if the viewers were illiterate. Perhaps some art has lost that reverent quality along the way, and our attention spans have shortened, but good art makes you stay with it and somehow makes you part of it. I want to peel the tape off this painting so badly but I can’t, and it engages me by not giving me what I want.
The installations around ‘Annunciation’ play with the elements in the painting, making the works feel like they sprang from one another organically. While Renaissance artists tried to use linear perspective to show depth, their paintings remain undeniably flat, and everything feels like it’s in the same plane. Here, Syrell and Bouché’s painting is a further abstraction of that—it’s like a ghost of its referent, just white paint and blue tape depicting archways that go back into space. But it engages with its environment. ‘Pillars and Straps’ literally builds from the space in this corner of the gallery, and it would be easy to miss. A two-by-four painted blue leads the eye up to the ceiling (like Yves Klein and John McCracken had a baby), where several black ratchet straps, pulled taut across the ceiling between hooks, serve no discernible function. The material and spacing make the straps almost feel integral to this space’s structure, as do the two rectangular white pillars, which partially block your view of ‘Annunciation’ (not uncommon in these industrial/warehouse spaces).
In another room, several prints (using sawdust on fine-grit sandpaper, rather than ink on paper) mimic the patterns and forms found in some of the other works in the show, such as the archways, or the patterns in a raked concrete slab (‘Concrete Painting’) that leans against a nearby corner. One print depicts the pile of bricks and rope; another shows straps, hooks, and rings interlocking. While these lack the presence or spectacle of the other pieces, they’re clever in another way, nodding to the art-collecting/consumer impulse. It’d be tough to move that slab of concrete anywhere, or to re-create, somewhere else, the installation of straps and pillars the way it exists in this space, but you can certainly hang a few of these prints up in your home. The imagery comes from the other sculptures and installations, and the prints remind me of looking at documentation of art instead of looking at the actual thing in person. But the medium has power, and here Bouché and Syrell capitalize on these industrial materials to make new representations of reality that feel almost ready-made.