“Painting is just pushing colorful mud around a surface with a stick,” a teacher once declared to my painting class. This was five years ago, and, at that time, it kind of floored me. But then it spurred me to rethink “painting,” and now I feel like I’m seeing paintings everywhere—on rain-soaked concrete, covered-up graffiti, and the way the sunlight hits the side of a building at the right time of day. Artists have been making paintings without really even using paint for quite some time now, putting aside the problem of the “image” and what it could mean, in favor of the “construction and destruction of surface,” as City Paper contributor Michael Farley recently observed for the blog Art F City about the New York-based NADA fair. The works in the show “surface surface (hey mr. goat),” at RandallScottProjects through June 6, aren’t literal paintings, but New York artists Chris Dorland and Joe Pflieger both explore surface, color, and texture in a painterly way without really getting their hands dirty.
Chris Dorland’s works assert themselves like paintings, hanging flat against the wall, using canvas and linen and stretcher bars and some kind of “image.” In each one, distorted and digitally printed imagery is stitched together with slightly irregular rectangles of primed and unprimed canvas, linen, and/or vinyl. In one of these pieces, ‘Untitled (scanners)’—several works have that title—a typical fashion editorial photo with a female model appears in the top left corner of the piece. Behind the model’s head, upside-down, is a snippet of ad copy and the Holland America Line cruise company logo. In the foreground, there’s an inexplicable bunch of purple grapes. Everything is all distorted and striped and rainbowed, as if the photos shifted while they were being scanned.
‘Untitled (extraction)’ uses a stock image of a white person’s hand squeezing an orange slice against a cerulean background. This image is flanked by one section of gessoed canvas and one strip of raw canvas. The other pieces use placeless-but-familiar, Gerhard Richter-esque colorful abstractions in the same kind of composition as the others, with unpainted/unprinted fabric surrounding. The more abstract pieces initially seem like they could have been painted, squeegeed, and hand-manipulated, but as you draw closer that illusion breaks and you’re reminded of their flatness, and that the image has been reproduced by a machine. The different fabric surfaces of each painting are stitched tightly together with a dark thread, and the slight tension in the stitches and the shapes as they pull and stretch across the stretcher bars is oddly satisfying, as are the slight scrapes, dirty smudges, and pockmarks on the surfaces. Dorland’s use of image seems to illustrate how we imbibe images today—that is, in this mindless, scrolling, scanning manner. It’s interesting too, to compare this to the way a scanner “sees,” and how that machine takes longer to record information about an image than our human brains do.
This is where Joe Pflieger’s works tie in, as they are irrefutably about The Screen. He also plays with color, texture, and light the way a painter might—you almost can’t see his glossy prints of close-up rocky formations, which are neatly mounted on anodized aluminum and framed behind glass. These works are reflective like an iPhone screen, and it’s hard to see any of them without glimpsing yourself in them. (Maura Callahan noted a similar effect in her City Paper review of James Busby’s paintings at this same gallery.) The actual flatness of these objects (despite their metallic sheen or the almost stock-photo-like rock texture) remains the focus. ‘Waterfall’ and ‘Plinth,’ which are hung next to each other, could almost be paintings, the way light cuts and flows across the surface of the rocky formations. And the colors in the photos are muddy and earthy, if a little bland, like the settled pigment at the bottom of a jar that’s used to clean oil paint out of brushes. The muddled colors under glass is an interesting opposition to how technology, as it progresses, keeps promising higher-quality images and definition and more colors.
The only sculpture in the show and maybe the most engaging piece, Pflieger’s ‘Earth Structure,’ features two tall semireflective surfaces framed in steel and hinged together. On the more reflective panel is a large photo of a rocky wall with a metal triangular structure in the foreground, while a metal grid fits into the perpendicular transparent panel and houses no image. When I stand between the two panels, the mirrored one reflects the translucent one, adding layers of spatial depth to the photograph and to the whole piece. For a second it feels like there’s another dimension to this sculpture but then I step back and remember that it’s just these two screens that are somehow both folding into and leaning back from each other.
Though Dorland and Pflieger imply the fast pace of technology and how it forces us to absorb information quickly, their seemingly slow, methodical processes connect to the way that painting is about stillness. “Surface surface” reminds us that we live in an age where we can make a “painting” using any material or technology, and it calls back to that modernist discovery that painting ought to be less about illusion and more about surface, even if it doesn’t involve actually pushing any of that mud around.