The Other Real
by Conor Backman
Through April 28 at Nudashank
Two revolutionary ancient Greek painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasius, had a contest. Zeuxis is known as the first painter to create realistic depth with the use of light and shadow. When he displayed a painting of grapes, birds tried to eat them. Certain he had won, Zeuxis asked Parrhasius to pull back the curtain and unveil his own work. Parrhasius won the contest when Zeuxis realized that the curtain was Parrhasius' painting.
In The Other Real, his new show at Nudashank (partially owned by erstwhile CP contributor Alex Ebstein), Conor Backman brilliantly riffs on this contest. On the surface, his "Zeuxis and Parrhasius" consists of a dozen or so cans of Welch's- or Arizona-brand grape soda. This is already a clever comment on verisimilitude, but it becomes staggeringly smart when one discovers that some of the cans are actually head-shop stash boxes disguised to look and feel like cans. The "grape" flavor of grape soda fools no one; it is designed to taste more grape than grapes, but the concealing surface of the safes have just fooled you, the viewer.
As the title suggests, Backman's show is a detailed examination of what is really real in the digital age. But unlike so many artists his age, the 25-year-old Backman actually has interesting points to make about the proliferation of the virtual, and possesses the technical ability to make those points come to life in an extraordinarily wide variety of forms, including two digital books available for free download, one of which, Reblooming, follows one of Backman's paintings through 500 Tumblrs, where it was reposted in different contexts.
"Greek Gift" continues the witty, classical wordplay with a copper pipe painted to look like a roll of wrapping paper. To further complicate the joke, it's not just any old wrapping paper but Realtree camouflage wrapping paper, and like "Zeuxis and Parrhasius," it works on many levels. It's a copper pipe masquerading as the material for gift-wrapping (so that, bearing this Greek gift, I could smash you over the head), and it also makes us think of the nature of camouflage itself-disguising oneself as part of nature in order to kill another part of it. Unlike the ready-made "Zeuxis and Parrhasius," however, "Greek Gift" shows not only Backman's wit and intellectual sophistication but his painterly sophistication as well.
"Reference Index," a painting of Backman's studio wall, hung with images and materials, is a tour de force of this skill: a photorealistic replica of a Louis Vuitton ad, a strip of carpet padding, and other ephemera create the trompe l'oeil effect of looking at the painter's wall. Surrounding this, however, are a number of abstract paintings collectively titled "Painting Palettes" because Backman uses the canvas-or in one case, the glass covering it-as the palette on which he mixes the paint. The effect of these two poles of Backman's paintings resembles nothing so much as Gerhard Richter's insistence on simultaneously painting photorealistic and abstract paintings in order to avoid the ideology of a single style. Also reminiscent of Richter are the site-specific "Untitled (brown window paper paintings)" series, in which Backman created four paintings of the exact size of Nudashank's windows, which appear to be the brown paper and masking tape used to cover windows. It may not seem so impressive from afar, but the fastidious creation of wrinkles and folds in the brown "paper" comes across even more successfully than Richter's attempts to paint glares on canvas.
In "I's and Other I, (Diptych)," the Pink Panther looks into a mirror, pulling on his eyelids, inside a torn envelope. Looking closer, one realizes that it is not an envelope at all but Backman's drawing of an envelope. Beside it is a painting of a piece of pink insulation with (painted) pieces of blue painter's tape and a (painted) barcode affixed to it.
"Pure PPP" is an exceptionally simple and successful ready-made consisting only of a wooden canvas-stretcher with a shower curtain hanging in front of it. Something about the opaque-ish plastic of the shower curtain makes the cross form of the stretcher look like a holographic image full of religious overtones.
Any one of these multiple modes of Backman's art is successful, and together they give the impression that this kid is simply overflowing with ideas. But I have left his most impressive works for last. Backman created three separate "books" out of steel sheets-not flat, closed books, but the wave-form of bent, open books. The first of these, "Tabula rasa," is simply white, a sculptural form undulating out of the white wall (with the historical implications of the mind as a "blank slate" open to experience). The second is a brilliant riff on the wave form itself. One page of the book is painted with a surfer going into the tube of a rushing blue-and-white wave-the space inside the tube is captured in cutout and inset. On the facing page, neon abstract designs and a watch mimic the kinds of advertisements one finds in skate and surf magazines of the 1980s.
Finally, in what is the centerpiece of the whole show, "Positive Feedback Loop" is another of these wave/book sculpture/paintings, with the page open to a painted reproduction of Velázquez's "Las Meninas." Because of its various refracted perspectives, its use of refracting mirrors, and its implications of power dynamics, this painting is a favorite of postmodernists like Michel Foucault (who is also fond of the Zeuxis and Parrhasius story).
Looking at the warped surface of the painting in Backman's sculptural painting (with the text backwards, as if seen in yet another mirror), it is quite evident that Backman knows his theory. Often, this is a hindrance, with a young artist trying to appear smart to cover up the ways in which he or she is not yet good. But in Backman's case, something altogether different is happening. He is synthesizing the theory of the 1980s and '90s, and blending it with the digital experience of his generation to raise new, aesthetically rich questions about the nature of the real and the copy in forms that are not mere excuses for the questions but their actual embodiments.
Nudashank is open saturday 12-5 and by appointment