MONITOR GOO: ABSTRACT PAINTING IN THE AGE OF VIDEO
(NOTE: Both the Anna Leonowens Gallery version in Halifax and an expanded version in Winnipeg happened in 1998. Curated by Peter Dykhuis and Cliff Eyland.)
[First published in Winnipeg in the Tea and Sympathy Plug In Cahier in 1998, 146-151.]
Shannon Finley, Dell Sala, Dan Rushton, Kym Greeley and Rachel Beach are all young east coast artists. This exhibition unites them with older Winnipeg artists in order to assess the state of one corner of the world of contemporary abstract painting. Is much abstract paintingnow made by the light of television sets? Artists born into the age of video--that is, after the 1960s--are especially used to seeing abstract imagery morph into recognizable images as they they watch television, play with video games, or create computer graphics. Young artists are little affected by traditional dichotomies which oppose abstract painting to popular media even though they know about the fuss. Indeed, the abstract/representational debates that have raged this century no longer seem to interest young artists, even if a wider public may still believe that the contest between abstract and realist painting is still important in the art world.
Shannon Finley, like the other Halifax artists in Monitor Goo, was born in the mid-1970s: he still plays video games. He makes gridded Plexiglas paintings that are abstract versions of one of the earliest, most popular video games, called Pac Man. A Finley grid is a depiction of square "pixels," the base units of video graphics. Finley's grids are related to the grids of 1970s indexical painting and the Abstract Expressionist and Bauhaus grids, but video is the most important source.
Dan Rushton makes screen printed paintings that suggest photographic imagery without any delivery of recognizable images. They look like Warhol's car crash screen paintings without car crashes. Rushton's photographic look is simply a technical 'leftover' of his screen printing technique.
Dell Sala makes and then prints out computer graphics on paper, affixes them to canvas and then covers them over with gestural brushstrokes. Two layers of hand work are visible in Sala's painting, the gestural computer drawing made with a computer "mouse," and the directly painted brushwork which obscures some of the underlying computer drawing in each painting. Sala knows the history of abstract expressionism well, but he is also comfortable with computer graphics.
Kim Greeley's untitled grey paintings have surfaces that suggest a kind of atmospheric infinity, but also a "dead" or turned-off television monitor. Other Greeley works, like Sala's, use computer-generated imagery, but Greeley considers it no big deal that computers can be used to make paintings.
Clement Greenberg, the leading American critic of abstract painting at mid-century, visited Winnipeg in 1961. At an impromptu show of local abstract painting, he made some snap judgements about several artists who, forty years later, we have included in "Monitor Goo." Greenberg thought Winston Leathers "aggressively up-to-date"; Bruce Head "was strong enough to make me feel he was one of the more promising abstract painters of Winnipeg." "Of all the abstract painters whose work I came upon in Winnipeg," Greenberg reported,"Donald Reichert was the one who seemed to have the most possibilities." [FOOTNOTE:Documents in Canadian Art ed. Douglas Fethering Peterborough:Broadview Press 1987 (pp 270-293)."Painting and Sculpture in Prairie Canada" by Clement Greenberg first appeared in Canadian Art in 1961.]
Greenberg's comments are maddeningly vague, but his promotion of abstract expressionism's broad brushwork greatly affected prairie painting. In the 1950s and 1960s it seemed natural for prairie artists to relate the new abstraction to things like airborne views of the prairies. (Don Reichert has been most explicit in his art about the landscape/abstract connection). But if there was a rule that prairie landscape painting once aspired to the condition of abstraction, Abstract Expressionism is still rich enough, as we can see in this exhibition, to inspire artists whose work aspires to the condition of television.[FOOTNOTE: Mark Rothko's oblong blurs only happened to have the form of the television monitor and Rothko considered the association of his work with with TV to be a slur, but to a Monitor Goo artist the association is inevitable.]
Bruce Head may have been influenced by Abstract Expressionism in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but he also spent many years working as a graphic designer for television. Head's lengthy professional connection to what we might call "monitor culture" must have something to do with the look of his more recent work. His brightly-painted canvases are stretched over wood armatures which project the surface of the work out into space as if to imitate the pulse of action suggested by a television screen (I thought of Cronenberg's movie "Scanners" when I first saw them.)
Winston Leathers has made many kinds of work since Greenberg visited, but since the late-1960s a special body of photo-based art uses liquid coloured substances. His recent laser prints are the result of his experiments with medical machinery to make blown up views of fluid interactions.
Don Reichert's' 1970 Monitor Goo art is the oldest in this exhibition, but it, too, is uncharacteristic of his other Abstract Expressionist styles. These crayon on paper works employ rule-based methodology like computer code (left/right/up/down). Reichert makes a line, then extends a line at right angles, and so on. As Scott Barham put it in a review of Monitor Goo (Winipeg Free Press 17 October 1998, B6), Reichert has a "self-imposed set of rules for drawing [which] functions as software, which leaves to Reichert the role of hardware."
A video game has the topology of a torus--a doughnut form; when a video spacecraft, for example, goes off the top of the screen, it can return at the bottom, and if it zips out one side of the monitor, it can zip back the other side. The space inside a monitor is literally unlike the space of painting, as different as the shape of a doughnut from a piece of plywood. This distinction, between a Euclidian plane and a non-Euclidian "torus," never needs to be made in the context of Greenbergian abstraction, but it is crucial to much Monitor Goo art, which insists on a notion of imagined video space.
Monitor Goo describes the space "inside" the video monitor, the cathode ray space which did not exist (at least in popular culture) when Leathers, Head and Reichert were growing up. Nevertheless, Leathers' microscopic blow-ups of fluids, Head's topographically-raised canvas surfaces and Reichert's procedurally spare grids relate more closely to the spaces of video than to the older abstract forms. Otherwise they would not rhyme so well with Shannon Finley's pixelated surfaces that freeze and enlarge the action of a Pac Man video game; or with the printed-out surfaces of Dell Sala's work that only look 'ab ex' until one notices the 'underpainted' grid of laser-printed computer graphics on A4 sheets; or with Kym Greeley's grey monochromes that spookily resemble the misty space of a "blank" television screen; or with Kim Ouellette's wavy fabric sweater pictures that remind one of the fuzzy tactility of a television monitor; or with Rachel Beach's hard-edge undulating forms that look like MTV graphics.
One point of Monitor Goo in its Plug In version is to see how artistic sensibilities can be shared across generations of television culture. Monitor Goo is about what happens when an artist freezes abstract monitor-like images in the viscous high-art material of paint or the tactile material of paper. The work in this exhibition is either "abstract," meaning that it has no obvious representational imagery, or "abstracted," meaning that representational imagery is somehow buried within abstract images (laser prints by Winston Leathers and fabric works by Kim Ouellette, are also considered to be abstract "painting" even though there is no paint in them).
Software, hardware, and human "wetware" are the essential components of Monitor Goo, which begins in Abstract Expressionism and ends in Pac Man. Along the way, the cathode-ray tube has somehow managed to swallow painting whole -- or is it the other way round?