Saturday, February 26, 2011

Jim Nolan at Art Palace

Jim Nolan (whose exhibit Today is Tomorrow is currently up at Art Palace) started off doing video and evolved into sculpture. Video, because it is a flat medium, might seem more similar to painting or other two-dimensional art than to sculpture. But like sculpture, it adds a third dimension--time in the case of video. But more important than this formal similarity is that in practice, video feels like it overlaps with sculpture more than with painting. This may be because the scope of sculpture has exploded in the past 40 years. Painting's scope has expanded as well, but nothing like what sculpture has done. In Nolan's case, one of his teachers was Tony Oursler--who is one of the most overtly sculptural of the video artists.

The thing that is kind of amusing about some of Nolan's art is that even as he avoids creating paintings, he remains interested in painting. So painting becomes the subject of some non-painted work. A sculptor I know once went off on painting, excoriating it as a narrow medium and complaining bitterly at how much it still held the fascination of the art world despite its obsolescence. Auction prices confirm this--the best selling works of contemporary art at auction are paintings. The fact that Nolan is fascinated by a medium he doesn't use is therefore not so strange. In fact, I'm surprised it's not more common.

Jim Nolan, Palisades Paintings / Brown, Red, Yellow, Blue, photo on canvas, 2011

So here are four monochromatic, gestural paintings. Except if you look closely, they are all identical (this is obscured slightly by the fact that every other "painting" is hung upside-down). They are, in fact, photos of brush-strokes filtered through some kind of image-manipulating software (like Photoshop) and laser-printed onto canvas. That is one way to demonstrate that painting has had its time--that images on canvas can be generated via laser printer! But there's something else going on here as well. What is the source of the original painted image?

The title of the piece is a clue. Nolan stopped in a rest stop in New Jersey and came across this expressive, gestural painting in the bathroom. Someone had painted over a window, and because the paint wasn't perfectly opaque,the light shining through gave a high level of visibility to the brushstrokes. Nolan took a photo of this anonymous, accidental abstract painting. These four beautiful paintings are essentially a photo taken inside a New Jersey public restroom.

Jim Nolan. MaybePartyingWillHelp / Bucket, tablecloth, bucket, artificial flowers, pushpins, 2010

Here's another "painting" piece. The big circle is a cheap plastic table-cloth from a dollar store. Nolan is interested (as we''ll see later) in extremely modest objects that are nonetheless designed with some aesthetic sense behind them. This tablecloth has what appears to be a series of highly gestural watercolor brush-strokes. And it looks good--it reminds me of Jackson Pollock's Mural or of any number of "all over" color-field paintings from the 50s and 60s. But look closer and you see that the "all over" pattern is like that of any table cloth--it's the result of a design process (almost certainly digital). The gestural brushstrokes are repeated over and over. Given the microscopic margin on selling a plastic table-cloth in a dollar store, it's tempting to imagine the artist whose work was used in this tablecloth as being like one of the oppressed art workers depicted in the Banksy Simpsons intro. And given this, the grimness of the table setting--grey flowers in a used grey bucket--is all the more appropriate.

Jim Nolan, Thank You / Purple, wood, paint, plastic bag, push pins, 2011

The first thought here is maybe of arte povera, or of some of the minimalist and post-minimalist pieces that depended on hanging something to create a form (like the Robert Morris felt pieces). All that's in there, to be sure. This is a vocabulary that Nolan draws on. But also there are the bags. These bags thank you for shopping with a bunch of purple flowers. Which means some designer or manufacturer (or team!) made aesthetic decisions on what words to put on a bag, what images, what colors, the fonts of the words, the spacing, what kind of flowers, etc. Those bags are art objects in their own supermodest way. Nolan is reminding us of this.

Jim Nolan, Mono in Stereo, photo, 2011

These are cheap speakers, But even cheap speakers have some design decisions that someone made--do we go with the fake woodgrain? Or do we go for a more hightech black finish? What I like about these deadpan, straight ahead photos of these extremely modest speakers is that they look like portraits. They look like Nolan is riffing off one of the most venerable genres of painting. And for me, this is even more clear when you see the scale of them.

Jim Nolan, Mono in Stereo installation view, photo, 2011

Who does oversized portraits? Chuck Close comes to mind. When I saw these two giant photographs, they felt more like two guys than two speakers. Blowing them up ennobles them. Nolan uses the language of post-minimalism to create grungy but unexpectedly human pieces of work. And his emphasis on found design sets him apart.

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