Monday, January 20, 2014

Burnt Plastic Abstraction by Gil Rocha

Robert Boyd

Abstract art is really hot right now. The CAMH has just completed three abstract shows and is in the process of initiating three more (although one of them, The Rites of Spring, doesn't really have anything to do with abstraction as far as I can tell). Abstract art is big in New York with artists who are working in a style that has come to be called New Casualism. And some of the best Houston artists are abstractionists (and could even be called New Casualists.) I put a couple of them on my top 10 list for 2103 and Betsy Huete selected some abstract paintings for her best-of list as well. The resurgence in esteem of abstract painting has even created a backlash. Everyone's talking about a dyspeptic article by Holland Cotter in the New York Times, a vast and mostly hopeless takedown of the moneyed art world, which included this paragraph:
Outside auctions, the marketing mechanics buzz on. Roughly since the end of the multicultural, postmodern 1990s, we’ve watched new art being re-Modernized and domesticated, with painting the medium of choice, abstraction the mode of preference. Together they offer significant advantages. Paintings can be assembly-line produced but still carry the aura of being hand-touched. They can be tailored to small spaces, such as fair booths. Abstraction, especially if color is involved, can establish instant eye contact from afar. If, in addition, the work’s graphic impact translates well online, where stock can be moved eBay style, so much the better. ("Lost in the Gallery Industrial Complex," Holland Cotter, The New York Times, January 17, 2014)
Pretty brutal, but you don't get this kind of censure for an art trend unless it's successful in the first place. This is something I've been thinking about lately: the revival of abstract painting and questions about whether or not this is a good thing.

It was with this on my mind that I walked into Zoya Tommy Gallery for Gil Rocha's show, The Tacos Are Here. Rocha is from Laredo, a Texas border town. Now how an artist survives in Laredo, I don't know. I'm guessing some day job is involved. But looking at this show, I thought that Laredo was lucky to have him there. It's a very interesting exhibit, with some of the stuff edging towards conceptualism, but most of it being abstract "painting." I put "painting" in quotes because the works aren't really painted in the traditional sense.

Gil Rocha, Genesis, 2013, plastic and iridescent cellophane, 41 x 55 inches

Rocha is layering cellophane and plastic wrap, then burning holes in it with a blow-torch. This creates a highly colorful surface with white "holes" where the plastic has broken and curled up. The result has the feel of abstract expressionist paintings with all-over compositions. It barely has a sense of space--instead, it speaks almost exclusively to the surface of the canvas. If you discount the materials Rocha uses, it feels very much in line with tendencies in Post-War abstract painting.

Gil Rocha, Los Dulces del Diable, 2013, plastic and iridescent cellophane, 24 x 30 inches

Even though the descriptions say "plastic and iridescent cellophane," I find it hard to believe that there isn't some paint in these pieces. If not, Rocha has trained his plastic to look very paint-like.Whatever the material, these "paintings" have a presence on the wall that feels completely convincing. I don't see them as experiments with a particular set of non-art materials, but as complex, beautiful autonomous images.

In her article "ABSTRACT PAINTING: The New Casualists," Sharon Butler comments that some of the painters in this newish tendency "combine non-art materials in their paintings just for the hell of it, work at different scales, employ different color combinations, and experiment with unusual ways of applying paint. With less investment in honing a unique visual language, painters like Kadar Brock, Rebecca Morris, and Jasmine Justice use earlier forms of abstraction the way Rauschenberg used found objects. In the process, there is no room for handwringing about originality; it is simply assumed that it will result from synthesis and recombination. And if it doesn’t, well, isn’t that just as interesting?" This description could easily be applied to Rocha's painting-like works in this exhibit.

Gil Rocha, Los Desaparacidos, 2013, plastic and iridescent cellophane, 6 x 5 feet

Rocha's cellophane abstractions combine gorgeous iridescent effects with grungy surfaces. The combination is especially apparent in Los Desaparacidos, where curtains of iridescent green show through a bumpy surface of Monet-like violets and oranges. This pretty-ugly duality is something I've noticed a lot in contemporary abstract painters (Nathan Green, for example). Rocha is not all about making beautiful wall-objects, but he doesn't reject the possibility of doing so. Beauty is an acceptable outcome for him.

Gil Rocha, untitled, 2013, fabric and chrome paint, 45 x 0 inches

This atypical piece, untitled,  is the one that many viewers seemed to love. A maelstrom of fabric folds frozen in space, it's a beautiful object, a trophy for some collector's wall. This aspect of new abstract painting--its collectibility--is one that troubles some people like Holland Cotter. Art in some ways has split into two art worlds. There is art that isn't going to challenge the rentier class that collects it--on the high end, giant Jeff Koons balloon dogs, but abstract paintings are also lumped in here. And there is art that doesn't worry to much about looking good (or even being visual at all) but that engages the world politically and socially (and always from the left)--social practice art, for example, or the photos of LaToya Frasier that were recently shown at the CAMH. It's a battle between the righteous and the pretty.

I dislike this dichotomy because it suggests that an artist has to choose sides. And by even mentioning this dichotomy, I risk being accused of setting up a straw man. And yet this split really exists, and it's pretty easy to see in the Houston art community. So through the lens of this dichotomy, I could look at this exhibit and say that Gil Rocha is just a maker of luxury objects for sale that are void of political meaning. But that would be false. Gil Rocha is also the guy who did the Billboard Project in Laredo.

Gil Rocha, Lluvia de Rezos, 2010

In the Billboard Project, Rocha used a billboard on a public street in Laredo to put up an ever-changing set of images and phrases that addressed local political and environmental issues in Laredo. These are not included in the Houston show, but are on Rocha's website. Maybe in a big city like Houston, it's easy to make a choice to be one kind of artist or another, but in a city like Laredo--about a 20th the size of Houston--flexibility is a virtue. In any case, the Billboard Project shows that it is impossible to pigeonhole Rocha.

I am very interested in new approaches to abstract painting, and I found Rocha's work in this show very stimulating and beautiful (in a grungy way). That would be plenty for one artist, but learning about the breadth of his artistic practice makes Rocha all the more fascinating. I hope this isn't the last we've seen of him in Houston.

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