Tinney Contemporary | Through June 30
Photograph by Jerry Atnip
WORDS Audrey Molloy
Contemporary art is increasingly consumed as part of an accelerated infosphere, intensified by semiotic and visual stimulation. In the art infosphere, material interactions are ubiquitously two-dimensional, transpiring within the constraints of a quarter-inch of an illuminated glass screen. Artworks, photographs, signs, and symbols collide in a luminous infinite scroll, boundlessly reproducible—shared—in ever-flattening digital formats. We discover and experience artworks and artists online, but are often unable to interact with their physical presence. In this space, artworks are implicated as visual fiction, incorporeal. So too, bodies and intellectual exchanges often take the form of digital artifacts.
It has been the purview of artists, curators, and institutional entities in recent years to try and situate the narrative of contemporary art in an atemporal world. Yet, there is no specific style or ideology for art practices post-Internet, where all eras and influences exist concurrently. Contemporary artists are free to sample, adopt, and reanimate a confluence of traditional and emergent aesthetic concerns based on the availability of visual information. This dissolute convergence of styles, genres, and origins could itself be the unifying thematic of our contemporary moment.
For contemporary painting, the post-digital landscape—where the relationship of humans to digital technologies and art forms rapidly evolves—is rife with self-consciousness. Painting is a medium specifically concerned with vision and touch to relay what it’s like to have an individual mind, a singular body, but these symbolic values are disarmed by digital culture. A contemporary visual experience of painting is preceded by its status as a photographic document viewed online—that is to say, a viewer’s initial interaction with painting is increasingly mediated by its reproduction as a photographic image or high-resolution scan. Our recognition of contemporary painting’s materiality and origin is sublated with photography’s post-digital authenticity.
I am thinking of a studio visit I had with Nashville-based artist James Perrin. In conversation regarding relative newness in painting, and the direction of his current practice, he jested, “Hasn’t everything been done before?”
And yet, despite the casualness of such a quip, Perrin’s remark vis-à-vis contemporary painting’s ability for novelty is an observation that clarifies the responsiveness of painting to post-digital culture, not its imminent death. It is a fact that painting, as a deeply historic practice, insists on remaining relevant. However, as Perrin’s own work demonstrates, contemporary painting in the post-digital age is unburdened by linear tradition and free to investigate an aggregate of visual and conceptual references—its practitioners are consciously resolved that there can be no substantial newness in painting. This is its strength.
Divide (2017) is a painting by James Perrin currently showing in the artist’s solo exhibition, Heterogeneity, at Tinney Contemporary. It is a formidable work which, upon further consideration, also functions as sort of indexical panorama for painting in the post-digital. Spanning nearly thirteen feet, and comprised of two large square canvases with a thin panel between, the piece is a grand gesture to the formal rigour and history of lyrical abstract painting, but also contains much of the imagery, formal mark-making, and high- contrast range that Perrin has investigated across his oeuvre. A gash of red impasto diagonally bridges the three grey fields, acting as kind of a visual referent that points to the paint chips, glowing suns, pools of water, digital ripples, and graphic pastel lines suspended across its surface. It is an amalgam of artifacts, motifs, and sections of paint mined from Perrin’s own paintings.
Perrin’s practice, though aesthetically referential to the energetic gestures and non-representational forms of abstract-expressionism, are a physical culmination of digital and painterly compositing. His is a practice cognizant of painting’s material hybridization—its constant vacillation between digital and physical spaces, as a jpeg, a print, a scan—and the repetitive visual possibilities of painting through formal inquiry and digital manipulation. Employing Photoshop to pre-visualize his works, Perrin uses the digital editing software to mask, collage, and multiply photographic material and sections of his own paintings in a complex series of layers. These digital compositions serve as a type of map from which the artist produces his works. Observed from a distance, these inter-dimensional paintings indeed appear to be digital in nature.
Seen most readily in A Last Moment (2017) and Removing the Demon From the Rock (2018), two high- contrast expressionist panels included in the exhibition, Perrin borrows the visual language and strategies incurred from a digital editing space. Enshrouded in dense backgrounds of black, exact filaments of white and pale pink intersect graphically with atmospheric gradients of varying transparencies. Opaque sections of matte paint are masked and layered by gestural cavities of rendered images—forms which float indeterminately between the dark background and tactile paint-chip surface.
The structural use of paint chips on the surface of the painting is a material investigation the artist initially employed in his Walmart Studies (2012) as a topographic overlay on realist paintings of commercial interiors. His recurrent inquiry into the dimensionality of paint denotes a heightened formal awareness of the flatness of the picture plane. Here, barnacles of impasto protrude sculpturally outward from the canvases in an overt testament to the physical body of paint. Invariably, the intense working of the canvas by Perrin in these newer works has eschewed the poetic significance that the frenetic accumulations of paint and gesture previously served. Where the highly charged environs of the Walmart Studies inferred symbolic meaning onto the intense aggregate of paint, Perrin’s studied use of paint-palette materials and digital artifacts has positioned these works as evidence for a medium intent on positing form over function.
In his review of “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” at the Museum of Modern Art in 2013, David Salle writes, “Most if not all art reaches backward to earlier models in some way; every rupture is also a continuity. The ‘reaching back’ might be to unexpected sources, but imprints of earlier achievements are what give art its gristle and grit. What’s different is the mode of seeing.”
Perrin’s conflation of digital process with painterly technique is an insouciant insistence on the hybridity of contemporary painting which pervades the works in Heterogeneity at Tinney Contemporary. A Second Measure of Time (2018) is visually divided by both approaches. On the right side of the canvas, Perrin reiterates his fractured motif of reflective water, alluding to painting’s tradition of representational space— the canvas as a window—through the inclusion of a horizon line. A buoyant gradient of orange emanates from the center of the canvas—a near photographic depiction of a setting sun which is partially masked by a cacophony of painterly strategies on the left. Paint scrapings, expressive mark-making, carefully rendered forms, graphic lines, and swaths of daubed paint, as seen elsewhere in the show, intersect in a complex series of layers that recall Perrin’s process.
Significantly, Perrin’s work disrupts the symbolism so often attributed to the human conscious in painting by sharing the creative process with technological means—editing software, photographs, high-resolution scans. In this manner, Perrin simultaneously denies the material surface of the canvas and deftly points to it. It is a paradoxical push and pull between technical tradition and contemporary abstraction that underscores the timeliness of these works in current culture. Perrin exemplifies the boundless reproducibility and repetition of visual content in our post-digital infosphere, unbound by style, genre, strategies, or time, a space of constant referral.
We are assured that for painting, there is modernity in permutation.
James Perrin’s solo exhibition, Heterogeneity, will be on view at Tinney Contemporary through June 30. Perrin will also be exhibiting work in Chaos and Awe at the Frist Art Museum later this month. For more information, visit www.tinneycontemporary.com. See more of Perrin’s work at www.jameswperrin.com.