What could cause reclusive ex-Corcoran professor Colby Caldwell to make an atypical pilgrimage up from his Asheville, NC studio? Or melt the hard blood of the quantitative and polarizing art critic Tyler Green? A show whose focus is almost nothing.
Not nothing as in nothing substantial, or as is nothingness/nirvana, or the great void–but in the space occupied by nothing. This is the best way to understand the exalted work that makes up 1998 alumnus Jason Gubbiotti’s show, War Paint, at Civilian Art Projects.
These are fields, demarcated, masked–but these aren’t Color Fields. These are desolate plains. Green would describe the painter’s geometry in the 2007 Hemphill as 1979’s video game Asteroid-like, but the wireframes here are kin to the cockpit from tank sim Stellar 7–symmetrical polygons sitting atop one another, totem style. They are a cockpit view, a heads-up-display looking on to a fever-dream landscape.
And for all the something that his paintings projected (in actual 3D space, in the gallery) in previous work, here there is a flatness. Those paintings would jut from the wall, taking 90 degree turns and even trace around corners of a gallery wall. Until you get to the edges, these are paintings. There, that’s skewered in to some thing more three dimensional. At Civilian, it’s the Youtube unboxing video of a Jason Gubbiotti painting: the viewer gets to see where the staples are (spoiler: not on the back) and a hard border of canvas and paint. He may as well be giving an extra-diegetic commentary, “This is where the painting sits,” “Here’s the palette.”
it’s the Youtube unboxing video of a Jason Gubbiotti painting
True, it’s generally cheap to analogize any abstract painting to real-world visage, but the work Beautiful Weapons is an adobe skateboard ramp aimed at the ceiling of the gallery. That’s undeniable. Again, the absence is the presence. The ‘nothing’ here is the void of an empty pool without kids doing mute grabs on the edges of its bowl; that mummy-brown of west coast valley stucco. And the lines through its swatches of color are the drifts and grinds of beaten decks gliding across cement.
In case it’s getting too impersonal, too conceptually focused, there’s humanity and a good ribbing here as well. Two examples:
1) That hard to find former professor, Colby Caldwell? A good friend and former teacher of Gubbiotti’s; a destroyer of the photograph equal to the scrupulous-control Jason shows the canvas. He’ll scan a dead bird with a large format scanner to get around using a lens to make a photograph. Caldwell crashed Photoshop in 2001 (fittingly) and found a new series of work based on a highly fluorescent pattern that the editing program spat out as it seized: How to Survive Your Own Death. Had tumblr been around this would’ve been posted, if not a blog in its own right.
Here, Gubbiotti takes the title and forms a loving but sparing tribute. A list of artists (the aforementioned James Huckenpahler for one) have taken the title, and it’s bombastic instruction for immortality are only matched by a greater feat for an artist: re-appropriating Damien Hirst’s similarly worded The Imperceptibility of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living. You, the artist, might live forever. Just as likely as you besting Hirst’s auction prices.
2) Tom Green’s legacy. The prolific and colorful (even by Gubbiotti standards) painter passed away from Lou Gherig’s disease two years ago. He was exalted for his career, but also by every student that he taught at the Corcoran. His beautiful family-led tribute at the school attested to this with person-to-person stories and pretzels that were unlikely to appear at other commemorations.
2012’s Shadowplay works with Tom’s distinct colors, and takes a turn at approximating the biological forms Green was known for. Though the teacher’s paintings would depict body parts, like rib cages, torsos and heads (nothing nightmarish, but simplified and cartoon-like), the student plays off his tropes by making them his own cellular forms that he is now known for. He takes the macro and makes it micro; reducing biology to the chemistry that comprises it.
reducing biology to the chemistry that comprises it.
If the cellular forms of earlier paintings were a bit too clean-room–there’s nothing antiseptic here, even in the strict, exacting lines there is a sense that they might be colored outside of or, more likely, exploded out of. It’s energy. It’s not the easy energy of op-artists and moire-pattern tricks–potential, not kinetic. Victor Vaserly, this is not, but the colors are there and they are just as vicious, seemingly beyond the chroma of what’s possible in CMYK.
That nothing is actually something quite formidable. It’s formlessness and emptiness is constant modality. Fighter Bruce Lee called that absence the most dangerous technique, “since Jeet Kune Do has no style, it can fit with all styles.” Here it’s not deadly, it’s a close perfect.
Jason Gubbiotti: War Paint is on view at Civilian Art Projects, 4718 14th Street NW Washington, DC 20011, through December 29, 2014, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, from 1 to 5pm, (closed the 27th & 28th) and by appointment at firstname.lastname@example.org. An artist talk will be hosted Saturday, November 15th, at 2pm.