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Gazing Deep:
Painting’s New Surface Space

What is surface and why are so many L.A. painters increasingly enthralled by it? From the splattered-water and oil films holding back the heaven and hell light effects of Joe Goode’s newest paintings, to the dimensional paint canvases of Dennis Hollingsworth, surface seems to have become painting’s newest arena of speculation and investigation.

Historically, painting’s two-dimensional surface has always been a playground for allusions to depth, be it by the illusion of depth or flatness. The kind of surface referenced here is less about pictorial space and more about vision. It seems that in some quarters painting’s surface is being reconsidered, not as image, but as a substance, one conducive to the speed of looking, to movement and to a kind of self-conscious viewing. It’s a new kind of visual space, one that relies on the viewer’s glance before it is activated.

Joe Goode, “Bomb Shell
(Cause & Effect Series 79)”,
o/c, 40 x 36”, 2000.

In Joe Goode’s latest Cause and Effect paintings, seen at L.A. Louver in October, all the ferocity or calm activity of the image is held at bay by a transparent surface wash of congealed, faintly colored liquid. This surface skin essentially overlays the image by subtly asserting itself as a nearly unseen visual element, something to be penetrated but not overlooked. Even though it lacks the weight and energy of the image it covers, this ‘skin’ hovers, a faint sight before a view. This causes a visual push and pull as the underlying volcanic splash or blue sky lilt is forced to give way, not to another image, but to the nearly invisible surface itself and more importantly, to the nature of vision. Goode calls this vision the “looking through” of a hunter, versus the “looking at” of the artist (quoted in Dave Hickey, “Cold Country Nature”, catalog essay for L.A. Louver, Venice [2000], p. 6). Rather than a passive viewer who simply looks at something, a hunter’s focus is a self-aware kind of search, alert and enmeshed in the act of looking for prey. For Goode, his paintings have come to acknowledge the gaze as an active and participatory act. For some other painters this sort of looking with awareness is breeding a simulation of vision, a kind of hyper surface-space that feels especially sensitive to the glance.

For these painters the canvas’ surface has become space. It’s not a traditional ground for the image nor a paint/resin encapsulating shell, such as that used by artists like Fred Tomaselli who value a layer of slickness to give their images a sense of unity or finish. Rather the surface has become an intrinsic part of the painting’s perceptual space. Indeed for painters like Roland Reiss [new work will be on view during January and February at the Claremont Graduate University Galleries--Ed.], who has thickened his paintings’ surfaces into a gelatinous field suspending mark and shape, the surface has become the works’ sole space and its strongest reality.

Reiss refers to his gel emulsion surfaces as “suspensions” or “unstable spaces” (in a conversation with the artist, October 20, 2000) for holding the gaze. He likens them to cinematic space, where image and action is confined by the edges of the screen and its surface but still felt as boundless. In film that boundlessness feels infinite, as sight is seduced by the illusion. The mind merges with the vision. Yet a movie screen is always illusion’s ground. Its success is in never letting down the barrier and revealing itself as merely a reflective surface. Reiss’ work acknowledges the painting’s surface as a physical reality married to but separate from the mark. By using transparent and solid color suspended in clear acrylic medium he creates a near tangible space that seems independent of the canvas, and which glows like a radiant blank movie screen. Nothing moves in these spaces but vision. It cuts through the gelatinous surface like sunlight through water, deflected by floating marks, diving and surfacing in a dense, palpable space that seems intent on providing a functional metaphor for the penetrating gaze and depth itself as an almost tangible thing.

Roland Reiss, “Border Crossing,”
a/c, 30 x 40”, 2000.

Roland Reiss, "Thinking of You,"
a/c, 48 x 60", 2000.

Laurel Paley, “Boy or Girl?,”
polymer transfer/acrylic on
masonite, 9 x 5 3/4”, 1998.

Dennis Hollingsworth, "Groans
Mingled with Shouts", oil on linen
on wood panels, 64 x 72", 2000.
Other painters who have made the surface a near tangible thing include Laurel Paley [recently seen at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art--Ed.] and Dennis Hollingsworth [recently at Chac-Mool Gallery--Ed.]. Paley’s images of body parts and vegetable matter are tattoos in a visual space that is almost literally a skin--freshly scraped, stretched and attached to masonite boards. Paley captures the images by computer then strips them from paper and suspends them in layers of hand scrubbed colored acrylic. The effect is disconcerting, as the images seem to materialize and dematerialize before your eyes. Vision bounces across and into Paley’s surface skins, making us aware of the shallow but elusive depth and the insubstantial image imbedded within it. That shallowness summons a thirst for greater depth, forcing us to acknowledge the fundamental spatial lies all paintings must tell when they allude to the third dimension.

Hollingsworth pushes painting’s visual space into real physical space by hanging all sorts of thick, goopy paint off the front of it. The contrast makes their support an intangible and impossibly airy visual dimension where the gaze halts abruptly. Vision must return to real space so the gaze becomes a conscious circulation before the canvas.

All this discussion of the transparency of the surface and its transformation of it into a newly visible space privileging the act of looking begs the question why. Jean Baudrillard offered the bittersweet judgment of America as a continent of vast distance, empty space, flickering cinematic speed and surface. Calling our land and our culture an obscene “miracle of total availability, of the transparency of all functions in space” (Jean Baudrillard, “America,” trans. by Chris Turner [New York: Verso, 1988], p. 8), he drew attention to the openness of our horizontal landscapes, the visual distortion inherent in our sprawling deserts and the way our culture shares a passion for the surface perusal and rapid glance of a car moving across open country.

The English poet William Blake once wrote, “As the eye, so the object”, we see (or create) what we are capable of seeing, of imagining or what is familiar. Perhaps our continent has indeed vested us with a speed of looking that is part of the unique “lyrical nature of pure circulation” (Baudrillard, “America,” p. 27) of this land, and maybe painting has become mired in it.

But more importantly, the effect of cinema on painting must be considered. Los Angeles is epicenter to a certain kind of seeing produced by the movie industry, and some artists here are particularly attuned to the culture of the screen. They know it not just for the shallowness of its images but are sensitive to what Walter Benjamin called the “penetrating gaze” of the movie camera. They are also quite aware of the reflective space behind the film or the electronic depth of the TV’s screen.

Painting has always been a codification of vision. From Renaissance paintings capturing the radical foreshortening, precise angles and sharp architectural geometry of perspectival vanishing points made possible by newly developed lenses and glass plates, to Pointillists reproducing the staccato pitted images of daguerreotypes, painting has always represented vision. This new surface is in effect an extended examination contrasting painting as an illusionary medium different from cinema by virtue of its very physicality. That difference is allowing painting to examine the gaze and wear its consciousness like a kind of vision-permeable skin.