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by Mary-Kay Lombino

Buried just below the surface of the earth, clumps of paint—red, blue, orange, yellow—fuse with dirt, pebbles, and weeds, hardening into solid organic forms. A slow but steady process of metamorphosis is left undisturbed to occur naturally before excavation. The smooth, heavy liquid that once poured evenly over the rim of a household paint can gives up its perfect fluidity and surrenders to the bumps and snarls of the natural world, leaving only color as its distinguishing characteristic.

Once removed from the ground, the paint takes on a new texture, weight, and volume and is no longer associated with such contexts as interior design, where it serves the purpose of decorating our living spaces. The saturated color of the paint remains, but it no longer clings to the perimeters of the room, nor blends into the decor. The fluid has been transformed and now inhabits idle objects that occupy their own space as they hover, snake, and swirl above the floor. The mud casts produced through this process share a similar surface texture that recalls images from our imagination where we conjure ideas of foreign planets—natural, but barren and lacking life. The four fossil-like sculptures on display, moca blue swirl, moca limón, moca orange peel, and paint mixed with dirt and weeds (blood), represent only one of many types of work by Seth Kaufman which demonstrate the innovative techniques that he has invented to make art.1 Art critic Apollinaire Scherr described earlier versions of Kaufman’s floor sculptures as "earth-action allusions (resembling folded, twisted, cracking clay) implying motion, pulling us into the act of their own creation."2

As a rule of nature, all things of matter undergo a continual process of transformation. There is, in fact, only one law in the universe that never changes: all things change. The process of transformation that takes place in the making of Kaufman’s work can be compared to the petrifaction of wood.3 In this extraordinary natural phenomenon, a fossil is formed by the invasion of minerals into cavities between and within cells of natural wood. All of the tissues of a tree can eventually be replaced by hard materials. Often this replacement is so accurate that the internal structure as well as the external shape are faithfully represented, making the fossil look exactly like the tree while, in reality, it is completely changed. Similar changes are happening all around us but, because of the slow rate at which most things change and the relative brevity of the lifetime of a human being, this fact is not always evident. However, an appreciation for such basic laws of nature can be gained in the contemplation of Seth Kaufman’s process.

It is the making of Kaufman's art that is, at first, the most fascinating and compelling to the outsider. Perhaps this is one reason that critic David DiMichele once likened the work to Process Art, a movement that reached its apex in New York in the late 1970s. DiMichele wrote that "In a similar fashion to [Richard] Serra and [Eva] Hesse…Kaufman conflates process and end result into a single seamless entity."4 eggshells mixed with resin, halved (1999), for instance, evokes a sense of wonderment regarding the process involved in its creation. Pondering the question of "How?" one might turn to the title, which reveals that the two door-sized panels were once whole, and have been severed in two parts. Sliced down the middle on an over-sized band saw ordinarily used to cut airplane metal, the piece reveals a cross section of cracked shells frozen in place. While one can see into the depth of the resin where more shells pile on top of and inside each other, this view into the center provides only a false access, failing to satisfy our thirst for answers. The panels stand tall and flush against the wall, blocking any true entrance beyond their slick, polished facades. The inherent fragility, for which eggshells are known, is replaced with rock-hard solidity, just as the paint loses its fluidity and smoothness when the mud sculptures harden and take form.

In a similar piece entitled eggshells and resin (1996), we see an earlier example of Kaufman’s use of resin to solidify found materials as well as his sustained interest in tactility and physical structure of matter. Here, the frozen eggshells are sliced thinly, resulting in a quarter-inch-thick square slab that is displayed a few inches away from the wall. This piece differs from eggshells mixed with resin, halved in that it retains the translucency and delicacy of empty eggshells. A smaller, more intimate work, it has the shape and look of a light-filled window and allows the eye to focus less on the sheer size and improbability of the construction and more on the wonderful patterns created. In a written statement about Kaufman’s work of this nature, curator Sue Spaid compared it to a "Middle Eastern lattice…that incidentally preserves the Islamic aim to decorate construction, never to construct decoration."5

Kaufman's constructions are made with the belief that inherent in even the most mundane objects there is aesthetic value and the potential for reuse. His gift for discovering the beauty in unlikely materials is combined with fine craftsmanship to reveal their intrinsic value and inspire us to rethink our preconceived notions of refuse. Included in the recycled materials featured in Kaufman’s work over the last five years are paper-thin flakes of paint exfoliated from the walls of various buildings. The paint chips are carefully arranged and glued together to form intricate wall reliefs often named for the place where the paint was found, as in illinois street, sf and chris’s back door #4. The paint-chip arrangements range in size and shape from four walls' hall sf, a tiny piece that resembles an origami paper star or snowflake, to dreamworks la, a dramatic vertical construction that measures over four feet long.

In each of the works from the exfoliated paint series, Kaufman once again salvages second-hand materials, this time taking advantage of paint not for its color but for its ability to function as structure. The hardened, flaked-off paint is transformed into sculptures that capture "a sense of the simultaneous delicacy and crudeness that can be elicited from materials peeled off the surface of the city."6 Kaufman has randomly reassembled the parts that once made up a whole. The works thus reference not only the process of creation but also the destruction that had to occur in order to yield the pieces. In this case, Kaufman's works are sculptural even though they are composed of paint and, like the work of Linda Besemer, Geoffrey Allen, and Keith Sklar, can be seen as an unusual take on painting. These three contemporaries of Kaufman, all of whom also live and work in Los Angeles, have invented clever ways of employing paint to address issues of color and surface and to act as its own support. Besemer layers acrylic paint upon itself to create sheets of pure color; Allen combines paint with epoxy and sand to model it into three-dimensional forms, and, in Sklar’s work, thick and mountainous molds of paint protrude off a flat plane. Paint, as redefined by all four artists, is no longer considered a liquid substance transferred from brush to canvas, but is recognized as solid matter that can be used as a building block in the formation of a new kind of painting.

To further contextualize Kaufman's work in the history of art made in California, one might look back to the late 1950s at the strong tradition of assemblage art that flourished in the area. In Kaufman's relationship to materials, he shares with assemblage pioneers Bruce Conner, George Herms and, most obviously, Jay DeFeo, a Dada sensibility and broad-mindedness resulting in works that cross the boundaries between painting, collage, and sculpture. The basis of assemblage, according to art historian Andrea Liss, is "the additive process of layering and the subtractive process of selecting."7 While selecting and layering are apparent as a means of creating this work, in some instances Kaufman goes beyond mere assembling to achieve a more polished effect. In the eggshell-in-resin works, for example, we see an affinity with another trend that originated in Los Angeles—the so-called "Finish Fetish" school of the 1960s. Kaufman's concern with slick surfaces and translucency, as well as his meticulous erasure of labor, recall the work of John McCracken, Craig Kauffman, and later, Peter Alexander. In bridging the wide gap between these two disparate traditions of art making, Kaufman has produced a group of beautiful objects that retain the seductive qualities of both assemblage and finish fetish.

Much of Kaufman's work is characterized by his remarkable ability to force his materials to the extreme edge of their potential. Gathered in this exhibition, the three distinct bodies of work are linked by the artist's unwavering interest in and novel approach to his materials. Kaufman infuses found materials with a fresh perspective and innovative spirit and transforms them from waste into compelling objects that defy conventional art historical categorization.

Mary–Kay Lombino, Curator of Exhibitions
copyright © 2000, UAM

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