Southfirst, March 6 – April 26, 2009
If time permitted, I would have written an essay this month about the glorification of youth and cool by the art press, through the lens of the Younger Than Jesus show at the New Museum. The gist of it would have been that certain sectors of the art apparatus have chosen to support youth, irreverence, and nonchalance over wisdom, conviction, and rigor, and that the objects some artists are churning out seem to be little more than souvenirs of scenester culture for collectors to fetishize the way Pope Leo X might have the arm bone of a dead saint. Meanwhile, thousands of mature, dues-paying artists toil in undeserved obscurity…yada yada. Instead, I tabled my notes and set out to write a review of James Hyde’s show, UNBUILT, at Southfirst in Williamsburg.
Amply spread across three walls of the gallery (with a single piece above the door), twenty-three photo/painting hybrids resume Hyde’s interest in the modes and mechanics of painting. Hyde has said his own works “often involve materials and modes of making which are not traditionally of painting. What holds my work together, and I feel makes it painting, is the use of signs of painting, whether these are literalized (made real) or really painted.” Hyde communicates such relatively ambitious intentions with clarity. Any civilian can glean enough immediate information from the work in UNBUILT to look in the right conceptual direction, even without inferring his precise semiotic concerns. It’s been said that if art’s too arbitrary, you give the viewer a desert; too demonstrative, you give him a prison. Aware of this, Hyde’s work at Southfirst directs the viewer steadily without imposing its will.
The effectiveness of UNBUILT is less the result of mercy than rigor. What the viewer sees upon breaching Southfirst’s gallery is a salon-style wall of rectilinear, mostly flat paintings of various sizes. But from the outward noise, an internal structure begins to emerge. The majority of the pieces originate in photographic images of building skeletons, which Hyde, depending on one’s point of view, embellishes, reworks, conceals, defiles, augments, punctuates, comments on, or contributes to, by painting over them. Formal order, when not immediately discernable, is metaphorically suggested through images of trees, clouds, roiling water, or other complex systems. The issues under examination here have been floating in the ether of recent thought, but they’re cumbersome, complex, and many. Hyde’s solution is to bracket and contain their fluid complexity with photography—as a foil for painting—on one side, and imaged structure(s) on the other. These brackets provide the steel frame on which Hyde hangs his paint.
Specific examples leap to mind; however, UNBUILT should really be considered an installation of paintings rather than a suite of individual works. That said, the focus of the show allows Hyde to wax poetic within his bracketed margins. “My Rectangle,” a 13 × 10-inch work features raised rectangular construction of yellow, blue, and grey one-by-twos on a an undulating, fleshy photographic background. Though obscure, the base image eventually resolves into a close-up of a sunlit hand, bearing individualizing ridges on the skin—a sly reference to the handmade. Yet the constructed form that rests atop the hands is a crude and shoddy piece of handiwork that, figuratively, puts a fingerprint on the stainless veneer of reductive sculpture—unpacking a textbook’s worth of discussion on the relationship between producer and product en route. “Recline,” the largest piece in the show, features three orthogonal bands of paint—white, red, and yellow—above an image, rotated ninety degrees, of a building’s steel frame. Formally, the angles of the building site and the dense patches of paint merge into a seamless composition, while existentially their contents diverge. The painted bars evoke the history of geometric abstraction, of medium specificity and autonomy in art, while the building, though suggesting the International Style, represents, as it lies on its side, a less utopian and far more practical demonstration of those ideals.
When ideas are conveyed with such elucidation, as they are in UNBUILT, they almost always come off as effortless and nonchalant. UNBUILT reads, deceptively, as being smart, cool, and facile, and generates the same frisson of rightness so many young artists aspire to but end up merely mimicking. Though I tabled my notes for the essay on Younger Than Jesus, James Hyde’s UNBUILT proved too perfect an antidote to its excesses to overlook. Clearly, an exhibition as formally broad as Younger Than Jesus deserves more than a sweeping two-paragraph treatment (for more extensive coverage, consult Thomas Micchelli’s review in these pages). Suffice it to say that, for the most part, Younger Than Jesus has Hyde’s swagger but not his substance. As for Hyde, he is an artist who proves that in the right hands mighty ideas can be finessed into coherence, and that you need to know how to speak a language clearly before you can speak it coolly.