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Max Pitegoff and Travess Smalley: Abstract Abstract

Foxy Production September 10th – October 10th, 2009

Travess Smalley & Max Pitegoff,
Travess Smalley & Max Pitegoff, "Untitled (Poster)," 2009, Large format digital color prints, 33.5 x 26 in. / 85.1 x 66 cm., Edition 1/1, Courtesy of the artists and Foxy Production, New York

With a connoisseurship for their own strange idea of the totem, and with a sometimes magical sense of kind, the recent collaborations between Travess Smalley and Max Pitegoff have hatched the digital egg of the Computer Age into wonderfully varied species of computer-kitsch-abstractions. Pitegoff and Smalley’s collaboratively made posters are currently on view in a group show at Foxy Production. Since the works are on view in a separate enclave at the back of the gallery, and almost constitute an exhibition of their own, I've decided to focus on their installment in this article.

At their best, these pictures represent an ongoing, half-automated, half-improvised invention of language. What may otherwise have been another tired and unimaginative questioning and critique of technology in the modern world, in this case turned out to be an eye-opener to an experience I’d never have thought to look out for. The deployment or reference to digital technology as a medium and/or subject in and of itself is not entirely new, or even interesting; the interest lies in how experience can be re-invented, or even just made from scratch: imagined from singularity to singularity in time.

The collaborations between Smalley and Pitegoff do not dwell too much on the fact of their having been created on, and, you might say, in collaboration with a computer. Instead the artists have embraced and responded to computer technology in terms of the possibilities it presents for an act of imagination and making. At times it is as though a raw, natural energy has been discovered in the artificial void of the gizmo-world (or non-world). There is something bizarrely romantic about their posters, which often appear to have been created neither by human hands nor by man-made technology, without any high-mindedness pertaining to “the works of nature.” The posters investigate a modernist fracture of edge and perspective, and embrace a potentiality for unexpected form by turning straight into the depths of the ugly. Often the edges of shapes seem to have literally zapped in out of nowhere, like pop-up menus on the web, and seem to be just as likely to disappear in a blink.

Without openly stating their intention to subvert, Pitegoff and Smalley hijack and overload the well-worn circuit of manipulation-by-image that runs throughout history. If standing power structures tend to enforce themselves (and camouflage their use of force) by commandeering and recontextualizing what were once newly evolved, un-controllable systems of perception and identity (including those technologies, for example, say, the Roman alphabet, employed to construct and enact identity), these works subversively play the same game. Against the reinstatement of retrograde methods of image-making, of desire-production, as a means towards the end of creating a controllable arena of predictability, they use rapid-read-imagery technology to induce a state of playful indeterminacy. You cannot scan these pictures without being dizzied.

Travess Smalley & Max Pitegoff,
Travess Smalley & Max Pitegoff, "Untitled (Poster)," 2009, Large format digital color prints, 33.5 x 26 in. / 85.1 x 66 cm., Edition 1/1, Courtesy of the artists and Foxy Production, New York

The artists’ scattered references to action paintings are quite hilarious. In one way, the intention behind action painting's gesture in a void is very much there; but in this case intention is treated as a complete ambiguity, given, first, the mechanized method of production, and, second, that the gestures are repeated artificially. The humor here is a light undermining of angst in the name of fun.

The gap between a real gesture and an artificially created, reproduced gesture is clearly demarcated. Often original gestures are copy/pasted all over the surface of a poster. Even the surface itself is called into doubt, since a surface is generally a place where something actually happens, but is in this case a mere gloss. Oddly, the gestures have the exuberance and physicality of real paint, even though they are obviously faked. They develop a thrilling dance when they make of their identity as objects a plaything: a theatrical toy, costuming itself in whatever pseudo-materials or patterns it fancies. At their worst, the marks become inert motifs, too much involved with themselves as attractive or novel patterns. The pictures can also fall victim to their own embrace of formlessness, at times mistaking a lack of clarity for an openness to the unexpected. Nevertheless, the works seem to have tapped a fascinating vein in which an occurrence with real energy is brought about in a complete void of a-reality.

The collaborators' method, when it works, yields a stream of particulars in a manner that smacks of Gertrude Stein’s concept of automatic writing. Taken together, the posters can come relatively close to one of those self-actuating instances in a sentence that Stein juggles so juicily; here’s one of the zillions of them: “To suppose, we suppose that there arose here and there that here and there there arose an instance of knowing that there are here and there that there are there that they will prepare, that they do care to come again.” The arrangement of the works, attached to the wall with pins stuck through flaps sets off the tops of the posters, foregrounds a discrepancy on which I think the entire series hinges. This emphasis on attachment is interesting because it emphasizes the poster’s object hood, but it could have been carried further: the magic was really in how the artists generated, by way of automation, real singularities or particulars in the world. An intensification of the focus on object-hood, in part by way of how the works are presented, would heighten the uncanniness of this experience, in which real things are invented, and in which the fabricated a-reality of kitsch is ruptured to let an actual event happen. While one of the three walls is completely covered with posters, the two walls on which the installation is subtly random, and where the blank space is charged with the same activity as are the areas on which works are hung, are far more dynamic. The attention to the posters as fake objects in a real environment, as well as the play of highly congested surfaces against open area, make the various shifts and movements of the show as a whole even more thrilling. Where this attention to each poster as an artificially generated particular is heightened, the energy of the show is most alive.


Roger Van Voorhees

Roger Van Voorhees is a poet in New York who lives with a young cat named Lillith.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2009

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