PAINTING AS MODEL?
Ethan Ryman at Cathouse Proper and Ben Godward at Transmitter
By Gwenaël Kerlidou, August 23, 2023
Earlier this summer, two compelling gallery shows in Brooklyn, took place at opposite ends of that borough’s art scene: Ethan Ryman’s solo show of new work at Cathouse Proper, David Dixon’s project, at its longstanding location on Court Street in Carroll Gardens, and Ben Godward’s show, "Something Just Happened” of recent works at Transmitter in Bushwick.
At Cathouse Proper, Ethan Ryman presented a challenging combination of mixed medias works displayed on or against the gallery walls. They often seem to involve details of architectural models photographed in close up, carefully cropped perhaps to simulate abstract painting, then printed in high quality resolution, laminated on wood or aluminum panels and exhibited as three-dimensional objects.
Ethan Ryman, New Works, Installation view at Cathouse Proper. Photo credit: Dario Lasagni
Some pieces were embedded inside the wall or installed in light boxes or, such as “Untitled Still Life With Inset Frame", 2023 or “Beacon 1", 2023, some were propped up against the wall and resting on the floor, while others projected from the wall at various angles held in place by elaborate folding brackets behind them. Others, yet, were mounted on small shelves acting as “frames”, which appeared to replicate the presentation strategies of larger pieces resting on the floor: These pieces came across as potential mock-ups for bigger pieces until one realized that they offered instead a kind of meta commentary on the bigger pieces.
Ryman’s installation seemed to activate as many layers of the codes and modes of representation as possible within one work. Architectural space, photographic surfaces, abstract painting, sculptural presentation, were all conflated into one hybrid object through a series of technical and conceptual processes consistently evacuating any traces of the hand. Neither truly photo works, nor painting, nor sculpture, what seemed to bind together their diverging angles of approach was the dependance of the resulting products towards the wall: These objects were both literal and enigmatic enough to escape easy definitions within our current critical categories.
Ethan Ryman, "Untitled Still Life with Inset Frame", 2023,
dye sublimation print on aluminum, 10” x 10”. Photo credit : Dario Lasagni
The show brought up multiple questions of presentation and of representation, of simulacrum, and theatricality and other similar post-modernist strategies, but without any of the irony or ideological positioning usually associated with that school of thought. If the works seem to
embrace Formalist values of surface integrity and opticality, paradoxically they also deconstructed them from every possible angle. They even seem to playfully exacerbate Michael Fried’s famous objection of theatricality about Minimalism. What unified the show in all its different presentation
strategies was the shared dependence of every single piece on the wall for support. Since eight out of nine pieces in the show included the words Still-Life in their title, this could be seen as a declaration of allegiance to painting as a genre, but none of them actually displayed any noticeable
traces of paint. But ultimately these non-painting objects offered themselves to the viewer’s grasp through the channels of pictorial codes.
In Ben Godward’s show at Transmitter, the Minimalist credo of “painting as object” seemed to be upended into an “object as painting” kind of proposition. Four flower-like structures and two wedge pieces were exhibited. The “flower” pieces were cast in concave steel molds, in rapid
successive pours of intensely pigmented urethane resin. The result of that sculptural process indirectly recalled Morris Louis “Floral” paintings from 1959-60, when Louis was experimenting with a centered composition. The difference being that instead of physically tilting the canvas to keep the pours flowing as Louis was doing, as there was no preexisting rectangular support in Godward’s case, gravity pulled the pours towards the center of the concave mold. Once demolded the resin castings became their own support. In contrast to Ryan Sullivan, for example, who also showed urethane paintings at 125 Newbury in Tribeca last winter, Godward did not use the resin pours as gestures to recreate the conditions of painting on a preexisting idea of the picture plane. He created a new plane for painting, drawing the viewer physically in towards an eruption of saturated hot and cool colors. In “Cosmic Inflation (Birth of The Universe, or Why My Horoscope is Always Right)", 2023, the relationship of the piece to the wall was acknowledged with a hole left unfilled in the center of the piece, where a section of the gallery wall showed through, becoming de facto an intrinsic part of the piece. These “flower” pieces mixed the exuberant chromatism of Color Field Painting with the ambivalence of Post-Minimalism toward the separation between painting and sculpture.
Ben Godward, "Cosmic Inflation" (Birth of the Universe or Why My Horoscope is Always Right), 2023, urethane resin, 74”x74”x12”.
Interestingly, the photographs of these pieces captured an eerie “out of focus” quality, an optical fuzziness, which didn’t seem as obvious de visu. This unexpected spatial ambiguity was the result of a combination of clear resin on their periphery visually mixing with the cast shadows on the
wall behind them. The pigmented pours often began a few inches inside of the outer edge of each “flower”, which contributed to making the limits of these pieces unexpectedly difficult to pinpoint, as if they visually blended into the wall. The apparent allegiance to the optical values of Formalist
Abstraction were simultaneously contradicted here by an obvious disregard towards its calls for clarity and spatial definition.
In the informative discussion included in the gallery’s press release, the artist followed up with a provocative statement saying that “Painting doesn’t own color”, a quote that would seem to place his work squarely in the sculpture category. Would this be a case of color reentering the discussion in sculpture, as recently proposed by “The agreement: Chromatic Presences”, a group show of sculptures engaged in different kinds of dialogues with color, curated by Will Corwin at the Zürcher Gallery in 2022, of Painting categories permeating sculpture, or of a need for more porous boundaries between the two?
In the same press-release discussion, when asked about his work’s connection to California’s school of Light and Space, Godward emphasized that what separated his work from John McCraken, James Turell and Robert Irwin, was their emphasis on machine-made qualities and their suppression of the hand-made. In this instance, contrary to Ryman who thoroughly eliminated traces of the hand in his work, Godward pointedly insisted on the qualities of the crafted (by the artist) versus the fabricated (by others), which seemed to indicate a leaning towards a Painting gestalt rather than towards a more object-defined, Minimalist, gestalt.
But, besides retaining the physicality of sculpture and the absence of paint per se in their work, what seemed to unexpectedly connect Ryman’s and Godward’s shows was their shared oblique approach to flatness. An overemphasized flatness for Ryman, a sidestepped one for Godward. In fact, Ryman even titled “Perfect Flat Constructions” a subsequent series of work exhibited later on the occasion of an open studio day, while Godward’s questioning of the pre-determined flatness of the painting space articulates connections to that of Ron Gorchov’s saddle paintings or of Zilia Sanchez’ poking “Topologies”.
If a painting is only to be defined by the sum of its parts (Figure/Ground, surface, flatness, gesture, limits, paint, etc.), Ryman and Godward's works are clearly not paintings. Neither are they wall mounted sculptures or even sculptors’ paintings. But they are three-dimensional objects transformed by a bi-dimensional gaze. Both artists create non-stretcher dependent supports. In both their cases the elaboration of the support is part and parcel of the finished product, not a pre-condition or a pre- determined and unquestioned element. And the results are Painting inflected objects. Objects which can be best deciphered via their reference to Painting’s codes.
“Painting as Model”, Yves Alain Bois’ notorious book title from 1993 look slightly different coloration than originally intended in the context of these two shows: Where, in his discussion of Hubert Damisch’s semiology analysis, Bois conceived of painting as a theoretical
model for the discourse about it, what Ryman and Godward seemed to suggest with their separate exhibitions might be closer to a “Painting as an empirical model” formulation: The experience of painting flowing into other fields. Painting as an epistemological and ontological model for non-
painting objects, where it is our experience of looking at paintings which provides us with the conceptual tools allowing us to attempt a reading of these unpainted objects.
Perhaps instead of closing in on themselves self-referentially could the codes of painting open up and inform other more conceptual or sculptural experiences? As an object presented frontally to our gaze, painting may be the closest device our culture has evolved to satisfy our insatiable scopic drive, our voracious need to see and the subsequent impulse to make sense of it by telling stories about it.
Ben Godward, "Heeey Eh Hay* (Where Everything is already complete, there is no fulfillment) as sung by Mick Jagger, 2023, urethane resin, 24”x 28”x 6”.