Is Succeeding at Conveying the Inevitability of Failure… a Failure?

05/04/2010 5:00 AM |

Failure is the stale air exiting pillows on a two-legged couch. It’s a series of silk-screened paintings that reproduce nearly indecipherable pages from the academic paper “Failure of Interpolation in Modal Logics,” and a pathetic set of colored dominos set so far apart they wouldn’t even manage to domino. Failure is pitiful.

It’s also wretched… but that aspect doesn’t come into play much at the Becket Bowes exhibition “Failure Canon” described above at Rachel Uffner Gallery. According to the press release the show highlights art’s attempt to communicate and its inevitable failure to do so; that Bowes is so thoroughly effective in showcasing art’s limitations, suggests a false paradox. The artist’s success is not further evidence of failed communication, but reveals either a flawed or limited concept. After all, disproving one’s own thesis is an effective transmission of ideas, regardless of the concept.

For the most part the show succeeds though, largely through its defeatist charm. There’s something mildly amusing about looking at paintings while listening to the cushions of a yellow sofa deflate like a sigh as your ass sinks in the furniture. The couch has a “serviceable cushioned surface” going for it, and that’s about it. It certainly doesn’t offer much of a view, forcing gallery goers to gaze up at mid-sized paintings, each hung as though they are about to fall off the wall…

In addition to the sad-sack couch, cliches and accomplishment are served with equal rigor. The paintings are exceptionally well executed for example, but rely on contemporary art’s trend de jour, trompe-l’oeil, a technique in which artists render imagery extremely realistically. Similarly, colored dominoes elegantly line one wall of the gallery, while simultaneously referencing another overly-popular point of interest within the art world: reproduction. None of this soils the work: the point is that for every gain made by the artist, there is also a loss.

In only one or two instances is this balance less than perfect. The artist’s calculated slanted hanging (that makes the paintings seem as though they’re falling off the wall) indicates a failure to communicate by even further obscuring the text, but does so in a very tedious manner. (I get the joke, it’s just not that funny). More interesting is the labor-intensive, meticulous carving out of the article’s letters on vinyl to silkscreen the work, if for no other reason than to adorn the beautiful surfaces Bowes creates. On pure painting alone, the best works are those without too much type-written material, as the half-full sheets are just as impenetrable, yet provide a little more breathing space for the eye.

This aspect of the work doesn’t scream “failure to communicate,” though formalism does seem to be beside the point. The exhibition as a whole is far more about defeat. For all the work that goes into the paintings, very little is expected in return. The show is like that clever uncle you never had; he didn’t achieve much in his life, but his company sure was swell. Such experiences and objectives don’t seem like a lot, but in the case of “Failure Canon,” they were never meant to.