Wade Guyton And The “Imperfect Beauty” Cliché

12/05/2012 4:00 AM |

“I don’t want Wade Guyton’s printer,” my mother told me as we walked through his mid-career retrospective OS at The Whitney. I can’t say I blame her. The third-floor exhibition is filled with more than 80 mostly grayish striped canvases, all produced by a printer with a reliably faulty inkjet. Nothing is printed perfectly.

In the art world, we recognize these errors as a familiar trope—the celebration of imperfect beauty is so common it has become a cliché—but now that a computer did it, Whitney curator Scott Rothkopf believes we should get excited again. When Guyton prints Daniel Buren-like stripes over a reproduction of a Frank Kupka or an unidentified modernist sculpture, we’re reminded that art’s historical lineage can be infinitely repeated and remixed by the touch of a button. The trouble is that the same concept is laid bare every time any one of us decides to shoot a reproduction with our iPhone. For people like my mother, the conceit isn’t particularly impressive.

That’s not to say that the show doesn’t have its moments. An untitled series of horizontally striped canvases that stretches across a gallery wall is pretty impressive for size alone, and the reflective U sculptures placed in front of them augments the visual vibration caused by their patterning. Then there’s the back room, where an enormous green-and-red-striped painting envelops the viewer. It just feels good to be in this room.
Overall, however, you can’t help be struck by the lack of curiosity this artist has for the technology that helps produce so much of his work. Among the first pieces you see is a series of canvases with just a sliver of gray printed-material on their tops, followed by those with gray printed Xs on another side of the room. It’s tedious and reflects none of the invention or creative energy that characterizes the work of other artists who have similarly worked with printers. I’m thinking of Anthony Antonellis, whose “Document” is a technological endurance piece in which a 600-page pdf color artwork is sent to a consumer-grade printer and run until the ink is fully depleted. Whereas this piece elegantly engages a common usage to make a statement, Guyton instead relies on wall labels and reviews to explain his work’s conceptual relationship to Andy Warhol’s screen prints (or more interestingly, the early glitch stills of Karl Klomp). They don’t make the pieces any better.

A more concrete visual reference to Warhol would, though, which is why Guyton’s collaborations with Kelly Walker are much more successful. Their heaps of drywall and paint-cans wrapped in prints of Warholesque bananas suggest that printing-technology makes the distinction between raw materials and art objects rather thin. It’s a visual statement that’s worth contemplating, so it’s a shame viewers are never given the opportunity to do so. None of those collaborations were included in the show.

There’re probably reasons for this. Rothkopf and Guyton may have wanted a more Guyton-centric show, and given the fact that it’s Guyton’s first mid-career survey at the museum, that’s understandable. Still, I don’t like it, and that’s in large part because I don’t believe it’s the update The Whitney claims Guyton’s work embodies. Technology allows people to share and collaborate more easily, and it’s messy sometimes. The objects in this show reflect the art-world tendency to aestheticize error and vault lone genius—despite technology’s efforts to challenge them.

6 Comment

  • Excellent piece, especially this point: “…you can’t help but be struck by the lack of curiosity this artist has for the technology that helps produce so much of his work.”

    Weirdly, paired with that lack of curiosity toward technology is a desire to be so transparent about it (e.g., wall text citations of printer models and lively descriptions of Guyton’s rassling with them) that the works become entirely about process rather than product. (Another, perhaps less-chided cliché.) To me, the prints represent the latest and most blatant of what Michael Fried called “theatricality”–not only is a consideration of our spectatorship required to make the objects worth looking at (a tail-eating snake), but too much of their achievement further hinges on our visualizing Guyton, jamming his printer to achieve the desired effect. It’s a practice closer to poor (if implied) performance art than good painting.

  • Oh, so your mom doesn’t like the show?

  • I actually would like Mr. Guyton’s printer, they’re quite exspensive and it’s a shame that such a wonderful piece of technology is wasted on an artist so seemingly intent on re-hashing geometric abstraction. I think a merger of form and content could be so much more interesting and I agree that there are many artists doing much more interesting things with these tools and ideas than him.

  • Thank you for the sort of take-down this show needed in tandem with John Yau’s piece. Love how the two of you stand in contention with Roberta and Jerry. The divide seems to reflect the state of criticism today. The Gray Lady and the art world’s hip uncle incontinently chose feeling over reason in their assessments of the work, which you’d expect from the blogosphere– not the New York establishment.

  • It seems to me far too many viewers get caught up in the process that was used to make those works and reading wall texts instead of just spending time with the objects, thinking about those objects and the experience of viewing them. I disagree with Paddy whole-heartedly; I don’t care about the technology. I know enough about that; it surrounds me daily. I want to experience something I don’t know about. I want to be asked to think and feel.

  • I can’t believe this got a show where? The Whitney? Some multicolored diagonals that do what? Maybe this reviewer should get an art history class that explains the old term ‘iconography’. That a computer did the slippage, so what and why should we get excited about something that redundantly repeats Warhols misregistrations with screenprint imagery and goes all the way back to Duchamp’s Dustbreeding. Again like other ‘vacuous’ shows reviewed here, you have to ask why?