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R.H. Quaytman

Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York, USA

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R.H. Quaytman, Chapter 12: iamb (2008)

In 1939, R.H. Quaytman’s grandfather and great-grandfather were driving back from the New York World’s Fair when they were suddenly crushed to death by an oncoming train. The accident was caused by a malfunctioning railway light. Much later, Quaytman tracked down the story in New York newspaper The Sun and used it as the basis for her 2001 exhibition at Spencer Brownstone Gallery, ‘Chapter 1: The Sun’. The reaction is characteristic: hers is a deliberate practice with a strong sense of the past (all four of her parents were artists) and of community (she was the director of the collaborative artist-run gallery Orchard for three years). Likewise, the tragedy, with its flickering lights in darkness, attests to the nature of Quaytman’s metaphorical systems, in which vision and disappearance, or blindness and insight, are inevitably intertwined.

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‘Chapter 12: iamb’ (installation view, 2008)

These elements - the complications of tradition, an intimate and opulent solar weave - are significantly elaborated in ‘Chapter 12: iamb’ at Miguel Abreu. The paintings, all silkscreen on wood, derive from a very simple motif: a painting lit by a lamp, from which comes the idea of the blind-spot. Sometimes the theme is fairly literal - four are titled Chapter 12: iamb (2008), each depicting a painting and a lamp - but there are also formal variations on the theme: sometimes the bulb yields a fuzzy circular glow; sometimes a halo, from which soft light falls; and in one case the verticality of the lamp and painting is dramatized by a tall acidic streak against the otherwise subtle palette. In paintings like Chapter 12: iamb, (lateral inhibitions in the perceptual field) (2008), no lamp is depicted, just a shimmering grid: the blind-spot here is optical - the viewer is unable to bring the grid into focus, not without flickering and ghosts. On the other hand, Chapter 12: iamb (Fresnell lens) (2008) does not emphasize the disruption or inconsistency of vision so much as the sparkle of revelation, achieved with a sprinkling of real diamond dust.

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Chapter 12: iamb (blind smile) (2008)

The more one looks, the more intricate and self-referential Quaytman’s theme becomes. Motifs, even whole paintings, reappear: Chapter 12: iamb, (lateral inhibitions in the perceptual field) (2008), for example, is vertical. In another painting, however, one sees that first painting again, only rotated 90 degrees and framed by a white border. In Chapter 12: iamb (blind smile), it is again rotated, marked by lamplight in the upper right corner, and held aloft, or at least cryptically pointed to, by a shirtless bearded man (Dan Graham, actually). The addition of two smaller, hand-painted oils from another, earlier series increases the complication. The first, Chapter 2: Lødz Poem—Caption b (2002), literally points towards the paintings that follow; Limbo of Vanity (2003) reiterates the solar metaphor with its concentric circles above a black field, painted with spinel black, an ultra-absorbent pigment invented for the stealth bomber.

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‘Chapter 12: iamb’ (installation view, 2008)

The big blind-spot here is painting - a question, or void, that one can only circle around: painting as (absent) father and bright and blinding sun. Quaytman has emphasized the absolute centrality of painting to her development as an artist, her desire to ‘maintain and simultaneously disrupt painting’s absolute presence’, as well as the medium’s ‘arrogance’ and ‘ego’, its foundational and even prophetic efficacy. Even when working as a photographer, Quaytman had painting on her mind - or, more precisely, she picked up the camera as a path towards painting, to better ‘understand the symbolic space of painting.’ It is therefore fitting to evoke an image from the history of painting: Quaytman’s motif - the painting lit by the lamp - recalls Georges de la Tour, who attained, with candlelight, and especially the effects of a hidden or obscured candle, an art of occasionally elfin abstract delicacy, as well as a reverential quality that is never histrionic. With ‘Chapter 12: iamb’, Quaytman could be said to achieve much the same thing.

David Lewis


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About this review

Published on 20/01/09
by David Lewis


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