Mel Brooks’s film History of the World: Part 1 (1981) features a short scene devoted to: ‘The birth of the first artist and first critic by means of natural selection.’ A narcissistic caveman is painting on the wall of a grotto, surrounded by a group of admirers. The idyllic scene is interrupted by a senior figure arriving to judge the mural. After a brief moment of reflection, he shows his disapproval for the newly created art work by urinating on it. The admirers’ acclaim wanes. With caustic wit, Brooks underscores one of the dominant clichés of contemporary art: that it’s the critics who decide which works are important.
Avery Singer’s paintings are laced with a similarly ironic humour. In a recent interview, she named Brooks as one of her biggest influences, alongside comedians such as Woody Allen and Zero Mostel. The gentle sarcasm embedded in her work is usually aimed at art-world stereotypes. Her first solo exhibition at Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler in Berlin last year, for example, was a satiric take on the art industry and its conventions. Works with titles such as The Studio Visit (2012), Jewish Artist and Patron (2012) and The Great Muses (2013) play on myths around the romantic figure of the artist. The show was accompanied by a short text by Singer, a fake press release for an exhibition that will never happen, which mocked the cryptic language of much art writing. However, although humour recurs time and again in Singer’s work, it is offset by her complex considerations of art history and visual culture.
Singer’s large paintings are densely crowded with quotations from avant-garde art history: Naum Gabo’s ‘Heads’ (1915–67), Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No.2) (1912), various constructivist works. Singer combines references with the frivololity of a dada collagist. There are cubo-futurist echoes in her attempts to represent multiple perspectives, while a cold, elegant art deco aesthetic lends her paintings a seductive charm. Singer’s father was a projectionist at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; perhaps she owes her visual fluency to their frequent morning walks through the museum before it opened.
The artist composes her paintings with SketchUp, a 3D modelling programme. The computer-generated sketch is then projected onto a canvas and Singer renders the shapes and forms using masking tape and an airbrush in a process that takes her weeks to complete. The finished works are often more than three metres long, a size that amplifies the associations, timelines and strange juxtapositions she conjures. Most of her paintings are black and white, evoking historical film footage, old photographs and archival documents.
The painting Dancers Around an Effigy to Modernism (2013) features a sculpture by Rachel Harrison (who, in turn, uses readymades) and an image documenting Chris Burden’s 1974 performance Velvet Water. (Burden’s interest in media and technology suggests a curious interpretational thread here.) These and other references are scattered between figures dancing around a rendering of Skulptur 23 (1923) by Rudolf Belling who, as well as being an artist, was the author of highly influential theories of space and form. Belling claimed that, since a sculpture will be perceived from different vantage points, all of these should be considered in the design process. In many ways, Singer, who studied sculpture at Cooper Union in New York, seems more preoccupied with this notion than with current tendencies in contemporary painting. Her monochromatic palette is telling: the decorative painting technique grisaille uses shades of grey to imitate sculpture.
Many of the images in Singer’s compositions are based on 3D models; she also includes references to mirrors and computer screens, evoking a sense of things that can be hidden. Commenting recently on her new body of work, Singer described it as as a ‘kind of trompe l’oeil, something that a viewer could imagine walking into, or stepping around, to see what else is there’. She also paints fictional performances and stills from unrealized movies and snapshots: accidentally registered moments in a larger mise-en-scène. Action seems to extend beyond the picture’s frame, implying the existence of a bigger scenario.
Singer’s work is underpinned by subtle contradictions. Being interested in film – a medium associated with immateriality and temporality – she chose to study sculpture, a classical genre devoted to giving lasting form to matter. She then experimented with digital tools, before arriving at the traditional medium of painting. Her 3d models serve as sketches for 2d art works and for still lifes that seem to be in constant motion. Singer assembles a hybrid of past, present and future, which she then translates into paintings, approached as sculptures staged for performances frozen in time.