New York is a painting town. It matters to people here. They make films about painters painting. Historians memorialize New York as the crucible of vanguard painting. People make ab ex homages, fret about Andy Warhol’s legacy and Christopher Wool’s prices. They get serious about ironic end-game painters from Cologne. Don’t get me wrong: New York excels at sculpture, performance, video, photography and all the rest, too. But deep down, this town’s true love is oil on canvas, and the city requires a constant feed of white, male, painter-heroes to maintain the romance (despite the fact that the most interesting painting being made here right now is almost all by women). One such hero-painter is Wade Guyton, who recently had his first solo show at Petzel Gallery in seven years.
As his mid-career survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2012 demonstrated, there’s much more to Guyton than painting. For starters, there is the fact that he’s a skilled printmaker who has been mistaken for a painter. If using a computer printer to make marks on canvas is to be considered a major breakthrough in painting – in his review of Guyton’s Whitney show, Jerry Saltz declared that, by using a printer, the artist had ‘invented a new paintbrush’ – then we should probably venerate every art student who has been let near a photocopier. Nor is Guyton working at the bleeding edge of digital art; he uses digital files to generate his imagery, but so do many artists. His resulting works are essentially analogue objects for an industry still far more comfortable with the physical than the digitally immaterial. Which is not to say that they aren’t interesting. Guyton’s sculptures and 2D works featuring letter forms – U, X – are tantalizing because they hover on the edge of articulacy, like someone stricken with aphasia trying to make themselves understood. So too his vitrines, filled with scrappy, overprinted images on pages that have seemingly been tossed carelessly inside. They suggest a back-story – a deliberate act of vandalism, say, or a theft. I find Guyton engaging when he pulls away from the formal fetishes of painting and pushes a more suggestive, sublimated narrative.
His Petzel Gallery show comprised five large linen canvases, hung horizontally and sized to the exact width of each gallery wall so that their ends abutted in every corner. Printed on the linen was an enlarged image made from the same digital file with which he made his last show at the gallery in 2007. The gallery press release deadpanned that the canvases were printed with an Epson 11880 using UltraChrome K3 and Vivid Magenta ink. The surface colour was anything but ultra, vivid or magenta: ghostly grey flecks and inky black striations lined the paintings, the effect suggesting a Xeroxed Agnes Martin. A close look revealed what appeared to be dust and scratches, but could have been digital glitches or globs of ink. These stretches of dirty white were interrupted with sections solid with black ink, giving the eye punctuation points in the otherwise spectral installation. In one corner, two of the paintings were wedged awkwardly; a moment of high drama relative to the rest of the show.
That the paintings were made to the gallery’s exact dimensions (a conceit Guyton repeated in April at Galerie Gisela Capitain in Cologne) was the show’s USP. You could argue that these paintings, working in concert with the elegant and airy proportions of Petzel Gallery, created a serene circuit of formal harmony between art and architecture. But if you got out on the wrong side of the bed and took another look, you could also argue that these bespoke paintings serve to flatter gallery authority; showing off a system that can underwrite art works whose onanistic topic is the studio-to-gallery relationship. Visually, these works give us a comforting and familiar minimal abstraction that gently whispers taste and connoisseurship. Of course, we can discuss the philosophical ramifications of making them on an Epson printer using a digital file generated seven years ago. But even if these were made with potato prints, the result is still an historically sanctioned modernist aesthetic that reinforces its authority each time it’s repeated. In an adjacent gallery was a sculpture Guyton exhibited at the 2013 Carnegie International, replicating the form of a museum coat-check cupboard. Maybe this was the punchline; work made in anticipation of its own institutional canonisation.
To buy into these works is to buy into the back-story of their manufacture. But is it a story worth telling? Process painting, minimal abstraction – call it whatever you like – can be seen everywhere at the moment, from the work of Guyton to that of emerging artists such as Parker Ito, Jacob Kassay and Lucien Smith. The process-based approach of these younger artists demonstrates just how conservative contemporary art can get; banal methods resulting in numbingly conventional formalism whose fashionability occludes how safe and insipid the work really is. (‘I made this painting with a fire extinguisher!’ ‘The pattern of this one’s based on the soles of my sneakers!’) The Petzel show disappointed because I am sure Guyton has far more adventurous stories to tell than this one.