ABSTRACT REVERBERATIONS: A Review of Carrie Marill’s New Works.
§1. Walking into the Carrie Marill exhibit at Lisa Sette Gallery in downtown Phoenix is nothing short of a visual delight. Vibrant pin-stripped colors zigzag across Marill’s canvases, which are largely composed of hard geometric forms painted over raw linen. Her aesthetic is a strident balance of manufacture and modernism, or at least, that’s the first impression that one gets upon entering her most recent exhibit. This is because Marill’s paintings hit the senses with the controlled comfort of painstaking consideration that we have all come to associate with the rigor of abstract art’s very best practioners.
§2. Artists as noteworthy as Morris Louis, Helen Fankenthaler, and Sam Francis had already created fields of dancing color on raw canvas by the time that second wave Abstract Expressionism was in full swing, giving us something of an early precedent for the way that Marill’s paintings play the coolness of acrylic color against the warmth of an unprimed substrate. Although we must not forget later generations of abstract artists too, such as Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelley, and Peter Halley, all of whom provided a postmodern counterpart to high modernism’s splashiest works by marrying hard edge painting with a sense of texture, stricture and structure that resonates as much with Marill's aesthetic as anything else. In fact, we could say with a great deal of confidence, that her pictorial choices span the trans-Atlantic divide by playing with influences as far flung as the Abstract Classicists in California and Art Concrete in Europe. In other words, Marill is well versed in the valances of art history as well as contemporary trends in abstract painting, and here are a number of reasons why.
§4. But what kinds of systems are these paintings playing with exactly and where do we see this in the work? In order to better understand the kinds of interventions that Marill regularly introduces into the idiom of modernism, it’s best to start with the first work of hers that we see in the room when we enter the gallery moving in a counter-clockwise fashion. When strolling through the exhibit in this manner, the first painting that we encounter would be the 38’ by 44’, unframed, canvass titled, "The Original Pattern Affects the Rest". This painting consists of a grid that is set back in space, which is mostly black and white, and which is not wholly unlike a late Mondrian. The big difference however is that Marill has inserted short, stretched interruptions of color throughout, almost as if a glitch of some sort had occurred in this iconic modern aesthetic.
§6. Of course, all of these are rather matter of fact assessments of what this particular painting trades on in strictly visual terms, but what the casual viewer might miss is the many ways in which this first work sets up a series of questions about abstract painting that will continue to reverberate throughout the whole show. Even the title, "The Original Pattern Affects the Rest", points to a long history of rhetoric devices that have dominated abstract art for more than a century, and it is these nearly unconscious biases that are the aim of Marill’s own deconstructive approach to Hard Edge painting. Not to mention that she’s let you know to keep an eye out on the affective interplay in the gallery between different paintings as well as within singular works.
§8. But in the second work in this show, the joy in creating haptic pleasures seems to issue from the permutations in pattern-work that occur in the margins of this hermeneutic format. Here, I mean, in unexpected variations, colorful punctuations and the play of simultaneous contrast that occurs along the boarder of "It’s Everywhere I Love to Look" as well as in selective passages throughout the ‘overall’ composition. While we find these ways of activating the picture plane spread out across the entire surface of this square painting, the visual activity in this work occurs alongside selected black squares, where Marill has inserted a thin stripe of framing color, be it in red, blue, ochre, or any variety of greys. Hardly reproducible, these accents have to be seen in person in order to get a sense of how they motivate the eye to move across the surface of the canvas in a rather dynamic manner, making it dance from square to square while also creating a contrast between the center of the composition and the periphery, where small grey squares act as boundary markers and thin stripes of punchy color surround a classic checkerboard composition.
§10. While we can see that Marill’s compositions aren't made up of solid fields of color or big block geometries like all of the artists listed above, that is because Marill is interested in courting a kind of subtly with affective delights rather than creating a direct confrontation with immersive fields of pure chroma or cinemascope sized effects. Instead, the dominant motif in this body of work consists of stripes of one kind or another, which are either slightly thicker or thinner, a bit more glossy or matte, a touch more tightly packed together or a little more diffuse and dispersed throughout her varied compositions. But, even with this shift in emphasis away from big bold statements we can still note how her geometries tend to follow the contours of the canvass or how they consist of diagonal arrangements that veer toward greater and lesser degrees of incline.
§11. In other words, her choices are just a rigorous and insistent as her predecessors, even if they are presented at a more intimate scale than the masterworks of high modernism. And, of course, there is the obvious counter-point provided by Marill’s compositional choices, which, in a work like "Not Afraid of Color", consists of putting black and white squares in the center of a colorful framing device who’s contours are not wholly unlike the Arc de Triomphe. This counter-intuitive fission of color and contrast allows Marill’s paintings to inhabit a post-binary, post-monumental, post-production sensibility, which is simply a way of saying that this painting mixes regimes of color that are regularly held apart, that it trades on intensity rather than monumentality, and that it references the computation while still evidencing traces of ‘the handmade’. In fact, Marill’s "Not Afraid of Color” acts something like a status update that it is not a challenge to the cannon of abstract painting, but which represents an aesthetic inversion of the logic of iconicity, or even a detoured type of abstraction if you will.
§12. And this type of detournment doesn’t end with mixing the big, bright, bold colors of high modernism with the slightly more commercial motif of a black and white checkerboard pattern that could easily be found on any tablecloth or mid-century garment. Rather, Marill’s paintings also work to upset our notion of the autonomous work of art as soon as we look across the room and see the sister piece to "Not Afraid of Color" on the far east wall of the gallery. Beyond merely mimicking "Not Afraid of Color" in both size and compositional format, we can say that this next work consists of a single colorful rectangle striped in the same way a Jim Lambie installation piece looks on the floor of the Tate Modern. The big difference being that Lambie’s complete color fields of experience are meant to be walked through while Marill’s more restrained aesthetic relies on the fact that this particular painting has just a touch of raw canvass peaking through the center, almost highlighting how one last stripe of reduced color can act as an unmediated, unprimed pillar of sorts, around which the whole composition stands as a framing device for an absent center.
§14. Of course, it is just as possible that the work is titled “Secure Attachment” because the ground itself is given equal presence with all of the other colors in this piece, acting as a unprimed stripe at the center of the composition, while the rest of the raw linen still holds it’s place as a ground or even, as a framing device for the linear elements on the opposite wall. In more ways than one, these are the type of paintings that suggest a call and response system, or an edit and overlay program, or perhaps, even an open-ended dialog with not one, but many of the other paintings in the room. Once again, Marill has courted a thoroughly deconstructive approach to image making by playing the ground of the image against its abstract figures; by using colorful linear motifs abutted against squares; or really, by juxtaposing the negative image of a geometric shape against its positive form in another painting. In other words, the play of absence and presence in her work is not only accentuated, but it is actually heightened with the addition of each new piece in the room. One might even go so far as to say that the oscillation of visual activity in Marill’s most recent show is really more of an accumulated property that exists between the works on display or through the co-extensive experience of the exhibit in total.
§17. And for those who are unfamiliar with deconstruction as a philosophical project, or its influence in the arts, it is worth taking a moment to explain that deconstruction is considered, even today, to be one of the most controversial perspectives ever put forth about the nature of truths claims in the western continental tradition.3 The most expedient way of explaining the term, albeit in a rather gross and reductive manner, is that deconstruction largely consisted of underscoring the many ways that any discussion of privilege, presence and perpetuity is wholly dependent on what is excluded, marginalized and not given a voice. Derrida himself characterized deconstruction as the practice of an inclusive emancipatory politics that relied on the need to think in terms of circumspect ‘both/and’ statements rather than ‘either/or’ dichotomies. This allowed him to develop a philosophical project that was against exclusion and elitism, which has a direct bearing on Marill’s project if we understand that historically, these were also the two great criticisms that were leveled at abstract art.
§18. If that sounds a little complicated, it applies to the practice of painting and to Marill’s project in a rather concrete way. While artists such as Jennifer Bartlett had already included brushes and pallets as part of her work in the 80’s and 90’s, and Stella had already included the motifs of the geometer in his paintings about geometric morphology in the 60s and 70s, it is only here, in Marill’s work, that she gives us a look at paintings as a total process. She provides us with both painting/and it’s discarded ephemera rather than painting/or its unseen supports. This is most evident in her inclusion of painted chuck-keys that are used to tighten the canvas and the giant ball of tape that was needed to mask off portions of the work while it was being made. In this way, Marill gives us access to the remains of the day, both as a critique of the Greenbergian paradigm of ‘truth to materials’ and as an invitation to think about the greater context of art making as it applies to ideas of inclusion and exclusion, completion and excess, high art and its base materials.4 In other words, Marill’s pictorial choices are not without their aim inasmuch as they are historically specific and aesthetically decentering. This is because nothing in her exhibition is privileged and nothing is excluded.
§24. This is because of the fact, that all of what I have said above is obvious as you turn around to look backward at what you’ve seen in the exhibition thus far. What is important to take note of however, is that the frame on this last picture stands in for the perfected game of historical, pictorial and philosophical debates that have surrounded abstract art in the course of the twentieth century, and that this is given over to us in a final symbol, in the form an elegant umber umbrage, which is both a framing device and a literal frame, for the contested notion that abstraction has always been about connoisseurship and little else.
§26. This is a way of saying, that the kind of painting that Marill makes, set against those other painters working in the same genre, carries with it, an air of commitment to painting as-such, that few other abstract painters aspire to. And this is because she gives you the idea of aesthetic experience as a shared ambience that floats in a room even though each work is wholly self-supporting and can be thoroughly enjoyed on its own terms. This is what allows the whole of the space to exist as a charged vibrational quality. In other words, her work is historically informed and each of Marill’s pieces produces an affective reaction, whereas most postmodern abstraction was simply reactionary. In our current marketplace, we don’t need work that just echoes, mimics and parodies the achievements of the past. Instead, we need art that reverberates with the contemporary moment as part of the shared ambience we live in, or as part of what is often called the air of our cultural milieu. Marill’s work is just one such project, unique in the breadth of its ambitions, prescient in the timeliness of its convictions and quite frankly, the best representation I’ve seen of a deconstructivist aesthetic in painting in all my of years of writing about art.6 For that reason alone, Marill is to be loudly applauded just as her work should continue to command the attention of a growing audience in the art world and beyond.
§27. Furthermore, the visual choreography going on in the main room of the gallery not only renews the promise of abstract painting, but it complicates our relationship to a centuries old genre in unexpected and interesting ways. If we still have questions about abstraction in our culture today, from the abstraction provided for by financial markets on Wall Street, to the abstraction that accompanies many scientific breakthroughs, to the abstraction provided for by the rise of big data, or even the increasing abstraction of surveillance and real-time marketing, then the question that connects it all, and which can be troubling at times, is that these supposedly autonomous ‘closed’ systems are often revealed to be open ones, with marketers exchanging information with social networks, and social networks exchanging information with the government, and government officials exchanging information with corporations, etc., etc. And, Marill’s paintings are absolutely contemporaneous with these developments which is not only a mark of how they are co-extensive with other developments in the greater world of “abstraction”, but it evidences the way that Marill’s work sits at the top of her field, and that her painting practice is irreducible to either historical precedents or radical hermeneutics.
§28. In fact, her paintings are a reflection of the growing logic of interconnectedness that not only circumscribes our social fabric but the fabric of our natural world as well. And Marill's contribution is to have put it out there, in an allegorical and material form, that is representative of the ground upon which our post-industrial society is built and which is emblematic of the artifice which sits atop this tightly stretched substrate, i.e., Marill pictures are composed on a tautly stretched fabric beset by the slippage between the natural and the artificial, the earthen and the virtual, the slowly woven and slick sleek lines of industrial plastics. This is what allows us to say, that these deconstructive paintings demonstrate how abstraction can cover over a site unseen, and how painting can make seeing our world into a process of integral discovery once again. They do this by decentering all of our preconceived notions about what abstract art was, is and can be. In other words, by reconfiguring the known, Marill’s work opens us up to experiencing the unknown, which is the very best of what any genre of art can do. And her latest show succeeds in spades for having achieved it in the most daunting and historical bound of idioms, namely, that of abstract painting.
1. It goes without saying that ‘art for art’s sake’ or ideas like ‘color for color’s sake’ have been roundly attacked for privileging the eye over the mind, and that this critique sits at the center of the divide between painting and more conceptually informed art practices. These arguments however, are perhaps best presented in The Rhetoric of Purity: Essentialist Theory and the Advent of Abstract Painting by Mark C. Cheetum and the collected edition titled Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision edited by David Michael Levin.
2. What Derrida called the “archeology of the frivolous” concerns that other hotly contested term of modernity and abstract painting, namely, the idea of ‘genius’. For Derrida, the notion of genius was not innate, but rather, the idea itself relied on making a deviation from the regular use of language in an unexpected manner. In this way, abstraction can be viewed as being a deviation from the regular use of painting for representational ends, or one can talk about how each abstract painter creates deviations from the kinds of other abstract paintings that have already been made, or which populate their own oeuvre. In this way, genius is viewed as a kind of “double gesture” or “historical reflexivity” whereby “The medium of the conditions for (the) discovery (of genius) is always the history of language, the history of sign systems.” It goes without saying that Derrida’s deconstructive definition of genius as a “new combination”, a “new turn of expression within the rules of analogy” and as an “idiomatic deviation” are all wonderful ways for thinking about Marill’s project, which is the case that I make throughout the course of this review. Derrida, Jacques. The Archeology of the Frivolous (University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, 1973) 63, 63, 65, 71.
3. Derrida’s philosophy had far reaching implications for art because of the many ways that he challenged the notion of transcription as always already relying on a kind of model that the artist puts into play at the very moment they look away from the subject, and that this momentary blindness to the language adopted in that split second of 'inspiration' is what masquerades as the idea of originality in the modern era (see Memoirs for the Blind). Of course, this insight is very close to what the critic Harold Bloom called revisionary ratios in art production and how he characterized 'the anxiety of (artistic) influence' that is always already caught up in the modern game of trying to birth the aesthetic experience of 'the new'. Contra Bloom, Derrida has extended this critique to the much more controversial topic of the frame and its relation to a completed work in The Truth in Painting, but the main topic of his deconstructive inquires into art over the course of his prodigious output about aesthetic experience concerned the notion of vision as knowledge, and knowledge as supporting a series of truth claims about a subject. For Derrida, this is the metaphysical quandary of modern art as well as modernity at large. For a fuller account of the consequences of deconstruction in art see, McCumber, John, “Derrida and the Closure of Vision” in Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision, ed. David Michael Levin (University of California Press: Berkley, 1993), Chapter 9: “Phallogocularentricism”: Derrida and Irigaray in Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth Century Thought. Jay, Martin (University of California Press: Berkley, 1994) and of course the collected edition Deconstruction and the Visual Arts: Art, Media, Architecture, ed. Peter Brunette and David Wills (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1994).
4. Of course Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Michel Fried and many other critics had all been making arguments on behalf of the ‘truth to materials”, the “specificity of objecthood” and so on throughout the course of the 20th century as a means of helping art to secure its own domain of inquire alongside the sciences. Ironically, this demarcation of means and themes reproduced the ideology of scientism within the humanities and lead to the ‘high moment of deconstruction’ in the arts during the later half of the 20th century, ultimately opening the question of art making back up to an ‘expanded field’ of concerns. The short genealogy of this ‘turn’ in painting is covered in the following paragraph, where I place Marill’s project after that of Stella and Bartlett, the first of whom critiqued the notion of closed hermeneutic systems in fine art production by opening the 2-D picture place back up to all sorts of varied constructions, the second of which included all sorts of materials in her paintings and exhibitions such as paint brushes, pallets, tubes of paint and so on and so forth. Taken together, these artists are the forerunners to Marill’s working program just as the various schools of Hard Edge painting could be said to provide some insight into her aesthetic choices.
5. It is unfortunate that the over-inflated and over-hyped works of Neo-Expression in the 80s are once again mirrored in the practice of ‘art-flipping’ and the recent rise and fall of Zombie abstraction, but, projects like Marill’s are a kind of stop gap measure against such absurd market excesses. Instead, Marill plays with an excess of meaning production in art that strikes a balance between commitment and pictorial/philosophical consequences in contemporary painting, both of which are sorely needed in the field of abstract art today.
6. While I have done my best to point out the deconstructive implications of Marill’s painting practice, the issue of sovereignty or autonomy in art, and the influence of deconstruction on thinking about these issues is perhaps best handled by Christopher Menke in his excellent text The Sovereignty of Art: Aesthetic Negativity in Adorno and Derrida. Here, Menke writes the following regarding Derrida’s contribution to the discourse of aesthetics and how thinking about the play of aesthetic deferral follows from Derrida’s philosophy of difference: “The formation of aesthetic meaning out of signifiers and their interconnection appears also to designate the point at which one can speak of the processuality of aesthetic understanding. Aesthetic understanding does not consist in establishing relationships between signifying elements, but in the reenactment of the process by which they are interconnected in such a way as to gain meaning. Aesthetic meaning is pushed back into the experiential enactment of the interrelation of signifying units. Establishing that aesthetic meaning is formed out of the interconnection of its signifiers does not by itself, however, provide an account sufficient to ground the thesis of the interminable, nonteleological processuality of aesthetic experience. Interminable processuality comes to characterize aesthetic experience because this experience needs to do more than just aesthetically relate elements already identified as signifiers; instead, even the identification of those elements interrelated to one another, of the signifiers of aesthetic meaning, becomes a problem for it.” This is one of the most succinct definitions ever written about how the play of aesthetic deferral is characterized in deconstructive aesthetics and it is also what I am conscripting as being someone akin to the quality of reverb in the work of Carrie Marill. Menke, Christopher. The Sovereignty of Art: Aesthetic Negativity in Adorno and Derrida (MIT Press: Cambridge, 1999) 49.