a review of Laeh Glenn's "Ordinary Objects"

By Mario Miron

Everything is falling out of place

When you look at paintings, there are always expectations of scale, color, texture and even smell. In Laeh Glenn’s show “Ordinary Objects” at the Altman Siegel gallery in San Francisco, we don’t just see her paintings, but catch them in action. These small paintings have the power to transform the architecture of the gallery and I would guess the architecture of any walls or buildings that they touched. We know that galleries are white cubes, and yet somehow her paintings remind us that we need to be reminded of that fact. Glenn’s paintings have an acute sense of spatial awareness and that leads to a host of questions. What is ordinary in your life? What do you like to toy with? What is mundane about a cybernetic digital world? What is exciting about a black and white painting? These questions don’t lead to immediate answers and yet Glenn’s work is responsive to them all and in many ways leads us to new and startling conclusions about how we see. That impulse, is painting at its best.

Glenn received her BFA from CCA in 2008 and her MFA from UCLA in 2012. She paints primarily with oil on wood at a formal and controlled scale of 16 5/8 x 12 5/8 inches, although the frames of her work are fragmented and seemingly incomplete. All of her work is conveniently titled, “Untitled.”

The paintings are primarily flat, black and white and curiously balanced between abstraction and representation. Their sleek presentation and controlled perfection hides how delicately constructed they are. The surfaces betray no telltale signs of brushwork, as if she created them in one fell swoop. You can’t even figure out how they were made until you’re right in front them and smell the oil seeping from the canvas. The proliferation of computer-mediated imagery in our culture gives Glenn’s work the sheen of having been vectored through illustrator or manipulated in Photoshop, but the works are much too alive and painterly to be a product of Adobe.

Without making outlandish proclamations, these paintings control the gallery space like a slave driver whipping his captives to the new world. The brutality is controlled and precise. The presentation is especially telling in how it guides your eye. Look below to see what I mean:

My eyes are under Glenn's control
When I walked in I felt order and yet at the same time, not to fall into punning, they did seem to be the most ordinary objects, although presented and rendered in the most extraordinary fashion. That they’re all black and white, which is hardly ordinary in today’s art market, touches on the ordinary and mundane—it’s reminds us not of an avant-garde stunt, but the comfort of our grandparents black and white televisions.

For example, what could be more utilitarian or simple than pouring a hot cup of coffee or tea? It’s a task that most of us perform everyday without ever thinking about it. Glenn’s genius is in capturing the mundane when it’s most obvious and then giving it startling new dimensions. Look at the way the plaid pattern pops the cup into the foreground, and how pleased the cup looks. Of course, it’s a singing cup, which is both funny and perfect. The painting is even framed, literally and symbolically, as a picture perfect moment and Glenn makes sure that we understand that its perfection comes from its being so normal. The flat surface of this painting is in marked contrast to its subject matter, a singing mug. It is hilarious, shocking and brilliantly conceived.

Like a cup of painting?

The first painting you see as you enter the Altman Siegel gallery is full of scribbles. The scribbles have Adobe Illustrator drop shadows – the idea of painting drop shadows is inherently funny – and highlights how technology has given us the power to do anything but come up with a subject. You can almost feel the desperation of someone not knowing how to run an illustrator program and then doing the one task they feel competent to perform—drop shadows, yes! The thought that this image is painted is disconcerting. When so many real objects are becoming animated, digitized and digitally rendered, it’s unnerving when digital imagery is made solid and tangible, simply turned into paint. What Glenn has done is make a painting of something that almost defies the act of painting.

Only the drop shadows know

One of the most striking paintings of the show is a silhouette of a ghost, a dead dog, something, on top of what appears to be either a sky or the residue of another painting, maybe its mineral spirits. What is interesting about this work is how effectively it deals with questions of painting. The play on words between ghost and mineral spirits is striking and all the more so for its visual punch. For a painter so obviously indebted to the digital world, Glenn can get sharp and traditional when it comes to what paintings can accomplish. Here, painting haunts the more prosaic world of computer-generated imagery and painting wins. It’s a fight that is going to be with us for the near future and all young painters should be emboldened by Glenn’s early round victory.

Somewhere in infinity

There’s only one painting with any color in it and it’s all alone, symbolically the last painting of the show. You can’t help notice where Glenn and Altman Siegal have placed it, to the side of the wall rather than dead center. In this sense, what is painted becomes secondary to how it is positioned and yet somehow this blue painting (an obvious pun for loneliness), as well as Glenn’s other work, overcomes conceptual positions. Her paintings understand the stage of the gallery and posit an aesthetic where the digital, not painting, is fading away. There is no doubt that we’re seeing more and more painters addressing the tremendous advances in computer-generated imagery, and Glenn’s work is a brilliant volley into the beginning of an ongoing and long war.

©Mario Miron and the CCA Arts Review

No comments:

Post a Comment