a review of Laeh Glenn's "Ordinary Objects"

By Addison Herndon

There must be order

I hated Laeh Glenn’s “Ordinary Objects”, and yet, you know, this is one of the best shows I've seen in quite some time. It says a lot about the contemporary art world that I want to rip into it with all the intellectual and conceptual power I can muster and still realize how talented and accomplished Glenn’s work is. Despite her achievements, or maybe because of them, I feel she and artists like her must be stopped. Whatever her individual talents, she’s part of a movement that’s destroying painting and so it’s necessary to call into question what Glenn does and the nature of her achievements.

Glenn makes intelligent, minimalist surrealist paintings. Her technique is flawless and the melding of form and content inspired. Even her use of the Seigal space was purposeful, thoughtful and elegant: the sixteen neutral monochromatic 12” x 16” paintings, all titled, “untitled,” controlled the gallery in a Feng Shui chokehold of good taste and proper flow. The work pulls you around the room in a spiral, each beautifully rendered work a mere resting place in the journey of looking and seeing. It feels like the whole experience fell out of an art theory textbook. Given the interesting conceptual art-play taking place, I felt that I should be excited and yet I was bored. Am I a philistine or is something else going on? Well, in the spirit of Glenn’s spiral, let me lead the way and take you to the source.


The color that Glenn does use, she uses sparingly and precisely, nudging her paintings towards a conscious minimalism. While this continuity of style and order is pleasing to the eye as one walks though the show, it’s also a little deadening and creates an unnecessary distance. Glenn seems to see color as a rude outsider, an unpleasant reminder that everything is not design.

David Batchelor is sharp on the issue of how something as basic as color can be frightening: “Color is made out to be the property of some 'foreign' body – usually the feminine, the oriental, the primitive, the infantile, the vulgar, the queer or the pathological.” He goes on to say that color is, “not only low down on the hierarchy of a painter's skills and resources, as it has been in academic training from the start; it is down there because that position corresponds to colour's lowly place in the moral hierarchy of the universe.” So while this lack of color might make Glenn's work seem slick and sophisticated, it also visually separates the work from the messiness of the world. These paintings play to the sophisticated white elite, the 1% who collects art rather than experiences it.

Color is Messy
Glenn has an interest in frames (I would have said obsession, but her choices seem too composed and controlled for that), although she sure makes sure you are aware of her interests. In 1981, Tversky and Kahneman conducted a study that proved that framing affects the choices that people make. In the study they found that while it seemed that people leaned towards things that were framed positively, they actually leaned towards choices that seemed riskier. In some pieces, such as the tetris-esque block piece, Glenn uses negative framing to great effect, allowing the lack of a bottom frame to make the painting seem to be falling instead of floating.

Although artfully done, Glenn's cutting of the frame is a failed attempt to break from the normal gallery viewing practices. The clean black frame has become the norm, but her undercutting of it is so understated that she seems to be colluding with the very idea that she is critiquing. To further the point, even the 'unframed' sections have another frame, either hidden within the painting or matted off. Ultimately Glenn’s gesture towards radical aesthetics becomes just another way of selling art and instead of making any statement of value, she merely recapitulates the ways art is made, displayed and sold. This isn’t a revolutionary call to arms, which would be wonderful, but a week old birthday balloon, deflated, limp and gasping for air.

I’m not suggesting that Glenn doesn’t use space in an intelligent manner. There is a surreal buoyancy to the show and her paintings and we shouldn’t diminish the many technical accomplishments in achieving that. It’s just that after seeing this happen two, three, four times I got the point, over and over again. Her show is a perfect combination of theoretical heft and formal complexity leaving you with an art that feels like a series of redundant exercises. In the end, you want to see the athletes play the game and not warm up for three hours.

You must decide
Her best piece is the one that leads off the show. It seems to be a minimalist squiggly line with a realistic drop shadow, but the squiggly line jumps straight off the canvas and makes you, as I pointed out earlier in so many of the paintings, question the nature of the frame. While the striking illusion of depth caught me, mainly because the tone of the drop shadow was the same tint as the actual shadow created by the edge of the frame, I wanted more—more size, more color, more effect, more, more, more! While artists like Bridget Riley and Sven Lukin have similar concerns, they push them to create powerful experiences. Glenn aims to be underwhelming and succeeds, but as a strategy for real painting and real art, I question that.

A cup and a song?
You can feel the humorous slant in Glenn’s work in her painting of the whistling coffee cup. Maybe I'm the only person with a strong aversion to plaid, but this piece, while interesting and somewhat comical, is not truly funny and stops just short of being intriguing. What’s dispiriting is that it could have been easily created in windows paint. So why wasn't it? The answer is that it wouldn’t be much of anything if it were. As a piece of work it doesn’t need to be a painting, but the art market needs for it to be a painting because it certainly isn’t going to sell as a digital gif. It screams sophisticated – monochromatic, comic, conceptual – but doesn’t actually have anything about it or any subject that comes from it for it to be sophisticated about. It’s just the sign of sophistication.

Ghost Dog
Aside from the squiggly line painting, the most successful of the paintings is the Snoopy-esque figure that lies over what seems to be stars. It’s the goofiest of Glenn’s paintings and provides the rare moment in the show where concept and execution come together in beautiful accord. Her use of visibly evident strokes against what seems a salt effect that echoes a starry night is magnificent. This is the only painting in the show that seems as if it needed to be painted, where everything else could have been handled on a computer.

Glenn’s work would be so much better if she allowed the content to determine the materials and size of her work instead of visa-versa. It would make her work seem less computer-generated and more human. Here, by allowing size and concept to be more important than actual painting, she makes it obvious that display and design are more important to her than painting. To be clear, people that say size doesn't matter are lying: the size of a painting should be determined by its subject matter. I sure don't want my cell phone to be five-feet tall, but that doesn't mean that Claes Oldenberg 's twenty-foot tall Swiss army knife doesn't make an impression.

That's a big red Swiss Army Knife
As interesting and thought provoking as Glenn’s work is, her dedication to conceptual theory over actual painting is a major problem with her work and a major problem in the field. Much contemporary art seems so intent on making “critical” art that they bypass the actual making of art. While concepts and theories can be interesting, unfortunately, in Glenn’s work, it leads nowhere.

Personal Postscript

I know how strong the talons of theory and conceptual jiu-jitsu are and how they have their grip on Glenn as well as many other artists. Glenn graduated from the CCA undergrad program in 2008. As a present student in the program I feel the pressure to make conceptual work that is supposedly critical of, well, whatever we are supposed to be critical of at the moment. And yeah, I had my conceptual phase, but I came to realize that this little world is actually a little world.

Art World Jiu-Jitsu

The idea that a theory might matter more than painting is an art world illusion. Too many young artists take this for granted, that is until they leave the confines of the academy and realize they can't pay their rent. Sure, those with trust funds and families willing to pay their way might keep up the revolutionary flame, and yes, a small few, like Glenn, will become art world rock stars. Still, the notion that schools are pushing young artists into this type of work is almost criminal.

Glenn’s work does everything it can to be sophisticated and succeeds in doing so within the “mumbo jumbo” of the art world, but that success is also its most detrimental quality. The fact that it successfully plays to the microcosmic and elitist fine art world might make her a lot of money, but the work itself is a dead end. Glenn can’t kill painting, but work and work like hers is having an enervating effect in the field. When you see show after show that embraces this status quo rebellion, it makes you wonder if there is any future for painting and art in our culture—that is, past the endless loop of paintings painted for painters.

Falling apart or falling together?

©Addison Herndon and the CCA Arts Review

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