W Blow up
is the first word that comes to mind, then splendifferentia, then ca-joing. Splamtacular would also do, or spubbly, in a bubbly meets special kind of way. In a pillowy push of painterly boundaries Claire Ashley, currently on the faculty of the Chicago Art Institute, nicely upends and high-bounces the “ductlight” gallery at the already quizzirkiest alterno-artspace in Santa Fe today. Her incredible inflatable paintings-gone-cartoon-sculpture perfectly complement the gallery’s splasmodic lighting apparatus as it writhes across the low ceiling of the room. Air-powered and eccentric in extremis, her inflatables are also interconnected by their own plasticized canvas “ductwork.” These feeding tubes (as it were) hooked up to electric fans are how they gather the air supply with which they mirthfully maintain their buoyancy.
eGGman anD walRus aRt empoRium 130 palace avenue, santa Fe When envisioned as a support for painting, since a large part of Ashley’s practice is in fact classifiable as painting on canvas (albeit plasticized), these pieces are positively, ridiculously, preposterous. This is a kind of painting blown out of all proper proportion, like in the hilariously pathetic Paul McCarthy performance Painter. In a sense, Ashley accomplishes abstractly here what McCarthy achieves on a foundation of narrative. There’s a homegrown quality that links Ashley to Ree Morton, or even Philip Guston. One might almost imagine her installation as a Squeak Carnwath that happens to be negotiable in three dimensions. Either way, this work is comically freaky-fresh, or a fertile flash on the seventies Californian Funk-Art movement, all theatricality of the absurd intact. “So how is she as a painter?” you very well may ask. “What exactly goes on these fluffy and exquisitely
Claire Ashley, Star (Patrick), Pinwheel, KeyholePuffin (Boat), spray paint, duct tape, and plasticized canvas tarpaulin, 2011
| may 2011
awkward balloons?” The painting is super-saturated chroma and day-glow-colored duct-tape circles next to large swaths of plasticized white; the effect is minimalist and modernisty, touch o’ graffito, but all beat-up and faded-crinkly like lovely old circus tarps. Like Ashley is acknowledging that the language of Modernism is aged and essentially defunct (though apparently still being spoken fluently in some quarters of Shy town). Taking a tack directly opposite that of Ashley, Stephanie Plichta, her partner in crime, or rather, the exhibition, seemingly strips painting of its support altogether. Neatly realizing the painter’s fantasy of being able to paint in the air, Plichta suspends, in thick bloblets and swirls of transparent gel medium, brushstrokes and smears of acrylic paint peeled from her palette. The flimsidelicate result is then tacked directly to the wall like a dying butterfly. Eschewing the rectangle of tradition, Plichta’s pieces stretch out in amorphous curls and ripples of pure painterliness, as if a passage of paint had been lifted from, oh say, a Jules Olitski piece or work by another Ab-Exer, and stuck to the walls with pins. Plichta is a recent graduate of the selfsame Institute of Art where Ashley teaches. The commonality that most prominently runs between these two artists and their alternately inflated and in absentia canvases is the primal element mentioned above: air. Both artists have found ways to live the dream of hanging an image aloft, like thought itself. In the case of Claire Ashley the solution is spectacularly clumsy, like a clown on a high wire. By the time you understand that her inflatable sculptures are actually paintings it almost doesn’t matter what she paints on them. Yet, if her work were stretched out on a rectangle, plasticized textures intact, it would indeed make for good, intriguing, paintings. For Plichta, with her cleaner and more direct solution, everything rides on the qualities of the paint itself. This particularly ambitious high-wire act Plichta has set for herself has amazing potential, but she needs to strengthen her pure painterliness (which sounds somehow absurd) to really pull it off. There is something limp in her paint application, an uneven resolve in the brushstroke, a thinness, or structural compositional defect, or something else ineffable but real in the tactility of her paint. Look at de Kooning, Frankenthaler, Gorky, Hofmann, and Guston once again. Plichta has found an idea well worth striving for; the abandonment of the rectangle it portends is superb. With more attention to the structural aspects of paint application there is wild potential here. One wonders if she’s really ready for primetime quite yet, but her experiments, some more successful than others, are nonetheless inspiring to see. But that’s the less inflated aspect of what the Eggman is here to incubate. Goo goo g’joob.
—JOn caRv R ER Rv
THE magazine | 53
THE magazine is Santa Fe New Mexico's magazine of international art, photography, culture, and restaurant dining.