It took buying a cup of coffee at The Times Club (the coffee shop in Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque St.), sitting down at a table to review the show and taking time to stare and reflect, for the artwork in Water and Stone to register in me. In Jeff Robinson’s “Green Totem,” a vertical painting on an old piece of baseboard with flaking paint is wrapped at the bottom with a gray piece of foam and secured with a green piece of vinyl strapping (with black and white stripes) that was probably taken from an old folding lawn chair. The colors are echoed in paint above, in a stripe that meanders vertically across the baseboard and on a board attached behind it.
When I had looked at these paintings before, I noticed that Robinson’s paintings included elements of collage and bits of wood or found materials, and that they were also meticulously constructed. He uses copious amounts of tape to create crisp lines of paint, and the compositional relationships seem carefully considered. The palette is subtle and safe.
The interaction between the materials and the paint is equally prominent in Michael Rutherford’s paintings, the most potent of which I found to be “Upshot Shimmer,” with its staples that form a surprising stitching mechanism, and “Scrapped Red with Yellow Dogleg Painting,” in which the uneven edges of the canvas exert an engaging pressure on the shaped supports.
What I came to notice as I sat observing the works in this show,was the degree to which the quirky materials had been absorbed into the world of painting. It took slower looking for the gray foam to assert itself; for the strip of lawn chair strapping to snap into place as something I would encounter on a Fourth of July picnic. I initially saw only interactions of color areas and paint textures. I read them only as paintings, and found them to be of only marginal interest—but after more deliberate reflection, I realize that the mysterious material alchemy is the strongest quality of these works.
What the paintings are hinges on the transformation of the materials that takes place. The materials (like the foam, the lawn chair strap, the staples or the irregularly cut strip of canvas) hold onto a kind of double valence: They read both as the material borrowed from quotidian life and as paint—as an element in the painting. The interest is in the ambiguity. The experience is akin to a common observation I make (especially to my drawing students) about old master drawings: The marks that make up the image are marks that could easily be found on doodles made during a biology lecture. There is nothing particularly “artistic” about them. But, in the context of the drawing, piled up next to other scratchy marks and arranged on a page in a particular way, they take on another a life—the life of the drawing.
The material choices of Robinson and Rutherford that stray outside of the oil on canvas norm, just like the scratchy doodle marks in the old master drawing, become wholly absorbed in the life of the painting unless one pauses long enough to let them filter out as discrete objects pasted onto the surface (for Robinson) or as ordinary office staples or a ragged cut (for Rutherford). But the movement, in the case of both artists’ work, is toward the painting. The objects, whatever self they had, become the self that is the painting. And it is in the world of the painting that the objects properly live.
Robinson admits as much about this movement of the object from the world into the world of the painting in a statement on his website: “I work from discarded detritus found in my local environment, and look to exalt these objects by finding perceptual significance in them.” The endpoint of his investigation is a certain kind of perception. The goal is that the objects incorporated into the paintings be seen in a certain kind of way. And, the goal of the transformation is for the objects to be seen like a painting is seen.
But can this be an end in itself? Painting, surely, is about perception: A painting is something to be looked at. And one looks at painting in a particular way: attentively. If there is any hope of really seeing a painting, one must be willing to put one’s visual sense on high alert, opening one’s eyes to the curious perceptual phenomena that paintings use to convey their content. But it is important not to mistake the means for an end here: The attention one gives to a painting is given not to exercise one’s perceptual capacities (although it certainly does that), but to encounter that which the painting has to share.
If there is something lacking in the show, it is this thing that I look for paintings to share. When I see an abstract painting that I love, I might respond by thinking, “That’s how it is, here on earth!” The world of the painting coincides with the world that I live in to such a degree that the painting shows me something about this life that I need to see. The shortcoming of these paintings is that they draw objects from the world into the painted world, without returning the painted world back to me. The direction in which they work is aimed always at the picture, succeeding in creating imaginative paintings but failing to register as testaments of lived experience.
The one exception to this criticism that I felt, in seeing it, is Rutherford’s “Upshot Shimmer.” In this tall, narrow painting, the rhythm created by the staples and the alternating black and silver rectangles, ever-so-slightly offset, seemed to have more to say than the rest. It is as if Rutherford had conceived of the task of putting together this little checkerboard design, picked up his stapler and tried very hard to get everything right. In this context—the context set up by the simplicity of the design and the regularity of the staples—the aberrations are faults that I know too well, a reminder of the ways I trip and fall on even the clearest of days.
Brian Prugh is a graduate student studying painting at The University of Iowa. He also writes art criticism for the Iowa City Arts Review, found online at iowacityartsreview.com.