Metaleptic stories

Richard Garrison and the power of abstraction

September 29, 2015

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Richard Garrison’s work is remarkably consistent. Patrick Neal’s article on Garrison’s previous exhibition at Robert Henry published in Hyperallergic in 2013, may serve as a fairly accurate review of the artist’s current show at the gallery. This is partly because Garrison works in series, some of which were started as early as 2005. Each series takes up a familiar feature of America’s daily life - suburban parking lots, shopping malls, advertisements - and uses a different strategy to translate it into elegant charts made with gouache, watercolor, or ink on paper.

“Circular Color Schemes” are based on newspaper sale fliers: the sizes and colors of each advertised item are carefully analyzed and converted by Garrison into a circular diagram with a specific color pattern. In the “Product Package” series, similar diagrams are made with fragments of printed cardboard collected by the artist over a period of time: cereal boxes, garbage bag packages and other cardboard residue produced by Garrison’s household. The “Color Scheme” series consists of grids of color swatches corresponding to specific locations visited by the artist. In his “Parking Lot Color Scheme”, for example, Garrison photographed every space where he parked his car over the period of several months; the massive grid of color swatches varying from off-white, pale blue, and brown, to dark gray and black, corresponds to the coloration of pavement in the images, with penciled notes listing date, time and location of each photograph. The works in the “Destination Color Scheme” series (not included in the current show) document the colors of a specific building or architectural complex, such as Crossgates Commons Shopping Plaza or Cinderella Castle at Disney World in Orlando.

Garrison has used a very different method to create a group of ink drawings titled “Shopping Cart Inertia”: they are made with the help of a specially designed drawing device, which the artist places in the bottom of his shopping cart before beginning his tour of a mall or a supermarket. The slightly wobbly calligraphic lines trace the artist’s trajectory between the aisles, and the spots of spilled ink mark the locations where he paused inspecting the merchandise.

Garrison’s work is usually seen as a commentary on America’s capitalist economy and consumerism. While this is certainly part of the story, the artist’s reliance on precise algorithms for creating artwork, his interest in self-surveillance, and his desire to sublimate the trivial occurrences of his life into abstract charts, are for me the more intriguing elements of his project. They link his practice to the works of data artists and those conceptualists, who use various kinds of information - self-tracking records, weather patterns, personal and governmental budgets, etc. - for producing abstract and semi-abstract images and objects (see, for example, my review of Laurie Frick’s exhibition at Pavel Zoubok last summer). In a somewhat paradoxical gesture, Garrison’s art combines the algorithmic and information-based approach with a peculiar aesthetics that brings to mind the history of painterly abstraction, and the works of Modernist painters such as Joseph Albers, Kenneth Noland or Brice Marden. It seems an unlikely mixture: after all, Modernist painting is primarily a reflection of the individual sensibility of the artist, while in algorithmic art, the artist’s ego seems to be displaced by dry, pseudo-scientific methodologies. But I wonder if the link between Garrison’s diagrams and Modernist abstraction may be more than a superficial resemblance, or an ironic re-purposing of Modernist tropes.

Garrison’s practice exhibits a level of long-term commitment, which suggests that the artist’s goal is not simply illustrating the well-established fact of American consumerism. If we take the work seriously, we are to expect that Garrison’s analytical procedures and diagrammatic abstractions are capable of revealing some deeper meaning behind the mundane routines of our everyday lives, and that the abstract patterns distilled out of carefully collected data will tell us something essential about the world and ourselves. Such expectations link the works of Garrison and other contemporary artists making diagrammatic abstraction, with the works of the 20th-century Modernists - from Malevich to Agnes Martin - who believed that their art was to represent the world beyond superficial appearances. Contemporary artists may rely on data and scientific procedures rather than personal inspiration for producing imagery, and they are inclined to view the global markets and technology rather than spiritual or cosmic energies, as powers that control our world – but it seems that they still have faith in the power of abstraction to reveal the essence of reality, just like the first abstractionists more than a hundred years ago.

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