PRINT May 2000


Following the efforts of artists like Liz Larner and Jim Isermann, alongside the larger concerns of their work a whole new category of West Coast abstraction has emerged that is at once revisionist and—here’s the hook—irony-free. For this “next generation,” only the barest vestiges of a critical cover remain to mask the frivolity of aesthetic play or experiment. Their avenues of choice are those ungainly in-between moments of late-modern art history when painting began to morph into sculpture, projecting its mass up to the ceiling, down to the floor, from wall to wall, or simply out into the room. The shaped canvas—that much-maligned solution to painting’s constraining rectilinearity—is back, as are all sorts of Rymanesque variations on the support/surface relation. Once again, painting appears to be hesitating productively at the threshold between the easel and the mural.

Heidi Kidon is a young painter based in Los Angeles who makes regular use of all the above strategies (and a few more besides), which, for both good and ill, has gotten her lumped in with the local “formalist resurgence.” If the label’s usefulness is questionable even with regard to its foremost proponents—Laura Owens, Monique Prieto, and Ingrid Calame—in Kidon’s case it applies only in the most superficial sense. Like the others, she is attempting to revitalize the practice of painting without straying too far outside its categorical bounds. Her imagery, too, inclines toward the nonobjective: marks about mark-making, surfaces retroactively describing the process of their own build-up, and so on. But if the foreign elements intruding on her more recent work are essentially “chips off the old block”—still related to the tautological exploration of painterly substance—this substance is increasingly understood to be conditioned as much by external imperatives as internal ones. And it is at this point, where objective autonomy is invaded by a range of contextual concerns, that Kidon’s work suddenly veers off in a separate direction; its ontological framework expanding rapaciously from one exhibition to the next as each subsequent phase of its display, exchange, circulation, and reproduction is incorporated into its “content.”

Exemplary in this regard is Top the Logical Path of the Logical, the first painting of Kidon’s that I came across in a 1998 group show at LACE (“Color Me Mine,” co-curated by Michelle Guy and Stephen Criqui), where it commandeered a good part of the gallery’s back wall as well as the floor in front of it. A dense clustering arrangement of small geometric shapes sprawled out at our feet as though reflecting, in 3-D form, the painting’s own pictorial layout. Initially suggesting a freeform model of urban space, it was revealed on closer inspection to be composed entirely of canvas and plywood milling residue, no doubt left over from the fabrication of the support. A somewhat more fantastic or grotesque scenario began to take shape: One imagined that the painterly whole had been shattered to bits and was now caught in a process of mercury-like recombination.

This reading turned out to be not so wide of the mark, as Kidon’s subsequent shows have confirmed. Her exhibition last year at Rosamund Felsen featured a similarly expansive and suggestively fractured work titled Blue Shock, 1998. Across an irregular field of mottled ultramarine blue, the artist attached a meandering “horizon” line of chips of paint, each one taken from the surface of a prior work. Spanning nearly twenty-eight feet end to end and four feet from top to bottom, Blue Shock comprises seventeen separate panels of various sizes. Its contents are again “reflected” on the floor by 122 distinct “modules,” as Kidon calls them—a procession of minipaintings that partly resemble overgrown slides and are bound in the silver duct tape that is often used to crop a projected image.

An epic index to the (presumed) totality of this artist’s output, Blue Shock poignantly rehearses the drama of an archival impulse, the wish to collect and preserve one’s own accomplishments “all in a row,” as it were, coming up against the market’s logic of dispersal. Blue Shock is made to be sold in pieces, to be dismantled as a condition of its own success, and this is where the slides come in. Figuring more and more prominently in Kidon’s recent work, they serve as a metaphor of sorts for the complex temporality of her art’s afterlife. Represented in the form of diagrammatic drawings and painterly collages that at times are distanced and degenerated through photocopying, the slides and their complementary (Styrofoam-and-paper) projector are a central concern of her installation for the Thomas Lawson–curated group show “Shimmer” at the Municipal Art Gallery. Sink or Swim, 1999–2000, as the overall piece is titled, distantly recalls David Hockney’s celebrated meditations on the West Coast culture of forgetting, and perhaps also on art as wish-fulfillment, yet the British painter’s luxurious aestheticism returns here in a rigorously pared-down and systematized form that insistently bespeaks the Conceptual thrust of Kidon’s CalArts education.

Laid out on the gallery floor, the paintings are literally “pools”: congealed bodies of liquid blue pigment on blocks of Styrofoam. The slides, meanwhile, contain the actual contents—paper, paint, fragments of pre-existing paintings—of their putative referents. There is an odd sort of logic at work here. It is not exactly ideas that Kidon presents us with, and painting is not the best vehicle for “concepts,” anyway. What painting does at times manage to materialize, however, is some part of the process by which ideas take shape. As much as the medium strains toward cohesion and closure, it paradoxically remains opposed to any such thing. Kidon has wisely opted to mine this resistance, realizing full well that it can be manifest only fleetingly in the individual work; more is revealed in between projects, still more over the course of a career. The trick, then, is never to lose sight of the point of origin.

All painting can be said, almost automatically, to contain the time of its making—this is after all one of the main things that its surface is for—but in Kidon’s work this temporal element is expressly dredged up, fanned out, and rearticulated as subject matter. To label such maneuvers reflexive is very nearly redundant, however. Kidon’s criticality is akin to that practiced by the editors of The Baffler or, better still, the kids in the film-within-a-film Scream trilogy. It is just another means of engaging, if self-consciously, with the culture in question—in Kidon’s case, the culture of her medium. What counts is the customized playback of an entire modernist narrative, but in a rigorously nonlinear fashion. This narrative is approached from both ends, as it were, the work periodically reviving itself, like a self-replenishing vampire ever anxious to preserve at its core some remnant of original innocence.