PRINT March 2002


The lore of Western realism is full of blunders, a slapstick succession of mistakes and misinterpretations that connect the prisoners of Plato’s cave to contemporary office workers peering into their desktop monitors as though out the window. The eyes are “fooled” by representations, whether painterly, photographic, or digital—none has an intrinsically greater purchase on the stuff of this world than does any other, as Brad Spence knows only too well.

Spence has tried his hand at all the above media, and others besides, with consistently laudable results. He is skilled in the mimetic crafts, yet he knows when to hold back. His various objects and images are instantly recognizable—a recent depiction of the cover of Carole King’s LP Tapestry looks just like the source. But if Spence's art is absolutely convincing from a distance, it becomes less so up close. Prolonged scrutiny touches off a process of gradual dissolution, which is partly the point. In this sense a degree of performativity is embedded within the paper-thin form of his works, but their particular effect is related as much to their subject matter as to their facture. The concept album, sci-fi television, and the computer interface; the aesthetics of paperback editions of philosophical works; potted plants and retro sex— these are just a few of the topics that have found their way into his art over the years. The range evinces the artist’s restless curiosity, though his choice of subjects is driven by a logic of often devastating soundness. What all of Spence's interests share is a certain lack of substance.

In the mid-’90s Spence mounted two exhibitions whose somewhat problematic reception would, in hindsight, be embraced as a virtue, thereby setting the course for his shows to come. In 1997 his installation Dark Side of the Moon concerned Pink Floyd’s album of the same name, a rock ‘n’ roll citation that suggests a degree of overreach on the artist's part identical to that once proffered by the proto-“progressive” band itself with respect to “art.” The resulting cross-cultural stalemate, which Spence dubbed “post-ironic” well before the term came into vogue, yielded works precariously balanced on the knife-edge of the critical and the devotional. Every song on the record was straightforwardly matched with an artwork—for “Brain Damage,” a pair of functional walk-in headphones; for “Breathe,” an anatomical rendering of a pair of lungs mounted on a trachea to resemble an electric guitar—and each work was hung next to the corresponding passage from the LP’s lyrics sheet. The sum total of these efforts was precisely a “concept show,” but beyond the occasional knowing chuckle that Spence’s flat-footed delivery might have prompted, this tautological and reflexive punch line was largely lost on his art-school audience.

Similar problems had attended the unveiling of Spence’s 1996 CalArts MFA show dealing with Star Trek: The Next Generation. Here Spence gridded his assigned gallery space in the manner of the Enterprise’s fabled Holodeck—the spaceship’s holographic rec room where any fantasy can be virtually realized. He also outfitted the space with a wood-and-plastic Replicator, the ostensible source for what, by virtue of a simple recontextualization, would now have to be understood as an art experience. Substituting a simulationist fantasy for a close encounter with The Real—an encounter that still serves to separate the reception of art from that of common entertainment—invited much more complaint from CalArts’s post-studio contingent in 1996 than it would today, but this was indeed the artist's intention. At a time when the clinical strategies of ’80s appropriationism were getting raked over the coals of identity politics, it had become more urgent than ever for artists to mark their distance from the popular sphere—which was exactly what was not happening here.

The trouble with Pink Floyd and, especially, Star Trek stems from their automatic association with fandom, a position with regard to the material that Spence did little to mitigate. In retrospect, his work anticipates the turn toward a more visionary take on the subject of The Spectacle that would come to define art’s own “Next Generation.” Accordingly, Spence joins the ranks of artists like Jeff Burton and Erik Parker, who have enthusiastically internalized a fictional world, narrowing the space of critical reflection until there is no outside or inside left. At the same time Spence insists on his transitional role in this particular representational wager, and regardless of how far afield his spectacular excursions take him, the critical line back to the institution of art holds firm.

Both of the exhibitions mentioned are simultaneously discrete and site-specific, and much the same can be said for the bodies of work that followed: investigating the graphics of Macworld circa 1997 and those of '70s (mostly existential) philosophy trade paperbacks. Here again the subtext would seem to concern Conceptualism, the book and the computer being the first and last repositories of the Almighty Idea, and yet, as though in deference to art's enduring retinal bias, they both have been reduced to their literal surfaces of cover and screen. The result is quasi-abstract, quasi-formalist painting verging on eye candy but without completely relinquishing its hold on a specific intellectual property, the computer being absolutely current and the books profoundly out-of-date. Within the art context that these aesthetics now occupy, however, their values are just as easily reversed, the computer graphics suddenly shadowed by impending obsolescence just as the abstract look of the dated book covers has become ripe for fashionable recuperation.

Spence himself is no slave to fashion, although he is concerned with the currency of images and ideas perfectly aligned one moment and drifting apart the next. In his latest suite of paintings, “As I Was Conceived,” 2001, this process is crystallized as a visual stutter that echoes Warhol’s registration problems as much as Picabia’s cheeky overlay strategies. Some part of both artists’ naughty version of avant-gardism was indeed salvaged for the resurgence of painting in the ’80s, but here that legacy is effectively brought to a close. The red-hot thrill of clandestine coupling gives way to a familiar, repetitive horror: It is the same image of sex sanctioned by marriage, glimpsed by the child, and multiplied by three—one view for each point in the oedipal triangle.

The differences between individual paintings in the series are incremental; like sequential frames of a film, it is as though a brief moment were being pulled apart and then pulled apart again. These are depictions of intimacy, remember, as credibly realized—and at the same time not—as any of Spence’s images. Products of a virtuoso airbrush technique, they are precisely calibrated to thwart their own voyeuristic promise, rewarding an intimate viewership with nothing more than a paltry smattering of paint flecks supported by a faint pencil-line scaffolding. The isolated pictorial ingredients are meager indeed, but that is the crux of their rhetorical clout. Resemblance is generated by our own desire; here as much as in the clouds passing overhead, it is never much more than accidental.

Jan Tumlir is a Los Angeles-based critic.