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PRINT January 2004

Carroll Dunham on Scott Grodesky

IN A SENSE THIS IS A SECOND TAKE. ELEVEN YEARS ago, Scott Grodesky was the subject of an Openings column in these pages by the artist Peter Halley. Halley was interested in a group of younger painters working in the interstices between popular image sources, Conceptual strategies, and a detached rela- tionship to the physicality of painting. He saw the twenty-four-year-old Grodesky’s work as evidence of the beleaguered medium’s viability in a climate skeptical of painting’s relevance. But times have changed (millennia have changed), and from our early-twenty-first-century viewpoint it seems a bit defensive even to address that endgame model of painting’s plight. The whole issue feels like a phantom limb of modernism, still consuming our attention but functionally departed. Aspects of what interested Halley in Grodesky’s approach remain, but there has been an enormous evolution in his work—and in our reasons for engaging it.

His recent paintings are surely some of the oddest being made today. They can be hard to see when you first look at them, and they feel lame until their demure rigor asserts itself. Both structured and flimsy, they embody a combination of careful plotting and wan execution (curiously reminiscent of both trecento Italian masters and the illustrational branch of Conceptual art) that locates them in a place all their own.

The clunkiness of the work is redeemed by a central fact: Grodesky has a System. He constructs his subjects within a matrix best described as reverse perspective; normal conventions of scale and distance are inverted, so the elements of the scene that are nominally closer to the picture plane are smaller than the more distant things, which loom strangely at the most recessive layer of the image. Furthermore, he doesn’t repaint or overpaint anything. After mapping the image in jittery pencil lines, he adds color in watery membranes of acrylic paint, leaving the weave of the canvas fully visible and giving the hues the quality of translucent tints. The finished paintings are transparent in every sense of the term (except, perhaps, emotionally).

Grodesky paints the things he knows: his family, his apartment, his city (his eyes?)—and his unrepentant filtering of these immediate psychic objects through the System at first appears stubborn, then brave. When he applies reverse perspective to images of the city, the results are like colorized mechanical drawings; because there is no way to interpret them expressively, they seem either incompetent or the by-product of a different cultural value system—much in the way that the space of traditional Chinese painting can look wrong to us.

Far more unsettling and full of potential aesthetic energy are Grodesky’s paintings of family, domestic scenes, and the disembodied human eye. Loved ones framed within his system suffer egregious fun-house alterations: Distended bodies appear to slip off improbably proportioned furniture, babies become demented giants, relations of loving equals are unbalanced and take on connotations of dominance or worship—not unlike drawings by children of deadbeat dads, where Mom is huge and Dad ant-size. Considered psychologically rather than formally, Grodesky’s systematic perspectival skewing bespeaks a lonely world of lost intimacies and looming estrangements.

The small paintings of eyes may inscribe the programmatic core of Grodesky’s art. Cyclopean, reflective, somewhat gross, they depict the special hardware of our corporeal selves, which is the construction and relay site for all that we see. He shows this ubiquitous orb as a relentless power. With lashes like worms and irises like gasoline on water, it hangs unblinking behind the situations that are the fodder for his images. Beyond this last physical barrier the mind itself is constructing these pictures within its own reference frames.

Today, with so much attention being paid to arguably retrograde painterly efforts, Grodesky’s exploration in the forbidden zones between areas previously thought to be categorically exclusive exerts a strong fascination. The unique combination of conceptual rigor, disregard for traditional notions of technique, and direct connection to subject matter forms a peculiar vision whose depth is revealing itself over time.

New York–based artist Carroll Dunham, senior critic in painting at Yale University’s School of Art, received his first major museum survey in 2002–2003 at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York.