PRINT January 2006

Olivia Booth

“IT IS NO COINCIDENCE," Walter Benjamin wrote in 1933, “that glass is such a hard, smooth material to which nothing can be fixed.” No coincidence, in other words, that cold and sober glass features prominently in the programmatic austerity of Loos and Le Corbusier. Glass in place of walls, Benjamin felt, offered a new, “good” sort of poverty. Traceless and transparent, the enemy of secrets and possessions, glass enacted modernism’s liberation from the plush, festooned decor of bourgeois Victorian interiors. But something can, of course, be fixed to this hard, smooth material: paint.

For Los Angeles–based artist Olivia Booth, who paints on large rectangular sheets of glass, the stark transparency that Benjamin extolled precisely for its unmarkability becomes an exquisite provocation as a surface for abstract marks. For starters, glass, unlike canvas, is not a ground but an indeterminate suspension—in effect, a groundlessness—in which both illusionistic depth and its obverse, formalist flatness, are impossibilities. And glass has none of the forgiving absorption of canvas. Color won’t saturate or layer, and brushstroke, defined as much by paint consistency, surface treatment, and texture as it is by brush and stroke, is reduced to the unruly vicissitudes of paint alone, forced to push against its own limitations as it contacts slippery, obdurate glass.

Interested in the intersection of real and imagined space, Booth began experimenting at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California (where she earned her MFA in 2003), with combinations of translucent materials such as Saran wrap, clear rubber, and plastic sheeting. But as the resulting forms crept into the territory of installation, she realized that glass could serve to reify the unseen and yet remain subordinated to paint, even as it presented a rabbit hole of formal challenges. Her paintings on glass first garnered attention in 2004 in a group show at Marc Foxx, and her first solo exhibition, a new body of all-glass work, goes on view later this month at Mandarin Gallery in LA’s Chinatown.

Although obscuring the transparency of glass is a rebuke to its most salient property—think of Kandinsky, in want of privacy, whitewashing the glassed-in lobby of his Walter Gropius duplex in Dessau—Booth’s nuanced process scrims more than it obscures. In order to work with, rather than against, the optical effects of transparency, she has largely traded color for a re-keyed spectrum of clear acrylic glazes, a system of modulated contrasts in thickness and finish, from matte to ultraglossy tars, gels, and bases that she whips into aerated emulsions. In Neglect, 2004, bubbles pattern the clear glaze with floating cells of captured light. Booth occasionally cellophanes her acrylics with pigment to get diaphanous shades, like the chrysolite green in Feather Piece, 2005, which is the same hue, just a shade darker, as the naturally green tint of her glass support. If Morris Louis’s thin veils of poured paint conflated surface and support, so, too, do Booth’s translucent acrylics, despite the utter impermeability of her chosen surface: Painted on both front and reverse sides (the latter registering on the recto as a mirror image), her plasmic textures look almost like glass itself, but as if distilled and denatured to various states of liquidity in which light pools and glimmers. Booth also uses opaque white or pinkish paints, but in sparing blots that manage to accentuate the translucence they negate. In Untitled, 2004–2005, thick paint scraped along the right side of the piece emphasizes not only the transparent materiality of the glass but its edge as tangible and sharp, something on which to clean a palette knife.

If the curtain-glass of Bauhaus architecture effaced distinctions between wall and window, Booth’s panes of painted glass, neither wall nor window, exhibit the properties of both: Light refracts through the painted glass, projecting intricate, Constructivist-like patterns on nearby walls. Here, chiaroscuro isn’t a painterly illusion but an actuality: Volumes of light and lacy silhouettes of shadow shift with the angle of illumination. Most of Booth’s glass sheets lean against walls—their bottom edges resting either on the floor or on low, wooden platforms—and triangulate into sculptural objects, even if the space they describe, between glass surface and wall shadow, is discreet and inaccessible. Those works that do hang on the wall seem not so much paintings as fragile, encased objects. This blurring of two and three dimensions recalls the fringes of Minimalism, evoking works by Eva Hesse, Robert Irwin, and, more directly, the steel-and-glass sculptures of the late Christopher Wilmarth (to whom one of Booth’s pieces is dedicated). Despite the fact that various grad school faculty and a handful of curators and gallerists said in the past that she would “have to choose” between painting and sculpture, her works successfully maintain a paradoxical suspension between image and object. In each piece, what’s most legibly flat is the shadow projected on the wall behind the glass—which itself is two-dimensional and yet, by angling from wall to floor, creates a field of presence in the shared space with the viewer. Perceptual unity, the at-onceness some saw in Minimalism, is still possible, but in a glinting, provisional slippage of orientations: softly obstructed front and reverse surfaces separated by thin glass and then combined and redoubled as patterned silhouettes. Without the integration of color and opaque ground, we’re forced to construct coherence from layers of glass, glaze, and mottled light—none of which can hold the eye but only slow it down. Booth’s transparency isn’t clarity, or even false clarity, but viscous puddles of see-through nothingness. In other words, reality itself.

Rachel Kushner is a writer based in Los Angeles.