PRINT October 2006


IN 1966 JOAN DIDION wrote an essay for the New York Times Magazine profiling Joan Baez, who at twenty-five years old was nearly as famous for her activism as for her folksinging (which is to say very). Baez had opened her own school—the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence—in California’s Carmel Valley, and Didion’s piece detailed the legal proceedings initiated by some of that area’s less “liberal” occupants after finding the organization in their immediate vicinity. But, however focused around this local issue, the essay ultimately crafts a subtle portrait of a figure produced by and for a public. Baez, as depicted by Didion, is shown to have filled a role—for fans and detractors alike—in the cultural theater of politics. “Joan Baez was a personality before she was entirely a person,” Didion writes, “and, like anyone to whom that happens, she is in a sense the hapless victim of what others have seen in her, written about her, wanted her to be and not to be.”

Perhaps the era when lawsuits were filed against hippie chanteuses eager to spread the teachings of Gandhi and Thoreau (to say nothing of Krishnamurti) is all but impossible to imagine today. Even so, there’s little question that the manufacture and consumption of personality observed in Baez by Didion has, in the past forty years, only intensified exponentially. And if there is such a countercultural figure for our time, it would have to be Julia Butterfly Hill, who in 1997 (at the age of twenty-three) scaled an ancient California redwood and lived in its limbs for 738 days in order to keep loggers from cutting it down. Hill—a fresh-faced eco-activist from Jonesboro, Arkansas—had enthusiastically volunteered to “sit” the tree when none of her fellow Earth First! compatriots stepped forward. In a video interview conducted in her roost almost two hundred feet from the ground, she took no pains to conceal that her still-forming convictions, however fiercely held, were also imprecise to the point of ethereality. “I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt I was meant to be up here,” she explains breathlessly. “I wasn’t quite sure why; I just knew I was meant to be in the forest doing something. . . .”

This year, nearly a decade after Hill’s vigil began, the painter Blake Rayne exhibited work at the newly opened Miguel Abreu Gallery, a small storefront space on New York’s Lower East Side. During the run of his show, Rayne received a slew of phone calls from friends who, having been to the exhibition, thought he would be interested to know that Hill, now in her early thirties and founder of the activist group Circle of Life, was back up a tree; this time, she was protesting the sale of a plot of land in South Central Los Angeles used mostly by poor immigrants as a community garden. Rayne was interested, but only mildly and bemusedly so—a surprise, perhaps, given the ostensible theme of the works he had just hung. While the show at Abreu’s space loosely focused on a kind of shared structuralist impulse between Rayne’s work and that of the filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Daniéle Huillet (two of whose films were shown during special screenings throughout the monthlong exhibition), the painter offered his own unusual press handout in addition to the gallery’s, in the form of an appropriated, slightly altered Wikipedia entry on one Julia Butterfly Hill. Rayne’s handful of paintings would, from the looks of the checklist, seem to take Hill’s granola glamour and the events surrounding her flowering conscience as their “subject.” All untitled but each bearing parenthetical subtitles (including “automated dicing saw,” “California redwood,” and the like), the works established themselves as constellating this minor modern drama in its scant details. Yet for all his seeming attention to his narrative source, Rayne’s canvases weirdly shed such content even while evoking it.

In part this shedding expressed itself materially, in the literal lack of depth characterizing Rayne’s more or less representational canvases: ghostly black-and-white, quasi-photorealist underpaintings depicting, say, an old-fashioned tape measure or an ecocelebrity shot of Hill, with thin washes of brightly colored geometric abstraction painted atop. But even more striking in this regard was the artist’s decision to test the one-to-one relationship between captions and images we’ve learned (à la Walter Benjamin) to naturalize—and in particular to see how such operations might play out when it comes to paintings whose “style” is meant to be recognized immediately as “nonobjective.” Borrowing tactics from Martin Barré, Simon Hantaï, and Daniel Buren, Rayne has recently adopted a variety of techniques for producing—rather than conceiving or authoring—abstraction: folding or crumpling his canvas, spray painting or using a roller on the exposed areas, and then flattening it out again. Two of these gestureless, self-consciously abstract paintings were included in the exhibition, in addition to the works that were representational (if obliquely so). But in the Abreu show Rayne’s overtly anachronistic, “conceptually driven” abstract images, even given their clearly broadcast allegiance to a particular breed of reflexive nonobjectivity, were not afforded any immunity from the artist’s referential frame. The aforementioned designation “California redwood” had been given to a diptych of the crumpled, sprayed, and stretched variety that looked a lot like early James Welling photographs of rumpled foil; similarly, a chunky composition that came across as a by-the-book Hantaï, while managing to look an awful lot like a Franz Kline at the same time, took its own titular aside from the date of Hill’s ascent (“December 10, 1997”).

If Rayne’s strategies in constructing his painterly blow-by-blow of Hill’s travails and triumphs seem to amount to an almost perverse exercise in indirection, they do serve to underscore a salient if not key fact—which is that, for Rayne, Hill is, in a sense, totally beside the point. In other words, while the construction site of her “personality” offers a fruitful ground for a kind of object lesson in the vicissitudes of—and allegory inherent to—production, it demands no fidelity in and of itself. Indeed, the details of Hill’s story operate on Rayne’s canvas much the way her actual body did high up in the redwood: as a signifier able to exert actual material presence. And while, given the description above, it might seem tempting to think of the artist’s aesthetic attention to Hill as providing an illustrated primer on the squirrelly nature of signification or a cheeky final blow to the abstraction/representation binary, Rayne’s project should be understood as primarily occupied with those worries about “viability” that have both haunted and driven painting at least since Édouard Manet. Indeed, in a sense, this is in and of itself the subject of Rayne’s work, which would seem to take to heart a proposal put forward by Yve-Alain Bois some twenty years ago: The specter of painting’s irrelevance—and incapacity for “newness”—potentially offers up its very lifeblood.

Along these lines, then, the fact that Rayne picks recognizable, even clichéd, motifs (whether by way of popular culture or typologies of abstraction) correlates suggestively with a phrase he uses—“simply good enough”—to characterize his approach to transcribing photographic image to canvas. (“No fancy footwork” is another phrase he uses to explicate his underpainting process.) By “simply good enough” Rayne means, I think, not that lazy painting is the way to go, but that he takes seriously the value of exploring—and exposing—the minimum requirements needed to produce a painting. These aren’t what they used to be: Clement Greenberg worried that artists would soon tack raw canvas to the walls and call it painting, but the idea of “minimum requirement” now pertains more to taste and genealogy—that is, to whether a painter exhibits enough historical and aesthetic savvy for his or her work to be meaningful (or, to put a slightly different spin on it, consumable). Interestingly, Rayne’s own descriptor of minimum requirements resonates with the famous prescription for good parenting popularized by the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, who argued, with his formulation the “good-enough mother,” that the best-adjusted individuals are—counterintuitively—products of parents who, rather than doting on their offspring from birth to adulthood, gradually withdraw their attention from their children. If this is an association that perhaps seems far afield, it also seems surprisingly apropos: The process Winnicott describes amounts to a careful balancing act; hardly advocating neglect or disregard, the theory of “good enough” is shown to be extremely generous in effect. The child ostensibly making up for the “failures” of the mother is actually put into the position of making his own decisions—supported, but not dictated to, by the authority figure whose grip on the reins grows ever less taut.

Extrapolating from Rayne’s own use of the phrase “simply good enough,” one might say that in his case this principle—the adequacy principle, so to speak—applies on the level of content as well as of technique. Always selecting overt typologies (whether that of the “liberal” activist or that of “critical” abstraction), the artist uses motifs that elicit the identificatory impulse of their viewers, only to intentionally leave any expectations of satisfaction unmet. This is not to say that the paintings aren’t full of visual pleasure, which they are, but rather that they are so overdetermined in their means that the pleasure is, if not guilty, at the very least extremely self-conscious. And as seen in the works shown at Abreu’s, Rayne expends no energy on papering over the intentional gaps both within and between canvases. While the artist’s recent attention to Hill marks a particularly acute example of a figure both produced and emptied out by its public, one need only look at the roster of image-types privileged by Rayne over the course of his career thus far to see that this foray into biopictorialism is merely the extension of long-standing concerns: Cats. Bicycles. “New technology” from the nineteenth century (i.e., a coffeemaker). Scenes of the “everyday urban,” including monuments to minor public figures (James Fenimore Cooper and the like). Handwritten signage—announcing language lessons or garage sales—stapled unceremoniously to lampposts, simultaneously conjuring Walker Evans and Lawrence Weiner.

Perusing this catalogue of subjects, most ubiquitous to the point of banality, one gets the sense that Rayne follows the logic of Google more closely than that of conventional painterly decision making—privileging objective statistical values over subjective value judgments. If “content” has always haunted those artists who play with the space shared by representation and abstraction (Gerhard Richter comes most forcefully to mind), Rayne’s refusal of anything beyond the “good enough” renders the question moot and does the same to viewers’ speculations vis-à-vis the artist’s own “interest” or interiority. Interiority is dismantled by way of transparent, even didactic procedure, especially in his most recent “representational” works: Every quasi-photorealist image (executed well enough to indicate technical skill but not well enough to exude the brio of the true virtuoso) is adorned with geometric abstraction in some way derived from the image, which is to say isolated within its structure and then attended to through repetition and chromatic emphasis. The effect is something like the layered anatomical transparencies in old encyclopedias—a picture that, in parsing itself into layered strata, becomes a self-reflexive maxim about the construction of its own meaning before it is “about” anything else. Yet, unlike those comprising the pedagogical tool, Rayne’s superimpositions don’t work to reveal the structural exigencies holding something together. Never laying bare the “guts” of his subjects—or even painting proper—he peels seemingly insignificant details off the strictly “surface” images not to explicate the makeup of this thing or that but, rather, to get to the machinations of production more generally. Born of a kind of assembly-line logic, his canvases bear the traces of a haywire Fordism: The worker has internalized his solitary, infinitely repeated task so well that it becomes completely abstracted from the “goal” it has been enlisted to achieve.

This hardly means all Rayne’s representationally leaning works look the same (any more than do his abstract ones, which, for all their predetermined process, are anything but predetermined in effect). In some instances, the “top layer” of composition, pilfered and unmoored from the photographic source it now both elaborates and obfuscates, is hard-edge, graphic, and linear, as in the case of the triangles borrowed from, and then applied back onto, the picture of an owl in Untitled Painting 29 (for Julia Butterfly Hill), 2006. In other cases, loose washes of color seem to pool on the surface of images, as with those of Cooper. What these seemingly distinct operations have in common is the way they are both utilized to decorative ends—but decorative in a particular sense, one that connects with the serial and the mass-produced while insisting that the “artistic” pertains to both. This impulse—and Rayne’s implication of predecessors similarly inclined—was made explicit in the artist’s most recent show (at Sutton Lane in London) in which the canvases were dedicated to both Julia Hill and Wallace Nutting, the turn-of-the-century populist photographer best known for tinting his photos. Nutting understood what an alluring supplement color could be, but his career also illustrates color’s loaded or suspect status (it is telling that his photos, though wildly popular for some years, were rather abruptly deemed “gimmicky” and largely rejected as outmoded by the same public). For Rayne, utilizing modes of the decorative to structural ends leads to productive crossed wires: If not exactly slowed down, these are certainly images interrupted, as though the process of making their structures clearer (or at least prodding them into visibility) has opened up spaces for an incessant, disruptively supplemental chatter.

In the late ’70s, Rosalind Krauss argued that contemporary abstract painting should be understood—somewhat unexpectedly—as responding to the conditions of photography (or, rather, as responding to one condition of the photographic, its promise of “indexicality”). Representational painting, too—and a lot less surprisingly—had long been involved in a discursive engagement with photography, but here Krauss was hoping to flesh out what was changing about abstraction: namely, as she proposed, its move toward context. Abstraction was relating to its surroundings (the artist Lucio Pozzi nicely illustrated her claim with his contribution to the 1976 exhibition “Rooms” at P.S. 1 in New York, in which his “abstract” paintings took their design and palette from the walls upon which they hung). Today, the gambit of photography, as beautifully explained by Roland Barthes (“The photograph belongs to that class of laminated objects whose two leaves cannot be separated without destroying them both . . . ”), is, like all things analogue, nearing obsolescence; it has largely ceded to a language of code, of dissemination, of immersion—and painterly abstraction has followed suit. There is, it would seem, no longer a distinction between content and context, which is to say that everything always has to do with everything else. There is no holding things apart, much less insisting on distinctions. (Here, Wikipedia and Google embody the mother lode of content while also decimating its thickness.) This is so despite, or really because of, the barrage of imagery that might qualify as nomadic, even perpetually homeless—liberated (and thus dissociated) from any one technological platform or base. Such seeming abundance has viewers of art and television and movies and websites searching all the more fervently for images with which to identify. Rayne’s decision to initially meet this need in his paintings only underscores the failure (on this level) he intentionally commands.

To wit: In a 2005 show at Kevin Bruk Gallery in Miami, the graphic effects of Stella-like lines and Kellyish diamonds ricocheted among eight of Rayne’s paintings. A pair of canvases was given over to feline models—tabbies cute in a kind of everycat way, in the sense that we have all had, met, or at the very least seen an approximation of them before. These two large-scale works—both untitled but respectively supplemented with the obvious “Cat Looking Right” and “Cat Looking Left”—found their subjects nearly obliterated behind differently executed fretworks of abstraction. The animal that, of all the domestic creatures, is saddled with the heaviest psychological baggage (forced as it is to alternately embody creepiness and cuddliness) had been rendered little more than background. Still, however coolly Rayne reflected on the cats’ artificially endowed cultural and physical characteristics, some sentimental patina persisted, since it is hardly so easily purged. It was the otherwise emotionally reserved William S. Burroughs, after all, who, late in life, wrote a book professing his deeply earnest love of, and identification with, cats. “[Q]uite simply and quite literally,” he wrote, “cats serve as sensitive screens for quite precise attitudes when cast in appropriate roles.” But awareness of this dynamic didn’t render its effects on him any less powerful. One looking to the right, the other glancing to the left, Rayne’s cats refuse to meet the eye, all the while courting ours. They are not so different from Didion’s Baez or our Hill, at once fecund and infra-thin, sites upon which so much is projected but very little is made to stick. Yet whether idols, hapless victims, or simply grist for the mill, Rayne coaxes from them unexpected dimension. No matter how seemingly “deconstructive,” his paintings—to borrow a phrase Didion used to describe the folksinger—still work, “perhaps unconsciously, to hang on to the innocence and turbulence and capacity for wonder, however ersatz or shallow.” No small feat.

Johanna Burton is a New York–based art historian and critic.