PRINT May 2012


Dave Miko, untitled, 2011–12, ink on aluminum, 23 x 23".

STOWED AWAY IN THE SUBTERRANEAN ENVIRONS of a Chinatown mall, Dave Miko’s current New York show is by no means a public affair. Since February, the artist has been hosting visitors to this closet-size exhibition one by one. And with no opening, press release, or publicity of any kind, there are only two ways to become a visitor. The first is to receive an invitation extended by Miko himself. The second is to piggyback onto someone else’s invite, crashing this party of two. Either way, Miko’s elaborately constructed social architecture brings the volitional status of both spectator and artist to the fore. A visit to the show must be prefaced by an explicit agreement between the two parties, and the works on display can be seen only with Miko in attendance. Yet his presence is not offered as the work itself. Sure, the artist is present. But this is no Abramović-esque staring contest, a social situation turned art through the receptive feedback of its exhibition. Rather, Miko’s company is offered in tandem with physical work that, in a surprisingly traditional sense, serves as the primary conduit of his practice: painting.

Why would Miko occlude his own paintings? In the case of his Chinatown exhibition, he has quite literally assumed the task of gatekeeper, managing the show’s attendance to the point of obscurity. By limiting the audience to his personal contacts, is he contesting the overdetermined public typically associated with the privileged practice, and viewing, of painting? Perhaps, but contesting is a form of address, one that appeals to an implied spectator. Miko’s black box of an exhibition, untethered from any phantasm of an attendant public, is a confluence of subjects meeting alongside the objects that mutually condition their participation in this social game called art.

Might this closed system of objective and subjective presence explain Miko’s latest venture, An Exhibition of Painting Obscured by an Evening of Performance, 2012? As spelled out by the title, the artist debuted an exhibition’s worth of paintings in the course of an evening-long performance work. Staging the show at Brooklyn, New York, gallery Real Fine Arts as an inverse of and complement to his Chinatown exhibition, he swapped the limited access of his private network for the commercial gallery’s public one, adjusting the work’s presentation accordingly. Where Miko’s presence at the Chinatown show is ultimately downplayed, ceding focus to a sustained consideration of the work, in An Exhibition this relation is reversed, as Miko’s monologic stand-up literally obscures the work from public view.

MIKO’S FIRST SOLO GALLERY SHOW, “Quiet Enough,” at Chelsea’s Wallspace in 2006, announced itself in a way that presaged the experimentation with social architecture that marked his later exhibitions. He produced a one-hundred-page xeroxed and staple-bound booklet, which was organized as a series of assignments undertaken by eight members of his cohort (Miko asked them to write about ordinary topics such as the weather or to provide private reminiscences) and was tasked with the full responsibility of selling this show to the public. Quiet enough, indeed. Even if Miko’s strategy of branding this zine as an exhibition announcement charmed several critics, it is not surprising that this unassuming, unwieldy tome—a hybrid ’00s update of Seth Siegelaub’s 1968 “Xerox Book,” with its considerable volume and multiple authors—yielded no reviews. Its perturbation of the press release’s communicative intent clearly indicates the terms under which Miko aims to circulate his painterly wares: He seeks to traverse the marketplace with a panoply of intimate familiars rather than go it alone.

It’s fitting, then, that Miko’s obscure Chinatown exhibition, like many other “solo” shows he has hosted in the past, is hardly a one-man endeavor. Like his audience, his collaborators are culled from his social circle. Miko provides what may be the centerpiece of the show, a spatially complex but modest twenty-three-inch-square painting (see page 293), yet the piece is dwarfed by a nearby video-painting made in collaboration with Tom Thayer and outnumbered by the scattering of minute sculptures by Matt Hoyt exhibited on shelves throughout the room (all the works are currently untitled). The diverse assemblage is unified only by the noxious glow of low-intensity colored bulbs.

Colored light is a far cry from the dribbling splashes of slime-green paint that Miko used to string together works for another recent group show, “A Lettuce Slaughter in the Woods” (2010), also held at Real Fine Arts. Here it was up to the invited artists, again drawn from Miko’s circle, to select which of their works to exhibit. Since their choices would each be branded by Miko’s lysergically colored mark—in what Brooklyn Rail art critic James Kalm likened to an “initiation ritual involving gang members pissing on new recruits”—their participation raised the question, To what extent was Miko willing to eclipse these other works’ individuated presence with his own authorial trace? By seizing on the group-show format as an experiment in convivial will, Miko restages the fundamental decision artists make simply in electing to exhibit, examining the ways in which this Duchampian choice entangles them in the social production of art and artistic identity and inextricably links them to the embroidered publics that convene around those cultural commodities coded as art.

View of “A Lettuce Slaughter In the Woods,” 2010, Real Fine Arts, Brooklyn, NY. Background, from left: Dave Miko, Land Survey, 2010; Daniel Heidkamp, Not Yet Titled, 2010; Nellie Bridge, City, 2010. Foreground: Tom Thayer, Inhabitant, 2010.

AND WHAT TO MAKE of the paintings themselves, so often obscured by Miko’s disruptive exhibition strategies? For one thing, Miko works only on lightweight aluminum sheet, which readily lends itself to his habit of painting on both recto and verso and to his desire for viewers to handle the works. Often displayed leaning on wooden shelves, these objects offer a rare instance in contemporary art in which visitors are permitted to inspect a painting while it rests squarely in their hands. The works are also emphatically plural. They run the gamut from the geometric abstraction of the series “Bezold Perpetual Motion for Olivia,” 2010, in which each work’s title corresponds to the painting’s height, to the incandescent landscapes of the artist’s 2011 joint exhibition with Nellie Bridge, “Horizon in Disguise,” at Callicoon Fine Arts in upstate New York. In other works, Miko renders in pigment the encrypted habits of his extrapainterly activities. A diaristic statement is written on the panel, then all but effaced by layer after layer of paint and sanding, resulting in an image that appears like a phantom message percolating through a blanket of noise.

Building on all of these facets is the central, as yet untitled painting in Miko’s Chinatown show. The work’s facture conceals as much as it reveals, offering an ever-shifting surface of positive and negative planes that contain a web of personal recollections, obscure language, and esoteric figures. This puzzlelike format is repeated in the video collaboration with Thayer, in which constituent elements of Miko’s ur-painting—what could be an ornate cup, an askew lightbulb, a sculpture by Hoyt, etc.—are extracted at different scales, then projected onto another untitled painting by Miko, creating an interlocking palimpsest of painterly and video imagery. These spatial imbrications are multiplied by Thayer’s modulated use of flicker effects, vertical roll, and outmoded color processing to recalibrate the image of the original painting into ever-new technical arrangements.

With these mutating signals, Miko seems to be offering some anarchic reprise of iconography. Could this retrograde painterly apparatus, this hermetic code, offer a new kind of communication, a different kind of sociability? An invitation to make contact, to look within? If so, to follow Miko inside, wrenching open one of his aesthetic boxes—whether a single painting or an exhibition—is to expose its encrypted intimations to the light of day, not as revelation but as possibility.

Sam Pulitzer is a writer and artist based in New York.