PRINT May 2013


Jonathan Binet, Dancefloor (details), 2012, acrylic, spray paint, tape, canvas, wood, dance poles, engraved walls. Installation view, Palais de Tokyo, Paris. Photo: Aurélien Mole.

ONE OF THE MOST HACKNEYED ROUTINES of art criticism is the up-close-and-personal account of the artist at work. This usually involves the writer’s physical presence (“I’m sitting in X’s studio . . .”) tethered to some unforeseen calamity (“. . . and then, oops, the canvas fell over”).

I want to thank Jonathan Binet for sparing me this exercise—not because one cannot gain insight into his small yet impressive body of work through the day-to-day accidents of the studio, but because those accidents are themselves the subject of the work. Visiting Binet’s first solo museum show at the CAPC Musée d’Art Contemporain de Bordeaux in France this past November, one had the distinct impression of making an impromptu studio visit, as if the artist, in a frantic hurry to clean up, hadn’t had time to put away all his rejects. The result was seven rooms filled with abstract painting gone awry. A small sample: pencil marks and errant spray paint on the walls and floor, damaged and makeshift walls, and, especially, canvases manhandled in all sorts of ways—overpainted, torn, badly stretched, pierced, taped, propped up on blocks, and stepped on, to name just a few.

When it comes to studio visits, we usually expect to see work in progress. Conversely, the exhibition is the space of the mission accomplished, the final article. Even when the work is site-specific or not necessarily an object, we still say that it is going to be installed, and therefore that to some degree the work is already finished, even if only as an idea or diagram. And there is no shortage of art today that bypasses installation altogether, merging production with networks of distribution. But what would it mean to install work? Barring watching the artist actually making stuff in the gallery (i.e., a spectacularized readymade of production), is it possible to imagine an art whose destiny is not to be the end result of progress, an art that does not travel from studio to gallery but utterly collapses the space between the two?

Binet understands the means–end rationality implied by work in progress. And he does everything he can to throw a wrench into its fine-tuned gears. At CAPC, he achieved this in three ways: by laying bare all pictorial gestures so that each and every mark is always understood as an index of a time-bound process, as a performance (but not necessarily a successful one); by embracing the misfires and mistakes that can occur before, during, and after painting, from the stretching and priming of a canvas to its recycling and storage; and by extending this embrace of error to the very hanging and installation of works. Of course this is easier to do when the space of production and the space of exhibition are one and the same. But I would say that these three mantras are true of all Binet’s work, even when it is made off-site.

With a few notable exceptions, Binet’s philosophy of error resolutely unfolds within the codes of abstract painting. Each accident irrupts into his otherwise restrained vocabulary of simple gestures and monochromatic surfaces the way a stutter, burp, or yawn would upset the reading of a particularly elegant poem. By ceding his authority in this way to the brute force of happenstance, Binet is far from alone. Yet artists who share his abstract sensibility usually take one of two routes: They adopt systems as a way of absenting themselves from the creation of formal structures, the path trodden by serialists from Donald Judd and Robert Ryman to R. H. Quaytman and beyond, or they let the physical world hijack form itself, the strategy of process art and its inheritors.

In both cases, the finality of the work of art is suspended, if not altogether forsworn, by recourse to some irresistible inhuman force—a system, time, gravity, entropy, etc. The idea was to eliminate once and for all the arbitrary arrangement and subjective choice of the artist. But is sacrificing to the gods of impersonality the only way to liberate the artist? Or is there not a way in which the subject, by means of his or her own flounderings and missteps, also undoes him or herself? In other words, if artists fascinated by motivating the arbitrary have tended to err on the side of reason (through strategies of controlled or even mimicked spontaneity), this has perhaps come at the cost of forgetting what it is like to err on the side of error.

Of course, Binet, too, has ideas when he paints. But I know of no other artist who is as sensitive to serendipity as it happens, rather than as it was planned in advance. He practices neither a teleology of the sequence nor a reverse teleology of destruction. Work is neither programmed nor undone, because it is never quite “finished” in the first place.

Who, exactly, would find it interesting to make something out of the reverse side of a rejected canvas or out of leftover paint marks on the wall or out of a priming coat of paint? Who would blot out existing graffiti marks in preparation for a base coat of paint, as Binet did this past fall for an installation in the stairwell of the Palais de Tokyo, and then decide to leave these erasures visible as part of the work, sans overpainting? Such moments—when an entire work is reoriented by an inadvertent oops or overlooked habit—contrast in their utter simplicity with the mannered pentimenti, the casual recycling of studio props, or the dandyish feints on display within many other paintings now.

Jonathan Binet installing Le plus haut possible (As High as Possible), 2012, CAPC Musée d’Art Contemporain de Bordeaux, France. Photo: Blaise Mercier.

Binet belongs to a group of artists for whom it is neither banal nor retrograde to manipulate and prepare a canvas the old-fashioned way. Unsurprisingly, given his attraction to the spray can, Binet exhibited alongside David Ostrowski and Lydia Gifford at BolteLang in Zurich last year, while his debt to the 1960s “bombes” of Martin Barré—the patron saint of this coterie—is obvious. Were there to be an exhibition of Barré’s progeny, a major part of it would have to address the upsurge of spray-painting by the likes of Peter Soriano, Sean Paul, Ostrowski, and Binet, among others. Another section would no doubt tackle the systematic nature of Barré’s late installations and their reverberations in the work of Quaytman, Wade Guyton, and Cheyney Thompson. Very few, if any, artists would fulfill both briefs—the performative gesture and the self-defeating installation. But that is precisely where I would locate Binet’s concerns, thus setting him apart from his fellow painters.

The strength of Binet’s work is that it makes an open secret of what most painters in the past would have considered their dirty laundry—and thus an open secret of painting’s historical struggles. The two dangers that Binet has confronted are arbitrariness and craft. It would be all too easy to fetishize one’s mistakes to the point that one begins to actively promote (i.e., compose) them rather than just letting them happen. It would be equally tempting to seek refuge from the effervescent world of information in the hard certainties of stretcher and frame. It is a testament to the skill of Binet’s balancing act that he neither overdesigns nor overreveres his accidents.

What place can there be for such a materialist practice today? After all, the whole point of undoing the painter’s skill was to permanently dismantle centuries-old routines of artmaking, routines to which Binet’s art is ineluctably bound. Whether via quotation marks or further displacement into our current technologies of circulation and exchange, this struggle is still very much with us. One of the great debates within contemporary art—and particularly its abstract wing—is whether that old enemy pictorial composition, and the bourgeois individuality on which it rested, still poses any real threat. Sure, we do not want to return to Salon painting. But even if we did, the true risk today is the disappearance of all art, compositional and noncompositional alike, into a totalizing stream of images.

Binet’s work reminds us that no matter how immaterial the system, any system, there is always an element of human error involved, however fleeting and displaced. There is always labor. To demonstrate that fact, he leaves us his accidents, which is to say, the signs of his failed labor. And nothing, in Binet’s case, succeeds like failure.

Paul Galvez is an art historian and critic based in Paris.