San Francisco

Sylvia Mangold

Daniel Weinberg Gallery

Is there some kind of dialectic in artistic production, something having to do with expended labor? I don’t mean that in any rigorous, Marxian sense; some work doesn’t call attention to the fact that labor is involved because the object it produces looks effortless and it looks as if someone had such a great time doing it. The opposite of that must be art which looks like labor, like time spent on real technical labor—like Sylvia Mangold’s work (could there be a more appropriate word in her case than “work”?)

It certainly doesn’t look like a good time; it’s all very serious and purposeful. I myself feel I’m doing forced labor when seeing it because nowadays one has learned to ignore mere surface and search for more philosophical readings of things such as rulers, measuring devices and masking tape. One isn’t held in awe before great technique, and no artist settles for less intention than that. But it’s easy to be impressed by so much handiwork, that real expense of manual labor, and that’s why photo-Realism is so popular; it’s also the reason why I get so upset when I see certain kinds of “mistakes” in execution that occur in more-or-less trompe l’oeil art.

Mangold’s work includes errors (especially in some unsuccessful watercolors) which could be honesty, but which destroy the effects being touted: they look like failures which should have stayed in the studio. Mangold, probably to admit additional “contradictions,” cheats by using an impasto to effect the imposition of an object into the viewer’s space. (Serious art students may well look to her in the coming year and come up with opaque white correction-fluid field paintings. Mangold’s mistakes are carelessly covered with the stuff.) I normally wouldn’t dwell upon this sort of thing except that Mangold most obviously takes labor seriously; this seems to be what she is about, this whole question of technique. What she doesn’t give, and this is inexcusable, is any new account of the meanings of technique, or why such techniques need to be used again, or how her work will inform a by now much abused style. Her solution, to ground retrograde visuals with a supposedly impeccable conceptual base, makes the whole thing an incongruent hodgepodge of realism, Johns, trompe l’oeiI, Bochner, etc. Things are confused, issues are confused, and the cool, detached painting style, the “empty” look, cannot hide the chaos of meanings. Rulers and measurers are very rational subjects; they lie flat on flat surfaces, the painting surface is flat, etc., but these facts simply do not insure conceptual integrity.

In the latest work, Mangold has loosened up and added freely hanging and twisting masking tape and flooded light to her repertoire; one painting is simply light coming through a window onto a wall. I think that’s an important move, even a gutsy one (any artist who decides to move from studio light to natural light is, for me, moving in the right direction), but I am not convinced by it. Is she doing it for her own reasons or to ditch the lessons of the ’60s, with all the rationalization of every aspect of art-making? The new washed-out, airy, impressionistic mood is very good, but the residue of Mangold’s past, too loaded with the fringe benefits of an overly serious intent, makes the paintings seem more important—and less transitional—than they really are. That importance seems to depart from an attempt at historical synthesis, but it is still producing a sterile hybrid of scientific rigor and romantic fuzziness.

Jeff Perrone