New York

Sylvia Plimack Mangold


There are images in Sylvia Plimack Mangold’s new paintings, and I mean pictorial images. No more strictly realist in her inventory of objects, Mangold chooses the landscape as a predominating image. But landscape seen a priori as a painted image.

The titles of the paintings name seasons. The color range focuses on spring greens, light ochres, wintery grays, lemon yellows, sky blues. Even when there is no landscape image represented, the feel of an expansive, light-filled space is still very much present. We do see fields of grain, foothills, meadows. Within the givens of Man-gold’s previous work, there is no reason why the paintings should have sprouted these images (although she had been leaning toward natural rather than studio light). The new material does not seem an inorganic addition, but an extension of her earlier concerns, and it is thoroughly integrated into her previous style. The landscapes are painted neo-impressionistically, in short strokes which hazily cohere into an image. It seems as if Mangold realistically paints (copies) from a prototypical neo-impressionistic painting, as a readymade, rather than painting from a landscape. Of course, on another level, she is painting a landscape. Mangold “holds” the image down to her canvas by a “masking tape” frame, and the image is surrounded on four sides by areas of “nothing.” There is considerable difficulty in figuring out if Mangold uses real masking tape (as some writers have assumed), or if it is painted. It is a curious feat of trompe l’oeil; on close inspection it is indeed painted, for Mangold doesn’t relay the particular textured regularity that masking tape has.

These are Mangold’s most complicated paintings yet, and they surprise in many different ways. I just wish they didn’t seem so easy. Mangold is still using her subjects as foils for an older preoccupation: the problem of measurement. This is where the paintings break down, for Mangold is not equipped to discourse on the very difficult problems of conventional measurement. Visually, the paintings work; it is the philosophical overlay, exacerbated in many of the new paintings by the trompe l’oeil painted rulers from her earlier work, that gets her into trouble.

The painted rulers, which run along the extreme edge, show the “correct” dimensions of the real canvas. This “real” size contrasts with “pictorial” size, which is seen to be “false.” Mangold “brings to our attention” the fact that painted images are scaled-down versions of the real thing. Everyone already knows this, and years of literalist art have not changed things one bit. All good art makes us conscious of the discrepancy between the real thing and its image. Mangold makes a categorical error, too: she mistakes measurement for scale. She confuses a convention with reality, while trying to expose the unreality of image size. We don’t need a ruler to see that image size is usually scaled to correspond to the real size of a painting. (Using out-of-scale rulers or unconventional measurement, like Johns, is another problem altogether.) The built-in discrepancy of size and scale is used to show that painting can be a fiction (that is one thing it can be, and there is no harm in it.) Proportion and scale are prior to measurement: they are the basic elements of perception, and are not tied to convention. That Mangold’s canvas may actually be 40 inches long, while the image of the landscape is only 12, is an irony of scale, not measurement; and in fact, it is not an irony at all, but the very condition of realist painting.

At the base of this confusion is not the problem of painting, but the problem of photography, and what it does to scale. Mangold’s work really addresses itself to photographic images. When she “tapes” the image down in the center of her work, she is taping down a flat thing, an image, a photograph of a landscape. That’s why the paintings don’t read as representations but as copies. The paintings would lose very little by having photographs of landscapes substituted for the painted ones. A dissection of photographic reality would include a discussion of scale, but Mangold uses it as a facile subject. I think Mangold’s allusion to real landscape is important, but I don’t know exactly how. But it’s certainly not important for showing up the illusionism of the painted and the photographed object as a subject.

Jeff Perrone