Los Angeles

Tim Ebner

Kuhlenschmidt/Simon Gallery

Tim Ebner is concerned with the image and process of abstract painting. Until recently, the focus of this investigation was the brushstroke itself, which Ebner exploited both as a unique, emotive gesture and as a premeditated, mechanical simulation. What appeared a purely intuitive sweep of the brush was in fact painstakingly rendered, using a wax-resist method, so that process contradicted representational signification. Thus Ebner not only drained the expressive mark of its unique automatism but, through an almost fetishistic concern for finish and surface, also underscored the medium’s fabricated, artificial nature.

For Ebner, as for many post-Modernists, painting takes place in a socioeconomic as well as an esthetic context. Considerations of design, with connotations of corporate sanctioned “taste,” dictate painting as much as the traditional parameters of originality and formal historical precedent. In this respect the artist is less a heroic persona, pushing expressive vocabulary to its limits, than a technician who appropriates and manipulates predetermined rhetorical systems.

This perspective was particularly evident in Ebner’s latest exhibit. The five works, with their modular arrangement of 16 two-foot-square canvases, owe certain debts to Gerhard Richter’s color chart paintings of the early ’70s. Divided into four groups of four, the panels are spray painted in accordance with the Dunn-Edwards Paint Corporation’s decorator color-cue cards. The artist juxtaposes high and middle values of one color with a complementary hue, also used in a group of four monoprints depicting exaggerated brushstrokes. With their convenient Velcro mounts, one can arrange the individual panels to form any number of combinations, ranging from the full quota of 16 to just one, depending on room size, wall space, decor, and furnishings.

For this particular exhibit, Ebner set up the units to compose four-by-four panel “squares,” modifying each arrangement in turn by dropping down one panel as one moved clockwise through the gallery. Thus a repetitive systematic structure was counterpointed by the difference of color and design so that a wide variety of abstract “patterns” was possible. These range from Ellsworth Kelly—like L shapes to Brice Marden vertical stripes. Despite this ideological role as simulation, the work also functions as Modernist abstract painting is supposed to, creating a retinal push-pull between the hard surfaces of the monochromatic panels and the trompe l’oeil depth of the brushstrokes.

Such formal game-playing, however, with its tip of the hat to the genealogy of abstraction, seems less important than Ebner’s conceptual approach to the broader issues of painting. While he draws attention to the political and economic issues of color as a manipulation of fashion and design, Ebner also deals with the medium’s often overlooked mechanics: installation, storage, and shipping.

To alleviate problems of installation, each group of sixteen canvases comes fully equipped with instructions and diagrams that suggest possible arrangements and series, while storage and transportation are facilitated by custom-made crates. The latter closely resemble Sherrie Levine’s recent knot paintings. The idea of an ex-appropriator (Levine) having her newer, original works appropriated as literal “carriers” of another artist’s canvases seems particularly perverse, as if post-Modernist practice has become little more than a series of self-reflective quotations. Ebner’s intent is more serious than that, however. With their smooth surfaces, chrome handles and latches, and carefully aligned screw holes, the crates also epitomize the fetishistic qualities inherent to any craft. They could also be interpreted as enigmatic metaphors for death, suggesting coffins or caskets, presumably for the interment of conceptually “dead” paintings.

What Ebner seems to suggest is that all art objects depend upon ideas for their esthetic and ideological relevance. No longer an autonomous activity, painting has been coopted by big business on the one hand and conceptual art on the other. For Ebner, the contradictions between the two camps provide a rich and provocative battleground.

Colin Gardner