New York

Meyer Vaisman

In exhibitions, architecture often triumphs, or at least so imposes its presence on artists’ projects as to force esthetic acquiescence to its terms. This was the case in Meyer Vaisman’s show, which involved a concerted (and extremely successful) adjustment to the size and scale of the gallery space here. Behind this change in locution, however, Vaisman’s thematic concerns remained constant: the new works’ canvas backgrounds and superimposed forms are all fabricated in his characteristic mariner, using silkscreened blow-ups of the canvas weave. These constructions present images of blankness—of blank canvas, and of art’s eviscerated powers—treading a discursive terrain that Vaisman and some of his colleagues have somewhat pedantically perused for several years. But what distinguished this exhibition was the virtuoso handling with which Vaisman treats his chosen topic.

Each work consists of a tight and very artful arrangement of assorted forms or frames that project at varying depths from their backgrounds. Many are in the elongated oval shape of cameo portraiture, others are square or rectangular, and a few are shaped like heraldic shields. The extremely dense arrangement of these forms points to the activities of isolating and framing as central to Vaisman’s strategies. In some cases the forms have empty surfaces (devoid of marks), while in others the interiors have been cut out so that the works converge on literal voids. Most, however, are imprinted with images, as in Portrait with Imaginary Siblings, which sports souvenir caricatures of Vaisman, his girlfriend, and others. The Morgue Slab consists of four rows of ovals, most of which contain photo-enlargements of miniature portraits from old coins, with one containing the aforementioned image of Vaisman. Just as coins have portraits, the portrait has coinage: it is a genre whose value is not inherent but is determined by convention. Elsewhere, Vaisman appears to deface and deride the enterprise of portraiture: one of the large oval frames in The Graying States contains an image of a shattered mirror.

In the latter work Vaisman seems to contest the reflexive powers of art, negating its ability to function as a transparency, giving onto the “truth” of individual or object. These works are portraits of portraiture, depictions of depiction, in which the humanistic pretensions of art are resoundingly debunked. Vaisman deflates the capacity of painting to ever transcend its material status, a perspective that he shares with others of his generation, but he sets himself apart by the scope of the terrain over which he extends his ironies. Indeed, in this exhibition he has isolated the principal elements of painting: the canvas, the frame, the composition, the artistic persona——even the work’s commodity status (represented here by the coin). In so representing these factors, he transmutes them into signs, demonstrating the void of expressive pretensions. The works, then, are conflated images of emptiness. As one party to the discourse, I can’t fault Vaisman’s commentary, which accurately encapsulates a given cultural condition, but I can criticize the limited territory over which he projects his brand of ironic spectacle. Vaisman’s art involves a kind of formalistic treadmilling within the parameters of painting that never projects beyond its boundaries, never touches upon the “real” world of social and political action. For all their clever configurations, the works are fundamentally impotent. But, yes, they do claim their place on the gallery walls with considerable finesse.

Kate Linker