Chicago

Gaylen Gerber

The Renaissance Society

Monochromatic and hermetic, Gaylen Gerber’s barely discernible images renounce the pleasures of iconography. In this exhibition, 25 identical square paintings formed a 79-foot 2-inch horizontal band, which functioned as a single wall, prohibiting entry into most of the gallery and determining the position from which to examine the lineup. The effect of the installation was not unlike that of a Minimalist sculpture, theatrical in its object-hood but lacking any pictorial presence. Viewers familiar with this artist’s work have perhaps detected faint images in his deadpan canvases, but the subject is significant only in its absence.

Occasionally, in graceful passages of texture that elicit the merest trace of human touch, a promise of allegorical rewards can be briefly glimpsed. Gerber has been painting the same conventional still life for years—same color, same size—painted in the same place in his studio, and conforming to a restrictive, repetitive system. The subject is painted away, day after day, to achieve a kind of dispassionate equality, disavowing Modernist progress; no painting is bigger or better than any other. Gerber’s slavishly followed self-imposed script suppresses meaning and individuality. The impossibility of this task (the very fact of their being handmade precludes the works’ sameness) signals the paradox of the undecidability of the paintings’ apparent abstraction. Indeed, we only register the works’ identical quality against the expectation of difference; the mechanistic, nonhierarchical comparison of each identical undated panel with its neighbors suggests that all copies can be originals, all originals copies.

Gerber’s objects are so straightforward in their material definition as paintings, so obviously obedient to the institutional parameters of art, that there is little in them to set the operations of desire in motion. These paintings are absolutely. conventional, smart in their stern neutrality, fleshy in their almost fetishlike approximation of matter, ruthless in their systematic construction and production; everything else—subject matter, content, even meaning—depends on allegorical interpretation or historical contextualization. Concentrating on phenomenal occurrences, Gerber tries to blend perceptual with esthetic information or to reduce the esthetic to a zero point in order to embrace a kind of experiential sublime, a pure ecstasy of visual effect.

Pushing the gallery wall forward and denying three quarters of the space, Gerber’s installation performs the activity allegorized in the art. It is confrontational and, like many confrontations, may be premised on insufficiency—not enough paintings to fill the entire space, insufficient meanings to penetrate the surface. This economy of lack is boldly admitted and confirms the pictorial deprivation of the canvases. If we lose our desire to play the game and secure the image, then we are reassured by the fact that these elegant monochromes are only signs for painting, functioning smoothly by the codes of cultural display and slyly mocking marketing strategies that demand new models.

These works are records of Gerber’s position in a tradition of painting that he wills himself to forget but has to remember to justify his project’s legitimacy. Similarly, he has to forget his last painting, so that the next one will not be different, or else he has to remember to make it the same. His paintings flirt with and derive their considerable power from our ability and the artist’s talent to make us forget subversive strategies. As an exercise, they are awfully serious and deeply ambivalent about what we should and should never forget: their predecessors, their invisible ties to history, and a tradition they can not obliterate.

Gerber’s works are abstract and representational, material and conceptual, optical and tactile, unique and reproducible, and finally collectible tokens of the meanings they activate. They are stubborn and compelling in their refusal to reflect any external psychological, political, or social contingency. They read only as blank memories of a private vision, removed and autonomous. Like post-Modern ambulance chasers of an abstract sublime, these vacant paintings are endnotes to the ’80s, secured by a recent script of theoretical justification for finality and aporia. In the ’90s, they read as seductive symptoms of an economy of esthetic and political diminishment. Gerber’s paintings cling to the power of our memories and our need to remember differences, expression, and repression. His viewers want to “believe” in the remembered subject matter—a leaden still life, a nature morte, forever dead, forever absent—ever so subtly visible, across gray surfaces.

Judith Russi Kirshner