New York

Paul Blanchard

The Art Gallery at Brooklyn College

In dismissing what he called “olfactory painting,” Marcel Duchamp might have had in mind the sort of work that reeks of thick, slow-drying oil paint and the clichéd romance of the studio evoked by that aroma; or maybe he just meant the kind of painting that, with its lusciously seductive brushwork, makes you want to keep getting closer and closer until you realize you’ve got your nose stuck in it. Yet the notion possesses eminent Duchampian potential, the capacity perhaps to displace art’s stake in the visual just as much as, say, the Rotoreliefs did its investment in stasis.

On one level, the eleven untitled paintings Paul Blanchard exhibited as “Searching for Tethys” might be said to fulfill this unrecognized power. There’s no oil paint, no brushwork either, just eleven large, square, unprimed and unpainted stretched canvases. “A stretched . . . canvas already exists as a picture,” as Clement Greenberg had to admit, though a picture, as Thierry de Duve points out in Kant After Duchamp, that has never been “actualized” by any broadly recognized artist. Nor has Blanchard done so, since while one blank canvas would be an enigma, eleven of them is an installation.

Besides, what counts here is less the canvases at the room’s perimeter than the aromas that hang invisibly in its center. Each canvas contains, secreted in its stretcher bars, open vials of essential oils extracted from plants and trees of the Mediterranean—a region Blanchard knows well as a longtime resident of Florence and the author of the authoritative Blue Guide to Southern Italy. Stand in the room with your eyes open and you feel like you’re in a gallery; close them and you would swear you’re in a forest.

So this is an installation proposing that “landscape” might be represented at a sensory level more primal than that of the visual. In constructing the installation, Blanchard has made intelligent use of the flexible hanging system designed for the space by SITE Architects: The screens on which the canvases are hung have been spaced far enough off the gallery walls that one can peer behind them to see the fragrance-filled vials—but not far enough that they are actually displayed. (Strangely enough, the scent becomes less concentrated the closer one gets to the canvases.)

As a sensory experience, odor is perhaps more powerful but less specific than vision. (Consider the particularity with which, say, an Impressionist landscape is articulated.) So isn’t Blanchard being too clever here for his own good—cloaking his earnest appeal for a reconsideration of the sensory specificity of place in the trappings of Conceptual art? Maybe, but one could just as well say that it is in the chiasma between the rationalism of its appearance and the sensualism of its import—each of which on its own would be inadequate to meet art’s demand for specificity—that the work’s power lies. It gives us, not the illusion of a unitary experience, but the challenge of an either/or, a dichotomy that proves “opposition is beneficial,” as Heraclitus taught us, since “all things are born through strife.”

Barry Schwabsky