Los Angeles

Peter Halley

Grant Selwyn Fine Art

Recently a friend of mine showed me the tiny silvery chip he’d pulled out of his brand new Ericsson cell phone. He had purchased it in New York, and although it was alleged to have global reach, for some reason it didn’t work in Europe. The delicate little object—expensive, futuristic—reminded me of something, but I couldn’t figure out what, until I opened the envelope of Peter Halley transparencies I’d picked up after viewing his recent paintings in New York. Seen in the spacious Manhattan gallery, Halley’s new works pack quite a visual punch; reduced to a few inches and carried across the Atlantic, all that is left is the neat geometry of a digital chip. Size matters, and Halley’s six massive canvases in bright colors and glistening metallics are luxurious, even magnificent, but still, what exactly are they? A decade and a half ago, the artist asserted: “Even though my work is geometric in appearance, its meaning is intended as antithetical to that of previous geometric art.” Whereas the realm of geometry, and abstract painting generally, may have traditionally been abed with various forms of idealism, Halley’s geometric paintings are meant as “a critique of such idealisms.” What forms of idealism? Well, we’re not just talking Mondrian and Abstract Expressionism; we’re after bigger fish, like Descartes and the biggest of them all, the philosopher of philosophers. The ’80s may have been a superficial decade, but artistically a theoretically there were certainly ambitions: With a little help from Michel Foucault’s theories of power and surveillance, young Halley felt he was painting against Plato.

I’m not sure if that’s still the program, but the basic building blocks have remained the same—cells and conduits. In 1982, Halley wrote of his work: “These are paintings of prisons, cells, and walls. Here, the idealist square becomes the prison. Geometry is revealed as confinement.” All the hopes for transcendence, regularly associated with abstraction, have been given up or even inverted, and the traditional signs of a higher sphere—sublime or holy—have given way to cheap effects and counterfeit imagery, the stucco texture being “a reminiscence of motel ceilings” and the Day-Glo paint a signifier of ’low-budget mysticism."

Standing in front of one of the new canvases, Power Domain, 1999—a huge pink rectangle and a narrower red one connected to each another by conduits in several colors and to the invisible outside by still others—I ask myself whether this lurid geometric pattern on canvas tells me anything about power relations, technology, or contemporary society. It’s an impressive object, not completely flat but with subtle relief qualities, very decorative and quite large. Actually, exactly the right size for an ambitious new art gallery. Rather then analyzing a hidden structure, this piece is, I think, the perfect illustration, or symptom, of an influential reality: the mighty conventions of the gallery system. I wouldn’t insist that the post-avant-garde installation seen in the average European Kunsthalle is superior to the rectangular images that still dominate commercial gallery walls. All that I’m saying is that Halley’s work happens to neatly accommodate these demands.

It is clear that these geometric structures don’t partake of high-modernist heroics and dreams of transcendence, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have much to say about today’s society, let alone that they are interested in communicating a valid critique. Instead it would seem that they affirm the infinite possibilities of combining colors in surprising and quite witty ways, a practice that has nothing to do with the high stakes of the artist’s theoretical writings. The palette is truly strange. Take, for example, Developer, 1999. The upper left of the canvas is pure heaven: The blue of the sky encounters the gold of angels’ wings, as in Giotto. The prison cells in the middle of the canvas aren’t dark and gloomy—as one might expect of a dungeon—but instead display the pink of an ’80s handbag from Chanel.

Some of Halley’s older, very simple canvases seemed boring in an interesting kind of way. This wasn’t really abstract art, but rather some sort of comment on the very language of abstraction, that is, a form of citation or appropriation. In the new works, Halley’s basic alphabet of cells and conduits is employed in a freer, more fluid manner: Here, the jailhouse rocks. What this means for the artist is hard to say and finally irrelevant to the viewer’s experience of the canvases. It’s all very decorative. It would seem that Halley has increasingly joined forces with the enemy. But then again, with an enemy like that—Beauty—who needs friends? Ultimately there is nothing wrong with decoration; but one’s ambitions might reach beyond the typical corporate office. Decoration can be powerful: Remember Victor Vasarely’s huge facades and wall works. Why not a plaza, or even a prison wall? Given the money the United States now seems willing to spend on correctional institutions, such a venture would bestow new and unexpected meaning to the concept of public art.

Daniel Birnbaum is a frequent contributor to Artforum.