New York

Giles Lyon

Kinz, Tillou + Feigen

Looking at the extravagant surfaces of Giles Lyon’s abstract paintings, it’s hard to tell whether he’s doodling his way into significance or just having fun. The artist’s work has been hyped with all kinds of “advanced” theories—it’s been suggested that his paintings are stagings of a neo-organic realm produced by genetic engineering, and that their colors have the acidic tang of the world glimpsed through hallucinogenics—but their delirium seems to have more to do with creating an effect of irony than with embodying drug-induced fantasies. Gesture becomes self-mocking in Lyon’s paintings, and despite the “tossed,” spontaneous look, the forms are carefully drawn and delimited by conspicuously manicured contours. Lyon is not so much parodying spontaneity as he is bringing it under control, making it seem more mischievous than liberating.

Lyon lets us know that the days of “profound” abstraction full of tragic import (à la Rothko) are over, and that what has replaced it is wit. When built-up drips of paint protrude from the surface of the canvas like “stalagmites,” as the artist politely calls them, we know that the painterly eruption from the unconscious depths has become self-consciously comic, though not in an insidious way. Accident has become calculating, a button activating familiar associations rather than a springboard for unpredictable allusions. Nevertheless, in many of Lyon’s paintings, as in Mandala del Parto, 1999, there seems to be a kind of buried mandala within the painterly turbulence, the outlines of which are clear from a modest distance, indicating that perhaps the artist does share a certain “mystical” sensibility with the Abstract Expressionists.

Often the hidden mandala-like form seems to offer less a glimpse of the sublime than a view onto the shattered face of an insect monster; it is as if beneath the chaos of forms one could discern the red-rimmed eyes of a figure “lifted” from a horror film. Burying a figure in a protoplasmic ground is an old Rorschach strategy—perhaps Lyon is interested in depth after all. But we don’t find any personal unconscious there, but rather pop-culture afterimages— the flotsam and jetsam of a collective media identity. As confirmed by the works’ titles (Blue Elvis Dreaming; King Kong Napalm; and Peanutbutter Nation, all 1999), Lyon’s abstractions turn out to be maps of the impersonal mass-cultural mind, presented as a peculiarly archaic terrain filled with magical relics to cling to in compensation for a lack of individuality. Lyon is an archaeologist of the collective American mentality, which he shows to be full of mad illustrations gone abstract—which can only suggest just how mad it is.

Donald Kuspit