Chicago

Gaylen Gerber

Donald Young Gallery

Gaylen Gerber tests the principles of artistic collusion, collaboration, and commingling by occasionally inviting other artists to make their work on top of his own. There is a self-effacing quality to Gerber’s own painting, too: For many years he has been making monochromatic gray paintings, at first with the same, nearly invisible still life barely rendered on it. More recently, in a gesture of generosity, he’s taken to fittting the entire wall of a gallery with his signature slate gray as a support/ backdrop on which other artists may hang their work. This focus on the generic and unassuming is less a manifestation of modesty than a strategy for focusing on Gerber’s real interests: autopsying the dynamics of painting and the mechanics of the exhibition venue.

A few years ago—the earliest examples in this exhibition were from 1999—Gerber began to give his gray canvases away to selected artists to “complete” by painting over them. His act functions as gift and challenge, and the artists’ responses (twelve were shown here) varied considerably. Some virtually obliterated Gerber’s painting; most let various amounts of Gerber Gray peek through their signature emendations, making a hybridized work that acknowledged its origin in a sedimentary manner. Either way it all seemed a sort of test, a cross section of how artists might independently respond to the unusual challenge of Gerber’s invitation. His gifts came with conceptual strings attached, and their forced duets had Gerber literally supporting other artists, his agenda always clearer than those wrought upon him.

Twelve of the works were hung here edge to edge, and seven were placed directly upon the large Backdrop/Everybody, 2002. In this work the collaborative group M&Co covered Gerber’s sixteen-by-twenty-foot gray canvas, its dimensions precisely that of a wall in Copenhagen’s Charlottenborg Exhibition Hall where Gerber showed his painting in 2002, with another field of yellow-gold paint, and inscribed on it the word EVERYBODY. But nothing is really for everybody, and the slippages and interstices implied in this bold and hollow promise of universality are everywhere reinforced by Gerber’s project. Like some aesthetic clinician he coolly proposes an experiment that is certain to produce inchoate and ambiguous data, revealing the awkwardness that underpins a mix of generosity and obligation.

While most of the artists Gerber selected for this project—and there is a cliquish air to his pool of participants—are individuals (they include Stephen Prina, Kay Rosen, Michelle Grabner, Joe Baldwin, and Adrian Schiess), the collaborative team of Robert Davis and Michael Langlois worked with him in an interesting way. They modulated Gerber’s painting to make it appear as if selectively lit and painted a highly naturalistic depiction of a verdant marijuana plant atop it. Support/Pot, 2003, seemed among the most balanced results of this project, exhibiting a playful to-and-fro between the artists, a kind of accommodation that suggested it could meaningfully engage the realms of interaction and collegiality that are so much part of the art world but so rarely part of art.

James Yood