Los Angeles

Will Fowler

In his 2004 debut at David Kordansky Gallery, Will Fowler positioned painting as an analogue of paleontology by playfully exploring the fossils of modernist syntax. Deploying straight-from-the-tube acrylic colors in riotous assemblies of geometric shapes—circles, squares, triangles, and snaking paths—that cover each painting’s surface, Fowler pushed familiar, slyly referential forms into complex compositions, suggesting a rich, even allegorical potential for the medium without a whiff of irony or nostalgia.

For an untitled diptych in that show, Fowler collaged and then partially painted over several Xeroxed images of El Lissitzky’s layout of the design for the 1930 International Fur Trade Exhibition: an architectural model appropriately, if perversely, situated atop a splayed tiger skin. That image, trapped behind “bars” of colored paint, presented a provocative, willful confusion of structure and decoration—representing a dialectical struggle that threads through modern painting’s history, from Impressionism and Cubism through Pop and minimalism and arriving, finally, in Fowler’s painted “cage.”

That tiger lurked still, albeit more carefully camouflaged amid pulsating patterns or simply buried behind layers of paint, in the artist’s ambitious follow-up show at that gallery. The apparent anomaly in this group of six otherwise large, densely layered canvases is Tigers, 2006, a small, vertically oriented painting consisting of a white field bounded by a thin black edge that reiterates and intensifies the perimeter of the surface. As suggested by the title, a small glimpse of a tiger’s pelt emerges, on close examination, beneath several layers of white. Thus Tigers is hardly the monochrome it initially appears to be; rather, it is a textured ground of construction and excavation—an accumulation of hidden activity posing as blankness. The work’s surface demands sustained attention, and in this sense establishes the rules of engagement for perceptually disentangling the five larger paintings.

Kite Parts, 2006, also reveals the tiger’s face, but here Fowler borrows most heavily from his own kit of parts. The work’s title lends the array of gray triangles dispersed nearly symmetrically across the wide horizontal canvas suggestive, referential power: Up close the individual right-angled wedges appear almost leaden, but from a distance the gray “kite parts”—each thinly outlined with a bright color—arranged in flocklike formation, begin to take flight, or flutter as if caught in a breeze. Coins of No Realm, pointedly dated 2000–2007, builds upon—and systematically obliterates—a painting that originally appeared in Fowler’s 2000 MFA thesis exhibition. A horizontal canvas nearly ten feet wide, Coins of No Realm employs a woozy plane of broken grids that, through sheer repetition, impose order on the bombast below while paradoxically disorganizing the overall field and disorienting one’s perception of it: Atop so many painted strata, one begins to confuse positive and negative space. Likewise, these grids, light tan in color, are made using masking tape, though they initially appear to be comprised of masking tape: In contrast to a previous generation of Los Angeles painters, Fowler avoids slickness by using tape analytically—along with a perfunctory application of acrylic—to cover and re-cover his brightly colored ground, building what Smithson, in a different context, called “ruins in reverse.”

The paleontologist, like Claude Levi-Strauss’s bricoleur, is not an inventor per se, but rather someone who borrows from what is already available—an allegorist of sorts, who constructs myth by unearthing and organizing fragments of the past. Still, despite a deeply encoded connection to (modernist) history, Fowler’s paintings look surprisingly urgent, as if the paleontologist had discovered a startling, mythical creature by manically rearranging the bones of a familiar, domesticated animal.

Michael Ned Holte