New York

Tom Meacham

Oliver Kamm/5BE Gallery

Tom Meacham’s second solo exhibition at Oliver Kamm/5BE Gallery was sharp in several senses of the word. A cleanly designed installation of starkly graphic paintings juxtaposed with mass-produced objects, it had the measured visual elegance of a bespoke suit. That the objects in question were assault knives—in a variety of colors and sizes ranging from the almost cute to the unarguably intimidating—made a more literal connection. And while it is debatable that the show’s conceptual underpinnings deserved the above descriptor quite so unequivocally (they were a little too open-ended for that), Meacham seems well informed about the particular highways and byways of modernism that are his current work’s driving force.

Seven of the nine paintings in the show employ clear variations on a tessellating trihedral pattern appropriated from the Louis Kahn–designed ceiling of the Yale Art Gallery, an exemplar of midcentury architectural innovation. Rendering the utilitarian but nonetheless visually striking grid in either electrical tape or as an ink-jet print on midsize white canvases, Meacham generates repeating patterns that appear at first to be geometrically perfect but slowly reveal almost imperceptible flaws. These cumulative errors suggest a purportedly ideal and invariable system that is in fact subject to incrementally slow but irreversible decay.

The impact of such subtle manipulation, buried in plain sight, is not immediate but is ultimately all the more satisfying for its restraint. In her accompanying essay, artist Cheryl Donegan writes that the tape paintings in particular “appear to be both bandage and scaffold.” All it takes, then, is a shift in color (restricted here to black, blue, and red) or position (some of the paintings were conventionally hung, others leaned against walls or partially hidden behind a column) to nudge the work’s tone and connotations one way or the other. Meacham’s critique of modernism’s tendency toward visual and attitudinal inflexibility arrives in details as minuscule as a strip of tape folded imperfectly over the edge of a canvas or the visibility of a canvas’s unpainted verso.

Of the paintings, only Untitled (all works 2007) and April appeared to break with the grid. In the former, a red tape K reaches from top to bottom (and around the edges) of a large, leaning panel. The ground is colorless, though pale red and blue corners whisper through the layers of white. Donegan suggests “full (thousands) and empty (strike out)” (the latter referring specifically to baseball) as two possible readings, but one might equally think of Joseph K. from Franz Kafka’s The Trial or follow “thousands” to a more specifically contemporary association with electronic memory (kilobytes). Both blank slate and virtual dictionary entry, the painting seems the result of a concern more with the process of arriving at meaning than with communicating any one dictum. April is similarly reticent; a flag like panel in which a broad white cross stands out against a mid-gray spray-painted ground, it alludes to the path trodden by abstraction from Kasimir Malevich on, but without laying discernible claim to anything approaching either a purist manifesto or a targeted deconstruction thereof.

And what about that table of knives, aka The Greater Good? While it is possible to begin assessing the work in purely formal terms (one might begin with the X-shaped raw plywood base, continue with the objects’ neat, repetitive arrangement, and conclude with the satisfying material contrast between the show’s two- and three-dimensional components), it would be perverse to ignore the strangeness of the objects themselves and the sardonic note struck by the work’s title (also that of the show in toto). That the blades were purchased as a set prompts numerous questions, a particularly pertinent one being: Why would anyone need so many? The work also repositions painting, and the aesthetic impulse itself, as a “cut-up” of sorts, one in which form and function are sliced, diced, and endlessly rearranged in the pursuit of an inherently elusive resolution.

Michael Wilson