Los Angeles

Christopher Pate


So apropos was this show’s centerpiece to a state of affairs that has only just come into focus—the too-shallow foundation of recent skyrocketing global economic growth—that it suggested an artist adept at reading and translating the culture around him in ways that seem almost prophetic. Completed earlier last year, the work, titled Bricks, comprises six roughly square panels of the same size, hung on the wall in pyramid formation. Pate has covered each panel first with burlap and then with fabric silk-screened with a blue sky and puffy white clouds, and, over that, with white mortar patterns: surreal Magritte-like compositions, in which skies appear as so many bricks. On each panel, Pate has isolated a pyramidal stack of six bricks and covered it with gold leaf, presenting it as a substance both precious and suggestive of superficiality. And while the low positioning of these stacks within their compositions implies a state of gravity, the single row of cloud-bricks beneath them suggests a fundamental airiness and ethereality. Whether visionary or cynical, the work continues Pate’s long-standing practice of making highly formalized, finely crafted, and often abstract and poetic works with interrogative underpinnings.

Bricks was more abstract, open-ended, and globally resonant than the other pieces, which more specifically addressed America and its representations. Over the course of his career, Pate has shifted the materials and aesthetics of his work in ways that reflect whatever his current interests may be. His latest exhibition showed a distinctly Rauschenbergian turn or, more generally, a Pop- and post-Pop-inspired one.

Collaging canvases and sheets of paper with vintage souvenir ephemera and road maps, Pate works in and responds to a kind of yesteryear Americana; songs about Route 66 come to mind. But while his prior works deal more specifically with states of the sort that storied highway traverses—states that recently became more difficult to classify as “red” or “blue”—his most recent ones use Americana as a foil for considering the myopia of bicoastal New York–California modernist culture.

Much of Pate’s playbook here consists of abstract interventions into found material, but in some works the artist’s playfulness becomes more acute, as it does in a canvas titled Los Angeles, 2008, in which a commemorative tablecloth with that city’s iconic, obelisk-like City Hall tower has been painted over with a ghostly image of Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk. Lines extending from the planes that, in Newman’s sculpture, lead to the point of con- tact between the pyramid and inverted obelisk serve as crosshair-like diagonals bisecting the composition, which is additionally overlaid with an image of John Baldessari’s Wrong, 1966–68, a photo-emulsion on canvas in which the artist is posed so that a palm tree behind him appears to be sprouting from his head.

Pate is among what seems to be a growing tribe of young US artists rifling through, and riffing on, their nation’s cultural output in an effort—not unlike the efforts of artists from the period Pate mines—to grapple with their role as artists in America, and to understand America through art.

Christopher Miles