Chicago

Mel Bochner

Rhona Hoffman Gallery

“Words in art are words. Letters in art are letters. Writing in art is writing.” These sentences by Ad Reinhardt commence his “Art-as-Art Dogma, Part III” (1965) and describe well the mocking fatalism ingrained in Mel Bochner’s Blah paintings, a body of work he has been making since 2000. In the works, all titled Blah, Blah, Blah, the artist selects, significantly, a nonword as his sole figure. Blah is a word that is not interested in words. It is a proxy word more associated with speech. And in the works on display here—all from 2009, and featuring guileless rounded letters rendered with thick cakes of oil on black velvet—Bochner exploits blah’s curious meaninglessness to undertake a complex tongue-in-cheek unmooring of painting. He calls attention to the many significances that can arise from the medium’s material signifiers (oil paint and the black velvet support), its technical parameters (impasto and thin coats of pigment), and its perceptual properties (color and light).

The show’s largest work, which lined the north wall of the lower gallery, includes twenty canvases, each with a single capital letter or comma from the phrase BLAH, BLAH, BLAH, blah—a humorous run-on of enthusiastic lethargy. In isolating single characters within fields of painted velvet, Bochner exacerbates the distinction between figure and ground. The letters’ raised, striated oil paint, held in by a stenciled edge, contrasts aggressively with the surface on which the pigment rests. (This dragged-out rhythmic list painting is the only work in the show to include punctuation, and it might lampoon the infinite sound bites in a rolling news ticker.) The same focus on figure and ground—though less pronounced—could be found in the main gallery, which hosted eight diptychs, each consisting of two velvet rectangles that repeat BLAH four times. Abutted, the vertical panels have a horizontal composition that mimics the general proportion and orientation of a book. While rendered using a typeface familiar to advertising, neither these moderately scaled diptychs nor the sprawling twenty-panel work ever step into the world of supergraphics; they absurdly amplify the effect of paint on a surface.

The works’ nod to easel painting is especially compelling. The oil paint’s heaviness causes it to fall downward, suggesting that the paintings were executed vertically (although they were not) and are therefore 
akin to observational
 painting, as opposed to
graphic design or concrete poetry. (One anomalous work, made by 
arranging four rectangular paintings into 
the shape of a square,
 employs rotational symmetry; its heraldic design
 has a decorative quality.) 
Bochner’s palette shifts 
in each painting; the more playful and exploratory works feature many hues, which vary from letter to letter. Some of these possess passages of intense chroma, particularly when he uses cadmium. The red letters cut sharply through the artist’s repetitions—of technique, compositional structure, and utterance—and seem to rise from the painting’s surface. But there is another sharp cut present in this body of work, one rare in Bochner’s brand of shrewd Conceptualism: A scathing commentary on chatting, texting, and Twittering. Blah, blah, blah.

Michelle Grabner