Los Angeles

Steven Bankhead

Circus Gallery

“Battery” (2008), Steven Bankhead’s last exhibition at Circus Gallery, comprised a series of medium-size charcoal renderings of collaged material that the artist had culled from billboards, posters, flyers, stickers, T-shirts, graffiti, and other ephemera. Much of the imagery was lifted from the rock milieu and testified to rock’s ongoing recycling of a lexicon of mythical symbols originating in avant-garde art (as described by cultural critics such as Stewart Home and Greil Marcus). A sense of historical unfolding was suggested in the emphatic numbering of the drawings on view: twenty-four in all, arranged into four groups of six, each work bearing its date of production as title (Sept. 18, Sept. 19, Sept. 20 . . . ). Winding chronologically around the gallery space, these drawings closed the circle of eternal recurrence while also opening out of it at every juncture. In the missing dates between works, as well as in the sparse composition of each one, which left large sections of paper void of all but the smudged traces of process, historical blind spots intruded.

Although at first glance there appears to be little connection between “Battery” and “Location, Location, Location,” Bankhead’s recent exhibition, it gradually becomes evident that the newer work is answering the older. Carrying over the serial deployment, middling scale, and strict colorlessness of the earlier drawings, Bankhead now gives us what look like abstract paintings, each one emblazoned at its center with a starlike motif of jet-black pigment radiating outward onto unprimed canvas. I would call it “goth minimalism” were it not for the vaguely politicized tone of the titles, some of which allude to a history of urban uprisings. White Nights, Disco Demolition, Tenderloin (all works 2009): Whether the reference is to “official” acts of war, terrorism, or civil unrest, these titles are our first clue that the paintings may be representational as well.

Interestingly, it is the discourse surrounding contemporary photography that poses the most daunting challenge to the notion of abstraction as self-generated, or “wholly made,” as Adorno would say, since a photograph, even an abstract one, is always “of” something else. As it turns out, Bankhead’s “dark stars” are based on photos of broken windows taken in the neighborhood of his studio. The sharp contrast between black paint and white ground positions the viewer ambiguously, either inside looking out or outside looking in. Either way, one is left staring into a void that keeps snapping back into the form of a positive shape.

This is an “idea” that could have been exhausted within its first iteration. However, Bankhead is shrewd enough to know that the point of variation is to modify the theme, and accordingly he puts his shattered panes through the affective paces: Here, the lines of impact are jagged and cutting; there, as soft and woozy as a sea sponge. Some evoke the affably brut écriture of that old syndicated comic strip B.C., whereas others court a more diffident sort of grandeur, begging comparison with the works of Clyfford Still and even Ad Reinhardt. The violence of the rock “spirit,” conjured by means of cut-and-paste rituals in Bankhead’s first solo show, is now channeled onto the built landscape of the city. This, too, constitutes a simple equation, but one that yields a surprisingly sophisticated range of results.

In his 2008 show, the artist had installed a pink neon sign spelling out the words pretty vacant on the back wall of the gallery’s narrow loft space. Positioned at a height that kept it hidden from visitors in the main gallery downstairs, the work appeared only as a lurid glow spilling over the balcony—a louche invitation. This time around, Bankhead installed three makeshift benches in the second-floor space, each made from boards resting across DJ-staple milk crates situated atop standard sheets of unfinished plywood. Unlike the gallery’s resin-coated plywood floors, these sheets retained signs of the viewer’s presence: the dirt we track in from outside. The accumulation of shoe prints and smudges actively demonstrated the principle of productive destruction that underwrote the show as a whole, taking in everything from record scratching to the Guta. Group’s assault on the picture plane. It was perfectly appropriate, then, that this gallery furniture should be dysfunctional: Once one was seated, the work on the ground floor disappeared from view.

Jan Tumlir