New York

Antek Walczak, New York, c t ju gl wh d ams f, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 6 x 11'. From the series “Empire State of Machine Mind,” 2010.

Antek Walczak, New York, c t ju gl wh d ams f, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 6 x 11'. From the series “Empire State of Machine Mind,” 2010.

Antek Walczak

Real Fine Arts

Antek Walczak, New York, c t ju gl wh d ams f, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 6 x 11'. From the series “Empire State of Machine Mind,” 2010.

For his first New York solo show this past fall, artist, writer, and Bernadette Corporation member Antek Walczak made four paintings. Like Wheel of Fortune boards in midplay, the works comprise lines of incomplete text, the missing letters and words denoted by graphic blanks. Linking the characters and spaces, networks of Picabian lines and arrows explain how the already present letters could be recycled to reconstitute the unfinished words—as if such decoding were even necessary. Few would require help parsing what these paintings say: When taken together, they spell out the refrain of Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind”—New York’s unofficial anthem, released almost exactly a year before Walczak’s opening.

The show’s title was “Empire State of Machine Mind”; in the press release, the artist cited futurologist and inventor of optical character recognition Ray Kurzweil and talked about “hard drives attached to bodies” taking over the world. But there was nothing high-tech about this show. If anything, these four paintings (all works 2010) are anti-tech, their analog surfaces appearing like crashed Flash sites perpetually loading on frozen HD monitors. And while this pictorial content was developed on a computer, it was notably not screened, but painstakingly hand-rendered in acrylic on canvas. These works are paintings. And they took hours and hours to complete. To finish on time, the artist had to call in his friends, the gallerist, paid assistants—his network—to help. If surplus labor equals value production, these works could be said to be worth a lot. Of course this is funny, because even as “finished” works, the painted message is full of gaps. Walczak’s crew put in weeks of labor, but the viewer is still asked to complete the job—to literally read the painting’s code, its sign value—and then to what end? To materialize the completely generic lyrics of a pop single that everyone knows already anyway? Why does the prize sound not unlike the unspoken upshot of so much critical painting?

Or, to borrow from “Painting Beside Itself,” the popular essay that David Joselit published in October around the same time Jay-Z dropped his hit single, does it just sound “transitive”—that is, like painting that “actualizes” the circulation of an idea from an object to its network? After all, these diagram-paintings are based on Lempel-Ziv-Welch data-compression models and thereby prefigure live-bodied links for transmitting information through social mainframes, as Walczak writes, “to your friends, [or] to a laser printer.” As Jay tells us in “Empire,” networks, and mobility within them, are good for building capital: “I can make it anywhere, yeah they love me everywhere,” he asserts, and then name-drops a bunch of places and people, from Biggie to Beyoncé. Like pop stars, paintings are worth little if their content doesn’t circulate, if they’re unable to, as Joselit writes, “sutur[e] a virtual world of images onto an actual network composed of human actors.” Returning to Kurzweil, maybe Walczak’s show, while lo-fi, was futuristic after all, primed for “hard drives attached to bodies” taking over the world, its webs of arrows and lines and open spaces facilitating flow, calling for viewer input.

But when a speech act (here, as song lyrics) is recorded, the flow becomes fixed, and even more so when those lyrics are transcribed and become writing. To then take that extracted speech and commit it to a commodity form such as painting, as Walczak did—or record tracks, as Jay-Z did—is to turn an immaterial social exchange (with all of its 1960s Happenings or 1990s relational utopian potential) into something that can be sold. Walczak is aware of all these references and probably assumes his viewers are too—assumes that they’re able to calculate that his paintings, made mostly with free labor and exhibited in a young gallery located beside the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, obviously aren’t going to do anything to corrupt the most intensely commodified lyrics of the year. And what better way to pay homage to New York than with the image of language, fragmented into bits of words, texted acronyms, or shorthand code that only your own network can decipher?

Caroline Busta