Los Angeles

Brad Spence, Courtroom, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 49 1/2 x 67".

Brad Spence, Courtroom, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 49 1/2 x 67".

Brad Spence

Brad Spence, Courtroom, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 49 1/2 x 67".

The title of Brad Spence’s fourth solo show at Shoshana Wayne Gallery, “(figs.),” simultaneously bespeaks the open-endedness and closure of the fourteen immaculately airbrushed Photorealist paintings that were on view. When abbreviated and bracketed, the word typically indicates a particular kind of “figure,” a reference image or diagram tied to a text. Previously, Spence has organized bodies of work around themes straightforwardly declared in his exhibition titles—“The Afterlife,” “Art Therapy,” “As I Was Conceived”—so that even if individual pieces occasionally strayed into ambiguous territory, these overarching rubrics at least provided us with a serviceable road map. The absence of any such hermeneutic frame here may encourage a greater range of interpretation, but the particular grouping of images that comprised “(figs.)” was no less interconnected or in any way arbitrary. To the contrary, what Spence left unsaid this time around felt all the more demanding of an answer.

No doubt this is due to the cinematic quality that pervades all of Spence’s work and that here began to suggest a storyboard, however obliquely. For example, the grouping of three pictures that opened the show—depicting a van parked on an empty street (Van) (all works 2010), a descending flight of stairs inside a home (Downstairs), and the sun (or is it the moon?) radiating through a chain-link fence (Fence)—operate like the establishing shots of a film, guiding the eye straight ahead, then down, then up, to “cover the ground” of some wan, ambiguously suburban context on a tense note of expectation. Through intentionally awkward cropping; radioactive, bleached-out lighting; and a few chillingly stark figurative choices, every banal detail has been charged with a current of dread. If in cinema tranquil normalcy tends to precede disruption, Spence has reversed the order, leaving us haunted by a climactic event that has seemingly already occurred.

Registering what appears to be the aftermath of a violent crisis, two paintings in particular clinch this feeling—Battlefield, wherein a barely decipherable body is lying beside a trench, and Courtroom, which depicts a small room with simple benches, a space as bare-bones as it is abandoned. Between these poles of crime and punishment, every image in the exhibition took on the brief of a legal document, as if “to be evidence in the historical trial,” as Walter Benjamin wrote about the work of Atget—that is, to present exhibits, or again, “figs.” Other works, depicting such things as a fingerless glove, a cocktail, a deserted corridor, all carried the signature effect of Spence’s finely tuned technique—one that is more hypo- than hyperrealistic in the way that it enfolds and occludes the work’s pictorial content. Just as the hand of the artist has been pulled back in the process of painting, so too has the product been pushed just out of reach. From a distance, these works resemble blurred photographs, often bearing the scars of analog facture: light flares, off-tinting, various other printing errors. Of course, as paintings, viewed at close range, the works display no harsh matrix of photographic grain, the images remaining uniformly smooth, vaporous, evanescent, and perhaps vaguely toxic. Within the space and time of Spence’s image world, something happened, and it does not mean that it could not happen again, is not happening now.

The more time one spent with the work, the more pointed an allusion not only to figures but to figuration the show’s title became. Spence’s surfaces appeared to occupy the intermediate point of mental processing (or literal “figuring out”) in the transition from perceiving an image to comprehending it, to subsequently forming its representation. That the manifest content of these images is beset by a latent trauma is both depicted (figured) and enacted (figured out) in Spence’s hazy deposits of sprayed pigment. Perhaps the work’s value resides precisely in its potential to enfold the image in the traumatic atmosphere of its initial registration. In our culture of visual saturation, the timely question of Why this picture and not another? finds a simple answer in these (figs.) that Spence offers as evidence: If an image is remembered, it is because its affective impact continues to hurt.

Jan Tumlir