Los Angeles

R. H. Quaytman, Morning, 4.545%, Chapter 30, 2016, twenty-two paintings in oil, gouache, varnish, silk-screen ink, lacquer, and gesso on wood. Installation view. Photo: Brian Forrest.

R. H. Quaytman, Morning, 4.545%, Chapter 30, 2016, twenty-two paintings in oil, gouache, varnish, silk-screen ink, lacquer, and gesso on wood. Installation view. Photo: Brian Forrest.

R. H. Quaytman

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA)

R. H. Quaytman, Morning, 4.545%, Chapter 30, 2016, twenty-two paintings in oil, gouache, varnish, silk-screen ink, lacquer, and gesso on wood. Installation view. Photo: Brian Forrest.

OVER THE PAST FIFTEEN YEARS, R.H. Quaytman has developed a formidable art practice predicated on a dynamic interchange between her paintings and the specific contexts in which they are exhibited. In a gesture that undermines painting’s customary status as a portable, autonomous object—and therefore any assumption of self-contained and stable meaning—the artist conceives of each exhibition as a starting point for generating a new body of work, rather than as a destination for already finished pieces. Anyone familiar with this foundational tenet of her practice would thus have expected Quaytman’s exhibition of new paintings to be sensitively, and specifically, installed. Nevertheless, the visceral experience afforded by “Morning: Chapter 30” was surprising and thrilling. The main gallery at LA MoCA was dominated by the twenty-two painted wooden panels comprising Morning, Chapter 30, 2016; these were hung cheek by jowl to create a panoramic image. With a tilting composition and a sky-blue palette that gets progressively lighter, the show’s centerpiece generated a rushing sense of visual expansion that doubled the vast desert imagery rendered within the individual paintings. At the same time, the panels’ shiny lacquered surfaces allowed viewers to see themselves reflected within the work. This effect cut short any lingering visual immersion in the depicted landscape and drew our attention back to the gallery itself. Designed explicitly for this wall and to these ends, Morning, Chapter 30 delivered a forceful phenomenological complex of image, object, and context. The work was a clear thesis statement of the artist’s intent to account for, and indeed command, the room.

“Morning: Chapter 30” was installed in three galleries and contained approximately sixty-five works, more than half of which were produced specifically for this occasion. While all bore traces of the artist’s particular brand of site-specificity and self-referentiality, the show’s multipanel centerpiece offered the most explicit case study of Quaytman’s working formula. The piece’s dominant imagery derives from photographs the artist took during a 2015 visit to Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, 1969–70, a monumental icon of Land art in Nevada’s Moapa Valley and held in MoCA’s permanent collection. Rendered via the artist’s typical hybrid layering of tinted gesso, silk-screened photographic imagery, and handpainted details, Morning, 4.545% is dark and liminal, punctuated by small incidents such as the appearance of a solitary figure in one frame and the precise moment of the sun’s touching the landscape’s horizon in another. Yet Double Negative is invoked neither as merely a pictorial motif nor as a pretext for moody, Romantic painting. Indeed, the art-historical status of Heizer’s work, emblematic of a moment when many artists pointedly placed their works outside the context of galleries and museums, cannot be overlooked. The critical legacies of Land art—alongside those of institutional critique and Conceptual art—form the theoretical backdrop for Quaytman’s practice. Throughout her work, she seeks to acknowledge the arguments such “endgame” movements advanced, without throwing the baby of painting out with the bathwater of modernist imperatives. By taking Heizer’s piece as its starting point, Quaytman’s installation renders both painting and land, modernist objecthood and postmodernist expanded field, dizzyingly contingent. Because of its status as a work that can never be contained on-site, Double Negative stands for a kind of split presence: residing “in” the museum’s collection, but always also outside its walls. Re-presenting this work as an image within paintings shown in its custodial institution, Quaytman foregrounded the Land work’s peculiar status and invited us to ponder more generally the state of being in two places at once—in the present and in the past, in discourse and as embodied beings. Such blurring of obvious oppositional binaries tells us something of Quaytman’s dialectical methods. Double negative, indeed.

In addition to the new paintings explicitly dealing with the MoCA context, the exhibition assembled a selection of works from earlier series, and such breadth made plain the striking prominence that outside references hold in Quaytman’s art. The “extra-painterly” here abounded, inviting, even compelling viewers to delve into the artist’s investigations of particular corners of art-historical discourse for clues to her work’s myriad meanings. In Quaytman’s art, every picture tells a story.

A cropped image of two reclining female nudes, borrowed from a print by the Italian Renaissance engraver Marcantonio Raimondi, is a case in point. The image featured prominently in Quaytman’s contribution to the 2011 Venice Biennale (I Modi, Chapter 22, 2011), and, with eight panels of that work included here, it again played an important role. Like Heizer, Raimondi is a loaded, strategic point of reference. Best known as a “reproductive” printmaker, he achieved renown during his lifetime for expertly translating the paintings of recent masters into copies that disseminated the images across Europe. Given that “Morning: Chapter 30” was predicated on the artist’s interest inDouble Negative, a piece by a “recent master” on Quaytman’s own artistic horizon, the inclusion of Raimondi’s reproductions here served as the perfect coda for the resulting work, demonstrating the artist’s consideration of the legacies of homage, originality, and image circulation in the art of our current day.In case viewers didn’t make this connection on their own, the artist used an uncropped version of the Raimondi image in a new painting superimposed on one of the Morning, 4.545% panels.The sixteenth-century Italian was thus literally incorporated into the conversation with Heizer, and his work recontextualized en abyme.

The idea of incorporation—of the immersive corporeal experience of being in a body—also coursed throughout this exhibition in other ways. In addition to Raimondi’s classical nudes (which, in fact, originally served as illustrations for a sort of proto–sex manual, a guide to how to do things with your body), other bodies, both implied and depicted, populated the show. In a panel from Point de Gaze, Chapter 23, 2011, for example, we see a hooded torso whose central axis is marked by an otherworldly beam of light and a curious torn form. This shape, which the artist made by cutting the surface of the source photograph used in the image’s silk screen, implies fragmentation and violence. In other works, the body is registered indexically (as in a nearby pair of paintings featuring gigantic reproductions of the artist’s own fingerprint) or in language (as in the panel including Christ’s injunction not to touch his resurrected body: NÄO TOQUE). Elsewhere, bodies appeared by implication, in abject and anthropomorphic shapes: a small panel from iamb, Chapter 12, 2008, evokes a pile of disembodied tongues, while the bulging polyurethane-foam extrusion outstripping the bounds of its panel in O Tópico, Chapter 27 (Solo), 2014, recalls nothing so much as a metastasized tumor. In still other paintings, Quaytman used a particular image of a lumpy mass; recalling those images that mysteriously flip between looking like a duck and a rabbit, or a girl and an old lady, it alternately resolves into a face and unravels into a formless pile. The artist’s interest in incorporation extends as much to the viewers’ own bodies as to those depicted in her paintings.

Like the multipanel Morning, Chapter 30, several pieces here required our physical interaction to achieve their full effect. This invitation to what could be termed performative incorporation was most pronounced in a new lenticular painting, which contains vertical ridges onto which two images are painted on alternate sides. Seen from the right side, the painting reveals an image of the letter A. However, once the viewer takes a step to the left, the converse sides of the painted ridges line up to form the letter M. At once signifying the exhibition’s titular “morning” (am) and our own first-person expression of the verb “to be” (“I am”), this piece efficiently registers the contingency of both sight and knowledge. The painting’s potential meanings—indeed, the work’s very legibility—become entirely dependent on the viewer’s physical participation. Far from being self-contained, it waits for us to activate it.

Such layered and multidimensional art asks a lot of its viewers, and Quaytman and curator Bennett Simpson smartly included a large vitrine of source materials to provide some insight into the artist’s creative process. Presented as a thought board for provisionally hashed-out ideas, the vitrine included production notes, original photographs that served as source material for many of the paintings, and lines literally connecting disparate images, texts, and references in a rhizomatic diagram. Without explaining anything outright, the vitrine provided traces of the process through which the artist’s themes develop and take shape, and helped the viewer follow her wide-ranging thoughts. The catalogue accompanying the exhibition offered new interpretative avenues into Quaytman’s work as a whole, with especially fine essays by Yve-Alain Bois and Juliane Rebentisch. In the tome’s lucid introduction, Simpson recalls that he initially invited Quaytman to mount a midcareer retrospective. While the pair ultimately opted for a different type of show, a hand-drawn reproduction of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, 1920, in Quaytman’s vitrine seems to indicate that she may have entertained the idea of a comprehensive survey at onetime. Klee’s image is arguably most famous as an object of discourse, specifically vis-à-vis Walter Benjamin’s discussion of the work in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940). In that text, Benjamin reads the Angelus Novus as a personification of history, in which the backward-looking (literally, retro-spective) figure is blown forward into time by the storm of progress. With this reading in mind, as well as the allusion to Benjamin’s own status as a theoretician of the relationship between painting and mechanical reproduction, a theme that forms the core of Quaytman’s material investigations, we are left to imagine what a retrospective of her work might eventually look like. Like this show, it would promise to be highly self-reflexive, since moving forward by looking back is Quaytman’s primary modus operandi. Indeed, what we see in her art is a vertiginous chain of references that can dazzle and sometimes overwhelm, as it seems to recede without end—a mobilization of history in amnesiac times.

Jordan Kantor is an artist and a professor at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. A monograph on his work was released by D.A.P. this month.