View of “Gaylen Gerber,” 2020. Photo: Gaylen Gerber and Paul Levack.

View of “Gaylen Gerber,” 2020. Photo: Gaylen Gerber and Paul Levack.

Gaylen Gerber


When you apply a noise-cancellation filter to an audio file you are editing—whether of speech, birdsong, or a symphony—and set the threshold too high, the resulting sound becomes strangely fragmented. Much information disappears, and the soundscape is transformed into a distorted and unfamiliar, yet oddly fascinating, terrain. If there were a spatial equivalent of such extreme acoustic filtering, it might have looked like this exhibition by Gaylen Gerber. The show consisted of two paintings, both Untitled, and a group of objects, all of which were simply called Support. The works in both groups were undated, though the press release said that the paintings were made in the late 1980s and early 1990s, while the objects were from recent years.

The paintings were gray monochromes on canvas. The subtle variations in the surface of each piece suggested that they were painted with brushes and that the paint was not evenly applied. The Support group included sculptural works placed on large pedestals made of plain MDF—among them an iron rooster, a taxidermied coyote, busts in marble or bronze by minor nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists—and a nineteenth-century copy of a work by eighteenth-century Dutch flower painter Jan van Huysum in a gilt frame. The selection of these artifacts evoked a slightly eccentric antique shop. All were uniformly covered with gray or white oil paint, which erased the materiality and texture of their surfaces, giving the sculptures a plaster-like homogeneity (with the exception of the poor coyote, which looked dejected, its fur drenched and sticky with paint) and the painting a peculiarly plastic solidity. The picture was almost completely effaced by this impersonal gray, although traces of it were detectable if one looked carefully, while any distinction between canvas and frame was completely obliterated.

While the sides of the Untitled paintings were left unpainted, exposing the white canvas, the sides of the Support painting were fully coated by the same gray that covered the rest of the piece. This suggested that while Gerber has continued to explore the underlying structure of artworks by subtracting a significant amount of information (color, texture, even dates), his investigation was chiefly pictorial in the earlier years. It subsequently became more object-focused as it grew to encompass the entirety of our material culture—paintings being treated no differently from anything else.

What appeared to be even more crucial was Gerber’s examination of the act of artmaking. The exhibition text asserted that the untitled paintings were in fact still lifes “painted in three values of gray on gray grounds.” The nuances in their surfaces could easily have been unrelated to any representational intent, simply accidental unevenness of application. Similarly, while the checklist included the provenance and author of each artifact used to make a Support, these objects had been rendered invisible, so it was not possible for visitors to tell if the pieces said to be in marble or bronze were really made of these materials; for all we knew, they could have been reproductions coated in paint. But even though the artist’s word could not be verified, we accepted it as true and essential to the integrity of the exhibited works. So much of an audience’s experience of an exhibition is based on trust.

Especially if the artist’s statement about the works was itself understood as performative, Gerber’s exhibition was a very successful performance about artmaking. The absurdly prominent pedestals could be thought of as stages. Through the filtering-out of many common markers of differentiation between individual objects, what initially appeared to be a fairly straightforward painting and sculpture show revealed itself as a theatrical demonstration of how artworks’ meanings are produced and a test of the limits of trust in the artist-audience relationship.