A common assumption about today’s proliferating electronic technology and digital media is that it turns the world increasingly sublime in scale and immaterial in nature. But this loses sight of another trend, just as important, which is the current emphasis placed on individual human capital and its embodied, improvised performances. As the economy shifts from commodity production and exchange toward information-oriented services and short-term contracts, participating parties are drawn into more intricate social collaboration, and subjectivity itself gets inducted more completely within productive and economic processes. Pitted against the mechanical, quantitative tasks of Fordism, post-Fordism boasts decision-making, information filtering and the management of affect—not passive workers, shoppers or entertainment audiences but prosumers, information managers, DJs and the like, all of whom adopt a supposedly active relation toward pliant databases. Instead of being suppressed for the sake of getting work done, now the communicating and performing of subjectivity is itself put to work.
It’s under such conditions that individual-scale D.I.Y. or freelance production has come to the fore. D.I.Y. is not a counter-cultural movement but the very name of what’s most official and canonized in today’s culture. The topic is often broached in music criticism, about how (to quote the website Pitchfork) what’s long been categorized as indie rock “has metastasized toward the mainstream, a process that’s been abetted by placement in movie and TV soundtracks of bands from Bon Iver to Broken Social Scene to Iron & Wine.” New post-Fordist work arrangements have encouraged this merging of mainstream and indie, industrial and hand-crafted, high and low tech. Common among today’s cultural industries has been a turn away from an earlier factory model of rank-and-file labor armies manning assembly-line production to smaller, more intimate work teams stationed at individual-scale hardware like laptops and other peripherals routinely found in many of today’s households. This has led some commentators to hail a dawning “revival of certain ‘pre-modern’ craft-influenced work arrangements … the new economy reveals itself as a return to the situated, interpersonal and skill-centered forms of production associated with pre-modern (craft-rich) economies.”2 Like the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream we eat or the small-batch, home-brewed beer we drink, we imagine that more and more of our cultural products are authentically handcrafted, churned out not by gigantic corporations but by small groups of ambitious tinkerers futzing in small downtown lofts or neighborhood backyards and basements.
Indeed, neoliberalism in general has largely sold itself as an “artistic” revolution, promising an end to Fordist conformity and standardization via a more fulfilling life of individual autonomy, personal initiative, creative spontaneity and self-realization. This is supposedly the upside of the neoliberal crusade to shift risk onto individuals and privatize social life through aggressive assaults on unions and state assistance programs. Confusing euphemisms of “the creative life” with neo-entrepreneurial theories of “creative destruction” is a way of providing ideological cover for the makeover in labor conditions to more chronically intermittent employment with longer work hours and no benefits. Artists and designers are made into role models for the highly motivated, underpaid, short-term and subcontracted creative types who politicians and robber barons imagine will staff their fantasy of a fully freelance economy—what ex-Al Gore speechwriter Daniel Pink has titled “Free Agent Nation” and the Tony Blair government pithily christened “The Talent Economy.”
And so it goes for the artists making D.I.Y. paintings. In their application of steady, routinized, repetitive labor and use of personal-scale, low-budget materials, and with their resulting work’s overall sense of precariousness and impermanence, these artists don’t defy the mainstream but express its most characteristic trends. These are “the conditions under which the true reality of our age is experienced,” to borrow a line from Clement Greenberg in the late ’40s about the sense of isolation and alienation that confronted New York School painters at the time. “The experience of this true reality is indispensable to any ambitious art.”3 Ditto for D.I.Y. today.
The work I’m calling D.I.Y. abstraction—made by such artists as Cheryl Donegan, Adam Henry and Jeffrey Scott Mathews, to name a few—shares close quarters with what Sharon Butler and Raphael Rubinstein have recently pointed to as an emerging trend, what Butler calls “The New Casualism” and Rubinstein calls “Provisional Painting.” According to Rubinstein, the hallmark of such provisional canvases is that they “risk inconsequence or collapse … they embrace the amateurish and fucked-up … they look casual, dashed-off, tentative, unfinished or self-cancelling.”4 But with many of the examples in Rubinstein’s list, whatever an individual work might suffer from such things as hesitancy, belaboredness and lack of mastery is more than compensated for by the foregrounded presence of the painter her or himself—the painter’s worrying and indecision, the compelling drama of the artist’s perpetual questioning and doubt. On the contrary, the D.I.Y. abstraction I’m talking about, despite employing a personal scale, otherwise avoids signs of personalism and instead favors a quasi-classicist aesthetic of mostly unmixed color, unbroken line and closed form. To paraphrase Greenberg again, against the hand-writing and gesturalism of much ’50s painterly abstraction (think de Kooning and Kline), these artists favor a relatively anonymous execution. In other words, their works are post-painterly despite their provisionality. While small in size and obviously hand-wrought, their abstraction tends toward impersonality.
For example, in Mathews’s work, the handmade quality means the work carries some of the elegant lyricism of drawing, and yet Mathews avoids any of the carving and chiseling into space that usually results from a strenuously drawn line. Instead, the bleed caused by his use of straight-out-of-the-package sharpies and other kinds of ink markers softens and fattens the line, resulting in effects that are closer to watercolor than drawing, as if the color itself were thickening into a specific width that it arrives at on its own. Furthermore, by working into canvas that is either unprimed or has its fabric-quality somehow exacerbated, the allover weave creates an evenness across the entire surface that emphasizes the lateral diffusion of color rather than the inward digging of wrist-led drawing and the illusionist effects of value contrast. In several of her paintings from 2007, Donegan does literally the opposite, clawing away patches of their metallic-taped surfaces to reveal the underlying layers of cheap cardboard support beneath. But like with Mathews’s fabric weave, the glittering effects of the tape, made all the more fireball-like by Donegan’s knife slashes, as well as the abused mushiness of the exposed cardboard, also keeps the paintings’ surfaces from hardening, and it’s this softer field that stops them from rigidifying into true geometric abstraction, keeping them closer to, say, Kenneth Noland’s concentric circles than Piet Mondrian’s squares or Robert Ryman’s process-oriented tutorials.
But all this doesn’t mean that such surfaces truly breathe. The paintings I’m describing tend to be relatively small and insistently dense and concrete. Their smallness necessitates that they’ll be experienced as material objects, never as fields outright. So too, the diminutive size disengages the work entirely from the surrounding architecture, thus imbuing it with a sense of on-the-go mobility and transcience. Adam Henry shows the role that size plays in this; as his canvases get bigger, emphasis on repetitive making turns into optical patterning, and priority shifts from the artist’s hand to the viewer’s eye. Mathews often goes in the opposite direction. At least when he spatters heated metal (a substance called bismuth) onto his canvases, as in Untitled (1982), 2010, scale is reversed; the paintings take the example of Jackson Pollock in the opposite direction that Richard Serra followed with his throws of molten lead, not toward an expanded arena of physical space but toward miniaturization. The glittering bismuth appears to both pre- and post-date industrial notions of materiality, recalling at once medieval alchemy as well as microchip minerals like silicon, coltan and cassiterite.
Neither do the canvases of Mathews, Henry and Donegan employ much compositional juggling and arranging of distinct forms, which would privilege the framing edge as demarcating the visual “whole” against which such relational balancing is judged. Rather than insisting on each painting as an isolated instance of visual deliberation, as representing a unique set of formal decisions that frame and enliven the viewer’s line of sight, priority is instead given to the lateral production of works, one canvas after another. Such paintings are more about behaviors of making than looking. And this could stand, paradoxically enough, as an indication of the extent to which even painting today at its most abstract and colorist and post-painterly has been effected by the rise of information. After all, what distinguishes information is how it privileges performance and operation, what messages do rather than mean; information asks to be handled, processed and circulated (search, filter, point, click, link, reply, save, forward, etc.), not looked at from a distance and experienced optically, like ’60s abstract painting, or even read and deciphered like so much ’80s art with its reliance on semiotics and theories of the sign.
Indeed, it may be that what most recommends this kind of painting to a place of centrality in our D.I.Y. age is its superior associations with the studio, that artisanal site of making and doing, rather than in the power of painting to induce certain modes of reception like immersion or opticality or semiotic critique. This is especially true of such conspicuously made or crafted paintings, paintings worked on by a single pair of hands, with a plasticity both hard and yet malleable enough to withstand being heavily manipulated while still yielding form. Furthermore, what so enables such work to convey pure doing, to straddle both D.I.Y. and anonymity, to suggest an artisanal performing of subjectivity albeit in an impersonal mode, is precisely that they are paintings, rather than belonging to some other category of art. That is, rather than a special preserve of unique individuality, here painting stands as close as one can get to just doing stuff, purely making things. As Barry Schwabsky writes in the introduction to the recent Phaidon catalog Vitamin P2, “The ordinariness of painting has become one of its most important characteristics. Painting is so familiar, so well-known that it’s become the default mode of art-making. The ordinary art made by the ordinary artist is likely to be painting.”5
And yet if painting does present itself today as the best means to simply make and do, as if with no other objective or end in sight, nothing other than the daily practice of painting, to borrow Gerhard Richter’s now famous line, then it’s also probably true that the studio and the making of paintings no longer guarantees as it once did a determinant frame of reference for an artist’s activity, a set of imposed meanings or metaphors that approximate or link the specific, contingent artistic act to the general, to something like tradition or history or community, something that transcends or feels more enduring than the moment to moment of simply doing. Under the conditions of D.I.Y. labor, in which the D.I.Y. artist is whatever she or he is doing at any given moment, a basic cog in the post-Fordist logic of just-in-time production, the studio and the paintings made there become nothing more than an endless string of those isolated moments, stretching out as if in an empty and indeterminate temporal span, one thing after another. Making paintings suddenly becomes just like how Bruce Nauman described the making of his more Duchampian art, an art that supposedly comes after painting: to paraphrase Nauman, painting today is just what an artist does, just filling time while sitting around the studio.
Perhaps this is what makes D.I.Y. abstraction so compelling now. The post-painterly approach in the work highlighted here, in which D.I.Y. is treated as part of the common material givens undergirding production today, not as a foregrounding of personal gifts and one’s unique endowments, is crucial to how these canvases uniquely manifest contemporary feeling—not despite their impersonality and anonymity but because of it. The painterly personalism in too much of Rubinstein’s Provisional Painting portrays our D.I.Y. neoliberal world in an overly enchanting light. Being a D.I.Y. artist in the Rubinstein mode, too unique and uncategorizable and ever-changing to be pinned down by a single, definitive visual statement, can often result in a romantic art, its template is the romantic hero’s transcendent quest of leaving behind common social definitions and roles in search of unique paths and triumphs, fuller truths and a more authentic and rich existence. And yet today the association between authenticity and the uniquely handmade has become a primary sales pitch used by business to add exchange value to everyday retail objects. Indeed, with official policy advancing risk, flexibility and short-term speculation over the social contract’s promises of long-term security, it’s hard to see how the values promoted in our D.I.Y. age can be taken as challenges to the system when these are the very attributes today’s dominant system so loudly promotes. On the contrary, today’s claims of romantic defiance and personalism too often look past the fact that our sense of expanded individual agency has been purchased largely through an aggressive shattering and collapse of the larger social structure. Falling progressively into ruin, this is a scene that belongs not to romance but to tragedy.
And D.I.Y. has become something like the campaign slogan for this historical development, on the one hand a puff-chested manifesto about the democratization of authenticity and uniqueness beyond the formerly exclusive perserve of artists, and on the other hand a sad resignation that artists now share the same exploited fate as new-economy working stiffs across the board. The result is that the popular solidarity once promised by modern labor is now misrecognized as a dispersion of individual flex-timers each expressing her or his different, unique sensibility. The D.I.Y. abstraction of Mathews et al. thus updates the current state of painting by focusing on the sense of short-term, freelance precariousness and insecurity that today pervades the base-line experience of labor, including that performed in the artist’s studio. In a world increasingly restricted to just tools and techniques and their on-demand performance, contemporary painters continue to produce work, from one moment of doing to the next, one after another, despite the increasing ordinariness, aimlessness and disenchantment of their situation, without any promise of their output eventually resulting in some enduring social and historical meaning, or of its landing a place for itself within a redemptive, time-honored tradition, or of its being received by a robust, discerning and coherent discourse. The only option they have is to act out in their daily material practice the society’s reigning, terrifying belief in the short-term, the temporary, the moment to moment, the always on call, the get-it-while-you-can and enjoy-it-while-it-lasts. Here artistic labor becomes nearly indistinguishable from flex-time wage labor—anonymous, abstract, interchangeable and disposable. Painting as just doing stuff, like a hamster on its treadmill, as if in a perpetual feedback loop, over and over, with no other further objective in sight.
1. Jeffrey Deitch et al., “The Painting Factory: A Roundtable Discussion,” The Painting Factory (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2012), 9. A similarly themed exhibition, “Phantom Limb: Approaches to Painting Today,” was mounted this summer at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. In the press release curator Michael Darling writes, “The artist’s hand—the central protagonist in modern gestural painting—has become a primary reference point for many artists intent on rethinking painting. This ambivalence toward the hand inspired the title of this exhibition, Phantom Limb…. As in the medical sense of the term, a phantom limb may no longer be in evidence, but its owner still feels its presence, is haunted by it, and struggles with instinctive urges to use it.”
2. Mark Banks, “Craft Labour and Creative Industries,” International Journal of Cultural Policy 16, no. 3 (August 2010): 309.
3. Clement Greenberg, “The Situation at the Moment” (1948), in The Collected Essays and Criticism. Vol. 2: Arrogant Purpose, 1945-1949, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 193.
4. Raphael Rubinstein, “Provisional Painting,” Art in America 97, no. 5 (May 2009): 123.
5. Barry Schwabsky, “Everyday Painting,” Vitamin P2: New Perspectives in Painting (London: Phaidon Press, 2011), 15. Paralleling Schwabsky’s description of painting, the ordinary and everyday have also been used to characterize contemporary craft. According to Glenn Adamson, editor of The Craft Reader (Oxford; New York: Berg Publishers, 2010), “the main appeal of craft is its connection to the rhythms and realities of what has been called the ‘everyday’ (p. 457).”