Saamlung announces a group exhibition entitled “The Untouchables,” featuring work in painting from Conor Backman, Kadar Brock, and Hou Yong; digital image-based work from Travess Smalley and Jo-ey Tang; and a spatial intervention from Yan Xing. Delving into the status of the surface within artistic practice today, this group of artists presents a diverse set of interpretations of the relationships between mediation, process, texture, and the tangible.
Noting the surprising resurgence of textural painting in parallel with the flattening of audience consumption via the print and digital circulation of the mediated art object, the exhibition borrows the convention of the surface as an interface familiar primarily in its distance: even more often than the art audience is barred from flash photography and other forms of image making, we are reminded not to touch. A compelling inversion emerges when the artist begins to work with material that often invites a probe or caress, as with carpeting, transparency, wallpaper, cardboard, or any number of other options. Then, as the institution of art works its particular bureaucratic and unspoken magic, these materials are suddenly shifted into a realm in which the only expected form of consumption is visual. This nexus is one of the prime territories to investigate the transition between object and image, particularly in terms of the set relations between the two categories, as we ask whether it might properly be said that an object is “reduced” to an image, or whether an image marks a “captured” object.
Conor Backman presents a pair of objects: Poseidon (2009) is a rough trompe-l’oeil painting that seems to transform its canvas into a sheet of foam, thus constructing a witty and deceptively simple two-way relationship between painting and sculpture as the former becomes the material of the latter. Stainmaster (2011), on the other hand, appears to draw out this relationship by assembling in multiple layers the tools of both painting and sculpture, constituting an ambiguous and machinic device for the realization of the art object. Similarly illusionistic, Hou Yong contributes to the exhibition several paper objects, including a disposable cup and a small cardboard box, that have been painted with thick, white acrylic and covered with graphite pencil markings to resemble concrete surfaces, confusing the properties of volume and mass in a way that is very clearly influenced by the artist's core practice in the depiction of water surfaces.
Kadar Brock, interested primarily in the relationship between painting as an embodied practice and the social constitution of mark-making systems, presents new work from an ongoing project that has been variously termed to consist of “vampire” or “cannibal” paintings. Concerned with the legacy of overtly logical and rule-based (though often random) systems through which his past paintings had been made, often under the influence of fantasy gaming and the internal coherence of abstraction, for some time now Brock has been methodically dismantling both older pieces and new ones created explicitly for this purpose by stripping the paint away and leaving behind stains, chips, creases, and holes. The end result, if it could be called that, is a battered and beaten canvas that, stretched anew, appears fully functional and composed, a zombie image containing with it constellations of negated meaning that are never allowed to remain fully clear.
Travess Smalley, who generally focuses on the exchange between digital images circulating through computers over the internet and their physically instantiated counterparts, often calling on a festishistically attractive surface to mediate between the two, presents here a set of works entitled Prepared Scanner, a composition in clay (2012). Each one appears in the gallery space as an open flatbed scanner, its glass tray filled with a tightly packed and brightly colored pile of clay. The exercise is, rather thrillingly for an audience with a gambling mindset, entirely speculative: the work itself, conceived as the digital image attained by scanning the object installed there, is never visible during the exhibition period, but is only ever a single push of a button away. Jo-ey Tang, too, works with the digital scanner as a particularly twenty-first century mode of photography, here by turning the scanning process back on itself in an attempt to produce an impossibly empty image. In two horizontally-oriented prints almost four meters long, both Untitled (2011-2012), Tang makes the device to picture itself even as the traces of the body—fingerprints, grease—and the area surrounding the scanner surface remain visible.
This element of specularity appears again, if rather more spectacularly, in the work of Yan Xing, whose installation Between the Wall (2009/2012) is realized at its full scale for the first time in this exhibition. With nothing more than two sheets of mirrored cellophane installed in a corner of the gallery space, Yan calls into being an environment that is part funhouse mirror, part lens, and part print: although the sheets naturally reflect the viewer when she stands directly between them, they more commonly produce a blurred image of themselves when viewed from an appropriate distance, seeming to devour the space between them. Because of the instability of the material every flaw in handling, from fingerprints to stray hammer marks, remains painfully visible, forcing the reality of the circulation of the art object into the surface of the image.
About the artists
Conor Backman (b. 1988, based in Richmond Virginia) is one of the founders of Reference Gallery, the influential art space exhibiting emerging and post-internet art, and an artist interested in the ongoing developments at the intersection of painting and sculpture. His work has recently appeared in exhibitions at Art Blog Art Blog and Mixed Greens Gallery, both located in New York.
Kadar Brock (b. 1980, based in New York) is a painter concerned with the histories of abstraction, social structures of belief and magic, and casual systems of marking and decision-making. He has most recently exhibited at the Hole in New York, Horton Gallery in Berlin, and Motus Fort in Tokyo.
Hou Yong (b. 1976, based in Beijing) belongs to a tight group of painters who emerged from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing around the turn of the millennium, focusing for the last few years of his solo practice on the depiction of swimmers, waves, and other elements of the surfaces of bodies of water. His work has recently been featured at Boers-Li Gallery, and will soon appear in a solo exhibition at Space Station, both in Beijing.
Travess Smalley (b. 1986, based in New York) is a leading figure of the current wave of contemporary art concerned with the image politics of a post-internet world, in his case often by mining psychedelia and reintroducing it into new situations of abstract mediation. He has held recent solo exhibitions at the Gloria Maria Gallery in Milan and the Cooper Union in New York.
Jo-ey Tang (b. 1978, based in Paris and New York), born in Hong Kong, concentrates on the life and materiality of the image amidst new forms of image-making, presentation, and destruction, engaging with a life cycle of ideas through which works are additively and negatively modulated over time. His most recent solo exhibition has taken place at Exile in Berlin.
Yan Xing (b. 1986, based in Beijing) is an artist whose work oscillates between a highly formal concern for the process of artistic production, particularly within the legacy of Soviet-style artistic education, and a performative interpretation of personal and sexual politics in post-reform China. He has recently exhibited at Galerie Urs Meile in Beijing and the Meulensteen Gallery in New York.