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Art Review (San Diego): David Fobes at the Athenaeum

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In a previous article, I made reference to comments made by Alain Badiou, a French philosopher, and Sebastian Smee, art critic for the Boston Globe. Badiou insisted that “art must be revoluftion” and Smee argued for an artist’s “sustained engagement” during the art-making process. Smee believed too much of what was being produced today were half-hearted attempts or gestures posturing as real ideas. I agreed with both men and wondered “Where’s the beef?” in art today.

An artist’s sustained engagement can be as much a credit to independence and tenaciousness as it is to his or her desire to maintain an artwork’s intended meaning and integrity while it is on exhibit.   And to some extent, this might result in captivating and exploiting a viewer’s five senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Art is not always what it appears to be. This phenomenon has never been as omnipresent in contemporary art today as it has in the past as artists strive to provide a full surround sound experience. The point is that an artist can go beyond the simple gesture of mark-making by delving into the core essence of what they are fabricating by bringing their ideas to life. Technological advances in both art and science have only enhanced the possibilities. Almost anything goes.

photo: David Fobes

It appears then that artistic process and creativity (or innovation) are derived from the investigation of seeing what will happen if artists do this with that and with whom. They are alchemists to a certain extent, knowing how and when to effect change internationally or even locally. The manner in which they do so politically, visually, or in a community can determine the relevancy and importance of their work and how it might eventually affect us.

Take the artist Anish Kapoor, for example. He could have joined the growing ranks of museums and petition signers lobbying for the release of detained Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Instead he chose not to participate in an exhibition he was asked to be part of in China, which is literally a radical use of “cause and effect” (detention => no exhibit) and a sustained engagement if not a belief system. Artists now have the freedom and the luxury to operate across a broader spectrum of personal, political, and artistic beliefs and parlay them into concrete actions, and in the best case scenario, into works of art.

Longtime San Diego artist David Fobes knows something about this; his unwavering dedication to his craft is hardly disputable but not always easy to maintain. Nonetheless, Fobes has successfully managed to cut a mean swath of color with new works on display at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla. I’ve followed Fobes’ artistic career closely over the years and have visited his home and studio on several occasions. I was first introduced to his artwork by Doug Simay, formerly of Simayspace Gallery downtown, and through various exhibits of which one in particular, the Cannon Biennale , caught my attention.

Code-O-Chromes features all new works by Fobes in his signature style of employing vinyl (duct) and cloth tape to construct a myriad of 3D geometric and colorful twisted columns, hexagonal pyramids, rectangles, prisms, squares, and architectonic references. In addition to these new works, there are two painted pieces interspersed between the mounted vinyl ones (in varying shades of grey) which use several corners of the gallery as their foil. Entitled “Cube in/Cube out” and “Hocus Focus” they succeed in creating the illusion of 3D cubes floating blissfully in the air which mutate (expand and contract) depending on your angle of view and your ability to discover the “sweet spot” which, once found, can offer up some magical surprises. Beyond, however, a few smiles and bemused wonderment – a lot like seeing a really good magic trick performed – these pieces can’t seem to get past their own illusionistic cul-de-sac, avoiding the necessity of something more substantial and interesting for the viewer to look at. They remain too anecdotal and forced for my taste.

I spoke to Fobes about these works and in all fairness; they are a relatively new investigation into what could potentially become something more dynamic and self-sustaining. At least I hope so. I can see them much larger and in sync with the architecture of the space they find themselves displayed in. It could make a difference between dominating the space with somewhat arbitrary and trite forms (a square for example) and incorporating imagery or shapes that respond to or play with/off the architecture, which I think would suit Fobes’ style much better. I’m thinking of course about the work of Sol LeWitt and the large murals he produced – or had produced for him – and some of Daniel Buren ’s early stripped wallpaper pieces.

But I want to get back to the main thrust of the works in the exhibit, the duct tape paintings, by using a loose definition of painting to describe them: “applying paint, pigment, color or other medium to a surface (support base).” In Fobes’ case, the tape is applied directly to sheet metal which offers a smooth, consistent and tactile surface for the tape to adhere to. The sheet metal support also allows him to “cut” back into the painting revealing other layers of color or the sheet metal itself.

photo: David Fobes

They are not, as one reviewer proclaimed, portraying “the quaint professorial notion that ‘painting is dead.’” If this is true, painting has been dead and buried for over a century now. The crux of the reviewer’s complaint lies then in the belief that Fobes’ process in fabricating these works is so mechanically precise that they “reek with mechanistic deadness” and lack any “imperfections and defects [that] keep an artwork alive or create drama.” If you follow this logic to its detrimental end, then you do away with a large chunk of art history (notably Minimalism), architecture, music, literature, and design from Mies van der Rohe to De Stilj. Steve Reich, Malevich, Raymond Carver, ad nauseum on up to Judd and countless hundreds of other artists, all practiced a reductive style. Their works could hardly be considered emotional wastelands or attempts to kill off any artistic medium, style, or movement. And this is the key to fully appreciating Fobes’ work; they are not dead, nor is the illusionistic style of painting he is partially emulating. It is not about re-inventing painting as much as it is re-formulating it into a usable language of color and form.

If you consider duct tape as a medium – like oil paint – or just another painting utensil in the artist’s repertoire, it becomes less about what the tape can do or how it has been traditionally used in the past, but more about a means to an end, that allows the artist to develop the type of image and sensation he wants to elicit from the audience. There is an obvious efficiency over painting that taping allows, including a range of textural effects, but it is used in a way which allows viewers the security and reference point needed to enter into the work on multiple levels via their own personal knowledge and experience of what duct tape is and does. This is no different from looking at paintings and understanding that they come from oil paint. The basic understanding of the material allows for a higher contemplation of what’s being looked at. So what’s the big deal?

On the simplest of levels, the tape is an entry for the viewer, but also a constraint for the artist to overcome, given the limited palette of colors available. What is important to understand here is that there is no tomfoolery or trickery involved in using duct tape – granted the results are sometimes magical – but there is a conscious effort on Fobes’ part to gain the most from the least. It is an investigation, a process that Fobes has undertaken willfully, a gesture, as Sebastian Smee calls it, with one exception: Fobes’ works do have meaning and purpose, do have a soul, and in some undeterminable way, make perfect sense to a majority of onlookers, if not by their own fanciful, straightforward and colorful admission. They resonate, they vibrate, and they even tantalize the spectator. Not so bad for work that allegedly reeks of “mechanistic deadness.” Just look at them, you’ll see what I mean.

It might also be helpful to recall that Fobes has maintained an alternative and no less successful career as a furniture designer. If you bring the notion of extreme craft into his process of fabrication – “something like marqueterie with tape” – then it makes perfect sense he would use the same language and experience to exploit the paintings to their fullest potential. This sensibility and technical ability (skills) infuses the work in Code-O-Chromes with a sense of authority and deft presence. I can attest to the power and “knowledge of craft” and its crossover into contemporary art. I’ve seen it first-hand in the work of countless contemporary artists living in France and abroad, who have come from the École Boulle in Paris – a University that has been in existence since the late 19th century and known for its design, architecture and marqueterie programs.

Finally, the use of tape raises the question of whether or not Fobes could have achieved the same results if he had simply painted the same geometric forms onto canvas. Not likely. The paint and its handling would have betrayed the purity of the imagery Fobes is trying to achieve. It would have become more about “paint” (think Peter Halley ) than illusion, which, ironically, is one of the criticisms against Fobes’ work being too much about “tape” – a criticism I also believe is not entirely unfounded.

The tape does get in the way at times, so much so that we can’t seem to stop talking about it . That we are amazed by its use sometimes detracts from what we are looking at. Fobes fully understands the limitations of working with a “democratic” (i.e. “blue collar”) material and accepts its limitations and connotations as part of the process and the medium. The interest in “its history” stops pretty much there and is of no interest to him, I believe, beyond what he is able to achieve with the material (technically or otherwise) – which is quite a bit. The most obvious of course is the vertical stripping and juxtaposition of colored bands and twisted forms that populate his canvases creating visual examples of color theory in the round so to speak. Looking closely at the work will reveal a blending of the cloth and vinyl tapes creating both shiny and matte areas creating a sort of overall varnishing of the surface, yet another reference to painting.

On a historical and conceptual level, the work harkens back to Frank Stella of course, Daniel Buren, and Barnett Newman among others –   Ron Davis for example, and to some extent even Rothko for their pulsating, glowing and shimmering light (like colored heat rising from the surface of the painting) that they induce. Fobes has also acknowledged the influence of Gene Davis and Tim Bavinger and the ground covered by the Op artists a few decades earlier. This isn’t meant to put Fobes at a disadvantage, or to turn him inward face-a-face a wall of historical precedents that even he cannot overcome.

No, not at all. It is a simply a reminder that there are several methods, formats, and techniques that any of these predecessors and current contenders have used to investigate a similar and desirable end result – visual effects to elicit multiple and sometimes physical experiences within a viewer’s mind, body and eye. If we can accept that Fobes and others are turning a process (technique, skill, medium, language, etc.) into a visual one, which in turn becomes a passion, then a labor of love (more of that mechanistic deadness), imagine then what it must be like for the artist who is producing the work. They too must be experiencing the same visual or multiple realities we do when looking – surely more intensely. It draws the production aspect of the work away from simply being a gesture back into the realm of an idea synthesized into a concrete and wholly entertaining if not enlightening work of art. It also allows for an emotional and not just conceptual response to the work from both the audience and the artist. Big claims of “mission accomplished” ring throughout this analogy, but the end results are no less accomplished. The paintings work and function like they’re supposed to.

It can become a slippery slope, however, with many pitfalls to avoid, if Fobes continues to work in this manner. As mentioned earlier, the tape does get in the way not as a medium, but as a symbol for some other utilitarian use. We’re amazed by the versatility of duct tape to the point of distraction. The point is, how far can Fobes run with the idea before the symbolism wears off? He’s gained our entry and trust into the work and has made surprising, if not substantial, gains over the years, with its use and imagery. Of this, there is no doubt.In the context of this exhibit he even acknowledges the progress he’s made – the personal aesthetic he’s developed – by including an earlier work entitled “No Title Yet”. It is a relatively “sloppy” work (fabrication-wise) compared to the other works in the show, comprised as it is of rectangular swatches of colored duct tape that scintillate across the sheet metal surface like dancing pixels. I like this piece quite a lot.

photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann

It is a luscious and baroque work of art (extremely painterly) that maintains one leg in the tradition and innocence of experimentation – the unknown – and the resulting beauty that often comes from it. It is also an admission, I believe, of Fobes being seduced by the material qualities of what he was achieving and at the same time, recognizing its limitations visually. His response, and perhaps his mistake, was to over-refine, over-process the method and approach into something more efficient and streamlined. Surely cubes, squares, and prisms mean something and in adopting this strategy, I would have to agree with the earlier review – a mechanistic deadness could have replaced the raw energy found in “No Title Yet.” Unless of course, it is your goal, like Morandi , to keep on painting those same damn bottles over and over and over again until you breathe life and breadth into something that does not exist, until you resurrect meaning from nothing, until you can look past what you think you see or think you even understand. This would require a different sustained engagement that I believe Fobes is not interested in pursuing – and, I will admit, to his credit.

There is often a gap between an artist’s intent and the end result. On one hand it makes no sense to “come down” on a work of art that has neither met the artist’s criteria nor accomplished its goals visually. As unfortunate as it may seem, for a critic it is unavoidable since no amount of gesticulation or verbiage will counter an artwork’s undeniable and recognizable failure – either in its technique, its quality, or even its content. Art, like a post-mortem body, cannot lie. On the other hand, it might make more sense to “cut a work of art some slack” knowing that even though the idea and the intent have not been fully realized, there is still a potential for a solid work to come forth. Fobes finds himself in this predicament. I find myself in a similar predicament by proclaiming I can spot a failed work of art a mile away, while predicting other work has potential. How is this possible? How can you possibly defend a work of art on its artistic value and relevance simply based on its potential to become something better?

Fobes can speak to what his influences are, his impetus for making the work, whether it be, as we have discussed, trigger points to other possible meaning (visually, spiritually, or otherwise). They can be metaphorical or symbolic, multiple realties inspired or conjured up through the simple act of observation (stimulation occurs through recognizable shapes or intense color). Those influences can be funhouse illusions, color theory, paranormal experiences or the electromagnetic spectrum, even in some cases religion such as Hinduism and Sikhism – a visual Enlightenment or heightened reality, the act of “piercing the veil” or what Fobes calls “searching for moments and gateways to a higher state of self-realization, taking glimpses into another universe of phenomenon we cannot understand but probably experience on a daily basis.”

But does it translate into the work? In the end, we are only spectators of art and not privy to such internal dialogue. There is value and relevancy, of course, in searching and finding for an artist. “A search is a search is a search. Some of the works do enter the realm of magic; some do not and are ‘artifacts’ of the search,” Fobes told me recently. I believe him. However, he and the work do this in very oblique ways, none of which has anything to do with the influences he cites necessarily, but are instead the processing of this knowledge into some recognizable code that everyone can understand, the most basic of which consists of line, color, and form. The rest is up to the viewer to decipher and process. The authenticity of the work keeps it out of the realm of simple gesture and inthe realm of pure joyous perception.

photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann

In the end, Fobes does offer us a glimpse into where he might go next, and for this I’m very excited, in he painted wall pieces for example (despite my reticence) and in another work on view entitled “Pool.” It has all the ingredients and excitement of fracturing into multiple and even more compelling works down the line. ” Pool” is a wonderful against-the-grain type of work rooted in the strengths of a Hockney and the contemporaneity of a K. V. Tomney. Set against an alternating background of light and dark grey vertical stripes, it is a simplified version of an above-ground swimming pool filled to the brim with a pale cloud-like color. Across the painting’s surface, grey piping ripples out from the center, zigzagging its way against the almost prison-like bars of the background.

There is much joy in this work, a taste of freedom, a little bit of irreverence, perhaps even a little self-deprecation, and a good dose of wry humor. There is hope in this work; its playfulness and his unabashed mastery of the technique has allowed Fobes to push his signature style a little bit further. Small gestures like inserting another colored band within one that already exists are subtle but effective methods to keep us paying attention and, most important, looking for clues. It is, I believe, Fobes at his best. If he continues in this way, handling the work with intelligence and great sensitivity, it will reward him and us greatly. It will also avoid relying entirely on the tape to do the talking; keeping the groupies outside and the rest of us enthralled.

photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann

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