To my mind comments such as this—which betray a growing skepticism in the 1960s over the status of the object, and the ability for it to ever be fully self-evident to the five senses suggest that it would not be compelling for a painter today to simply take up Bannard’s formal innovation of juxtaposing matte and glossy passages of paint. Rather, if this device is to show up again in art, then it must be put to more contemporary ends. In this way, it is significant that, by working with semi-reflective surfaces, Provosty joins a small, but important group of younger artists.
One of the first, at least of this younger generation, was Jacob Kassay, who in 2005 sent his first acrylic gessoed canvas to a commercial electroplater to be plated with silver. Based in a rigorous conceptual gesture, this removes the artist’s hand almost entirely from the act of creating the work. The resulting canvases are nonetheless accompanied by an equally strong formal result because the plated surface of the finished painting captures light and ghostly reflections of the ambient surroundings that get caught in it, an effect that the artist calls “impressionistic.” (3)
Curiously Kassay and Provosty produce the kind of painting that artists of Bannard’s generation would have avoided. As Krauss notes, Bannard was careful to keep these glossy passages small and contained so that, except for light, they did not incorporate the painting’s surroundings. This is in line, whether or not Bannard was conscious of it, with the position of that master of the black painting, Ad Reinhardt, who said in 1967 that shiny black “reflects, and it has [an] unstable quality for that reason. It’s quite surreal. If you have a look at a shiny black surface it looks like a mirror. It reflects all the activity that’s going on in a room. As a matter of fact, it’s not detached then.”(4) Contrary to this, Kassay and Provosty’s paintings actively face the viewer and confront him or her with a certain version of their image, distorted and given back to them. We could however say that the end result is somewhat parallel to Bannard’s, in that they make problematic all suppositions about how we read out an object from certain visual cues.
What is important is that the path to get there had to be very different based on when each artist found himself entering into history. Bannard’s skepticism was over the ability of human vision to deliver the “truth” of an object to a particular viewer. In distinction to this, the considered pictorial phenomenology of Kassay and Provosty suggests a farther-reaching skepticism about the ability for any form of perception to ever render such veracity; it is a skepticism about the ability to ever retrieve any kind of ultimate, overriding truth. Bannard’s paintings suggest that perhaps at some earlier point (or if we were just a bit more astute) we would be able to grasp the reality before us. The power of Kassay and Provosty’s paintings lies in the way they make the endless distortions of the digital age meaningful and active, rather than arbitrary and passive, and all this without ever directly referring or alluding to the digital. The gloss and shimmer by which they re-present ourselves to ourselves is evocative not only of the filter on an Instagram image, but also of a certain failure of transcription that those filters reveal in their pretension to allow their users to seamlessly cover over errors in color balance, lighting, etc.
The framing and manipulation of pictorial space by the bands along the edges of Provosty’s paintings also suggest this, as well as the fact that our task is not to surmount these distortions, but rather to learn to be aware of them, and to bend them to newer, better aims. Similarly, it is not unsurprising that Kassay has recently been focused on an even more conceptually oriented series of works where the remainders of canvas left over from the production of the silver paintings are framed, as is, on specially made stretchers that perfectly follow the contours of those scraps. These works conceptually “frame” the silver paintings by presenting for our intellectual and formal contemplation the typically invisible and extra-artistic refuse of painterly production, and in doing so act as a materialist complement and anchor to the aesthetic vision of the silver paintings.
However, neither the skeptical position of the 1960s nor the more open and embracing one of today is better than the other, for both are conditioned by the demands history makes of artists in terms of presenting the issues that beg to be confronted. In the 1960s it was enough to tackle the means by which the senses process the meaning of things in the world, as Bannard’s paintings do. Today, though, to do this is to risk losing ourselves within an infinite regression that removes from us all agency and breeds complacency.
Recognizing the insurmountability of the system is not to succumb to it, but rather to envision a heterotopia of alternate ways of existing within it. The particular heterotopia that Provosty’s paintings (as well as Kassay’s) suggest is one where the seemingly endless flow of information, and all the networks within it can be mobilized so as to not be passive. One of Provosty’s major contributions is to suggest that we both be aware of our placement in the world, but not too hung up on how we circulate in it. “Doubleu (Dark)” simultaneously embraces us by mirroring aspects of ourselves and our surroundings back, rejects us by limiting these reflections to shadows passing over and in a surface, and allows us a certain agency by having the nature of the pictorial space change with our movement and position.
1. Rosalind Krauss, “Darby Bannard’s New Work,” Artforum IV:8 (April 1966): 32.
2. Krauss, “Bannard’s New Work,” 33.
3. Jacob Kassay in “Jacob Kassay with Alex Bacon,” The Brooklyn Rail (forthcoming, December 2013/January 2014).
4. Ad Reinhardt, “Black as Symbol and Concept,” in Barbara Rose, ed. Art-as-Art: The Writings of Ad Reinhardt (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1975), 87.