The first work one encounters in Wade Guyton’s midcareer survey, “OS,” at the Whitney Museum is a quintet of canvases, mostly black, with orange flames at the base licking the letter “U.” Slightly larger and wider than an average door, these pieces seem to address the entering visitor. Though each canvas makes use of the same visual motifs—flames and “U”s—no two are identical. Not only does the color of the letter “U” vary from work to work, but on closer inspection one notices how the image on each canvas is uniquely distressed. Colors bleed, fields of black are broken into striations, graphics simply fail to line up, creating flagrant disjunction. This is the aesthetic of an artist whose process is geared towards engineering exquisite imperfections.
If there could be such a thing as a printer’s painter, Guyton would be it. All of the “paintings” and “drawings” in this exhibition of over 80 works were produced on inkjet printers. So if neither paint nor pencils are required, one might wonder how these works qualify as anything other than prints. The answer for Guyton is a matter of scale and material. If it’s small and on paper, it’s a drawing; big and on canvas means it’s a painting. While this may seem like a conceptualist’s game, it also points to the Guyton’s interest in the physicality of his work.
Press materials explain that exhibition title “OS” is an acronym for “operating system,” which we’re to understand as a nod to contemporary technology and to Guyton’s manipulation of it. However the “OS” could equally well stand for “occupying space,” an implication that grounds Guyton’s objects in the tangible environment of the Whitney’s third floor. In fact, the physical layout of the exhibition has been designed to correspond to the operating system of Guyton’s computer, the machine with which the artist “paints” and “draws.” The temporary walls on which the work hangs are staggered in a way that evokes the look of having multiple windows simultaneously open on one’s computer screen. Metaphorically, the viewer of “OS” is transported to the source of Guyton’s artworks.
At times Guyton has produced pieces for specific spaces. This is the case for the largest work in the show, Untitled (2012), which spans the entire rear wall of the gallery. The image is of alternating red and green stripes, which like the flames and the letter “U,” is a repeating form in Guyton’s vocabulary. Perhaps as a consequence of its incredibly mundane content, this monumentally scaled object functions rather like some Minimalist sculptures, drawing less attention to itself than to the sheer amount of wall space it covers.
Large, site-specific works often seem awkward when taken out of their original context. This is not the case with the three large grey canvases—all Untitled (2011)—that Guyton designed for the concrete walls of the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria. At the Whitney, these canvases resonate powerfully with the rest of Guyton’s oeuvre, most notably his series of darker, smaller monochromatic canvases. The shift in scale from massive to manageable is counterbalanced with visual density: the washy grey ink on the larger works allows light to pass through to the primed canvas lending them an airiness in contrast to the smaller pieces, which are so thoroughly inked they absorb light.
It may seem odd then, given the physical nature of Guyton’s work, that the weakest pieces in the exhibition are also the most sculptural. The line of a dozen or so stainless steel variations on the letter “U,” display the repetition and idiosyncrasy that run through all of Guyton’s work, but these are not the result of chance operations on the machine’s part. There are no visual imperfections. Rather, these neat and tidy objects appear to be fabricated with the precision of a Donald Judd box. Alone, they are too tautological to be very interesting, but in the context of the exhibition as a whole they provide an opposition to the overarching aesthetic of planned accidents.
The most prevalent visual element in Guyton’s body of work is the letter “X.” On Guyton’s depthless canvases it floats, often broken, on a primed white surface. In a few instances the letter is printed many times across the canvas, occasionally in a variety of colors. At its most fundamental level this form is simply an intersection of two lines, and in a way it might be thought of as representing confluence. The basic symmetry of the letter form echoes Guyton’s canvases, which tend to share a kind of disjointed symmetry around a centerline. In this sense, the “X” itself becomes a microcosmic symbol of Guyton’s aesthetic program, embodying a desire to bring disparate elements together as well as baring the inherent two-sidedness that is apparent in many of the artist’s “paintings.”
In Guyton’s drawings, the “X” functions differently because the ground on which the letter is printed is nearly always an image. Guyton’s drawings represent the earliest examples of what would become his signature process. The artist tore pages from art and design books and ran them through his printer, partially covering the images with “X”s as well as black bars and the occasional dark disk. Many critics have seen this as a kind of cancellation, but it can just as easily be understood as convergence of representational imagery and abstract forms. In fact, the play between these two types of images captivates Guyton. It is why he wants his audience to know that the red and green stripes we see printed on canvases, wood, and paper are not merely abstract but actually an image of endpaper that the artist found in an Italian design catalog.
At the Whitney I was standing in front of a moderately sized canvas covered with ‘X’s when a gentleman beside me took out his phone and snapped a picture. In quick succession four guards said the same thing, “no pictures.” There was a bit of overlap and though the two-word injunction did not change, each iteration was unique. It was an auditory equivalent of the most characteristic quality in Guyton’s work, triggered not by the object itself but by the three-way conjunction of viewer, artwork and museum personnel. Guyton is not simply an abstract and process artists, he’s also a realist.
“Wade Guyton OS” will be up through 13 January 2013 at The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY.