WHEN Through 2/18
WHERE Ren-aissance Society, University of Chicago, 5811 S. Ellis
Scott Short’s austere, strangely beautiful black-and-white paintings at the Renaissance Society look like abstractions, but most are actually highly detailed, realistic renderings . . . of photocopies of construction paper, an elegant reaction against Romantic ideals of self-expression.
Actually, Short is painting from copies of copies. He xeroxes a sheet (whose original color gives each work its parenthetical title), then xeroxes the xerox, then xeroxes that xerox, up to as many as 400 times, to produce what he calls “blooms” of tiny black marks. He selects a copy he likes, then projects a slide of it onto a canvas and traces the marks with black paint, a painstaking process that can take hundreds of hours. The variations this creates are unexpected: Untitled (Yellow) (2005), painted after only a few generations of copying, features a surprising number of tiny, irregularly shaped black specks in horizontal bands; the black in Untitled (White) (2005) seems to be congealing into horizontal and vertical bands made up of repeating cell-like white shapes.
Short made hundreds of xeroxes for two large canvases from 2006, Untitled (White) and Untitled (Blue). The recopying created large black fields, which Short painted using a palette knife; in Untitled (Blue) the solid black seems to be erupting–black dots shoot off into space like solar flares. The black areas’ dominance, unevenness, and bold shapes suggest the abstract expressionist paintings Short says he admired and imitated in art school, but without their quality of emotive personal expression. Short’s best pieces bring to mind a remark he made about seeing a roomful of Rothkos: “They were all just kind of humming at you.” Painting from a photocopy generations removed from the original, Short weighs human intelligence against machine intelligence.
Short grew up in rural Ohio, where he was a “clumsy, nervous, geeky kid,” he says. “I tried sports, but I would fall and break things.” Though he had a few friends, he “always had a loner streak . . . an ascetic idea of being alone and poor.” As a child he copied comic book characters, and when people asked whether they were drawn or copied, he says, “I didn’t know the difference. It didn’t matter to me whether it sprang from my imagination or if I was taking something that already existed. Copying sure wasn’t easy, and what I wanted to see come out of myself was a reiteration of this stuff that I liked.” In his senior year of high school Short became a born-again Christian. “I was extraordinarily judgmental of those I didn’t consider Christian enough. It lasted about a year, until it came to a point where I didn’t feel like I was being honest with myself. I was making deals with God: ‘If you give me this, I’ll do that.’ I still see myself as an unreliable narrator in all senses–and I’m sublimating myself to this other thing, the form that the machine spews out.”
Short got his BFA and MFA at Ohio State, where he availed himself of the library’s collection of Life magazines. Since they didn’t circulate, he’d photocopy the images he wanted. Then, he says, “I started recopying them to make the grain denser, changing into more of a two-tone image than a halftone. I found it really interesting the way that different machines, or the same machine on other days, would cluster and clump together the blacks in various ways, almost like different wood grains.”
In the work he was doing at the time, he says, “I was trying way too hard to grapple with the question of content, making very shallow political and topical statements.” In 1990, after getting his MFA, he moved to Chicago, where he still lives; it was then that he realized how much he disliked his work and changed direction, at first doing repetitive paintings: a field of hats taken from wrapping paper, different people all named “Wilson.” In 1992 he began experimenting with a photocopier left in a studio he was renting, “just on a kind of a lark to see what it would do,” and decided to try to paint from the speckled results. He calls his first efforts “clumsy” but says he kept working until he achieved images that “were more removed from my self. I had been guiding the process too much.” Now he sees his paintings as “projections in the Jungian sense, that when you sense the void you fill it with a picture of yourself that you’re not necessarily aware of. But in this case it’s a picture of the machine, of the structure of its own rendering.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Untitled (Blue) and a detail of same.