Clint Paugh: Measured Tolerances/ Compound Differences

at I Space, through November 13

Markus Linnenbrink

at Roy Boyd, through November 30

By Fred Camper

Art made in world capitals often has a triumphal quality–think of the historical paintings turned out in 18th- and early-19th-century Paris and the giant abstract expressionist canvases in New York a few decades ago. Even today New York artists tend to produce work that confidently fills space. Not so in the midwest. Our artists paint decay (Ivan Albright) or goofy, almost self-parodic pop-derived subjects (the Chicago imagists). At one time such art might have been considered minor, failing to ask the great questions. But in recent years a number of artists, many in the midwest, have taken self-effacement less as a means than as an end, redefining the artist’s role–and indeed the individual’s role in the world. No one is perfect, no one has all the answers, no one’s vision harbors universal truth. Artist and viewer alike tentatively explore the possible rather than march victoriously into the future.

I’ve seen few better examples of this trend than Clint Paugh’s nine new works at I Space. Born in Wichita in 1970 and a recent graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Paugh now lives in Kansas City, Missouri. Using processes common to carpentry–one of many kinds of work he’s done–Paugh examines random variations and human mistakes. Measuring #1: Attempting to Draw 1″ Lines Freehand consists of 20 two-by-fours mounted horizontally in two equal columns on the wall; on each two-by-four Paugh has drawn five groups of ten vertical lines and recorded the measurement of each line next to it. Compounded Differences #2: Effects on One Mile consists of seven lines drawn in red chalk on the wall, all but one extending from the ceiling nearly to the floor. Written in pencil alongside are calculations showing how much error would be introduced if one measured a mile in foot-long lines each of which was short by an eighth of an inch: the mile would be short 55 feet, the combined length of Paugh’s seven lines.

Mounted next to each other, these works go well together: one uses numbers to document human mistakes while the other makes the cumulative effect of such deviations palpable. While in minimalism the straight line has a kind of perfected purity, Paugh’s rather smeared 55-foot line suggests human error. Even more visible deviations are present in Hammer and Nail #1: Attempting to Drive a Nail With One Swing, an arrangement of ten two-by-fours each of which has ten nails driven into it. Paugh told me he was trying to hammer the nails as deeply as he could; few are perfectly straight, and none is all the way in.

In part Paugh has made an obsessive monument to the ordinary tasks of the carpenter: many pieces were inspired by his own experiences, like the time he helped a friend build a level floor and they had to decide on an acceptable deviation. Each piece is based on a simple procedure reducible to a set of instructions: presenting ordinary labor in an art context, Paugh ennobles the everyday. And he counterbalances the idea of perfect repetition by making choices that introduce variations–not using a ruler or limiting himself to one hammer stroke, he keeps randomness and order in nearly perfect balance.

Paugh says, “The work I do now is about the work that I do.” For Measure, Cut: One Hundred 12″ Cuts he sawed two-by-fours into 100 one-foot lengths and laid them in a line on the floor. He ruled each cut first with a tape measure, so the small variations in length are the result of imprecise measurements and his placement of the wood in the saw–which he could have set to repeat but chose not to. He emphasizes his process by writing “measure, cut” on the wall 100 times.

Art like Paugh’s is not going to wow you with its aesthetic power: making a “masterpiece” by confidently creating and arranging shapes is not the goal. Instead Paugh’s works fall in between self-sufficient artistic forms and everyday objects. The viewer is no longer a vessel to be filled with the artist’s vision but an equal, perhaps superior participant in creating the work, asked to make what he will of tiny, unpredictable, and–according to traditional aesthetics–meaningless variations. The form of each work is just strong enough to provide a frame around its small collection of variations, heightening one’s awareness of them. Here the human and nonhuman come together to form an intentionally ambiguous poetic image, as different nail angles and line lengths become both fascinating for their humanity and disturbingly inhuman, little different from the variations of a random number table.

Measured Tolerances #2: Chalk Line Accuracy is a square of drywall crossed by groups of horizontal blue lines, created with a device that carpenters use to make a straight line quickly–a chalked piece of string under tension that’s snapped against a surface. In the first group Paugh tried to place his lines one inch apart; in the second, half an inch; and so on down to a 64th of an inch. Occasionally there’s a double line visible among the chalk marks set far apart, apparently the result of the string bouncing. But the lines in the last group are a blur–not surprising given the imprecise method, the thickness of the chalked string, and the limits of perception. But in this piece all three considerations converge to create an elegant work of anti-idealism: Paugh roots his art in the material world, whose practical limitations carpenters and other manual workers have to face every day.

Like Paugh, German artist Markus Linnenbrink makes his art mostly out of lines–or rather stripes. But compared to Paugh’s austere work, Linnenbrink’s 16 paintings at Roy Boyd, his first one-person show in the United States, are a virtual riot of color.

The stripe has a long history in modern art. For Barnett Newman it leads to a kind of transcendent oneness, for Gene Davis it articulates both contrast and perfection, and in Daniel Buren’s installations it questions and heightens one’s perception of space. But where these artists usually offer clean, sharp-edged stripes, Linnenbrink’s are intentionally sloppy. In one group of nine paintings–there are representations of three different series here–he poured his paint onto the canvas, letting it drip from top to bottom, layering paint on paint until he got “the whole thing into motion, some kind of vibration,” he told me. “The painting gives a tune based on very many colors. It’s very close to music.” He generally aims for maximum contrast in hue and brightness, and some stripes cover others; the edges are irregular, and there are often small blotches of one color within another. A line of hardened drips at the bottom is clear evidence of how the picture was made.

Like Paugh, Linnenbrink precisely constructs containers for randomness, calculating his forms to intensify the viewer’s perception of variations. And like Paugh’s titles, the drips at the bottom reveal the artist’s process. Where many abstract paintings present images so “perfect” that a tiny alteration would throw them out of balance, Linnenbrink’s looser sense of form allows equally successful variants.

Born in Dortmund, Germany, in 1961 and living there today, Linnenbrink creates a contingent, provisional art whose ethos is consistent with that of several better-known Germans working in the wake of World War II. Gerhard Richter, whom Linnenbrink cites as an influence and who’s experimented with various styles, says that he came to doubt all ideologies as a boy after seeing Nazi symbols suddenly replaced by communist ones at the war’s end. Another influence on Linnenbrink was the “clearer, brighter” light in Italy when he visited as a boy and young art student.

Linnenbrink’s titles sometimes indicate the differences between works in the same series. Multicolor All seems to aim for the widest variety of colors, while pinks and reds dominate Sexy. The paintings are also different sizes, from 12 to 60 inches square. But these variations don’t seem to matter much–they’re like differences of tone or timbre. Linnenbrink also uses his stripes in installations (documented in catalogs available at the gallery): in Germany he’s painted them into architectural interiors, aiming to enhance the existing space.

The hardened drips indicate that these are not paintings in the traditional sense. Like Richter’s large abstractions, Linnenbrink’s pieces are less autonomous works than conceptual and physical records that seem to critique the very idea of a painting as a perfected arrangement of forms. Linnenbrink doesn’t shy away from the idea of artist as decorator, but his paintings aren’t mindlessly ornamental; rather, he questions the time-honored equation between painting and truth, renouncing the artist’s traditional role with quiet humor, suggesting that he’s not a high priest but a laborer like any other.

For another series, represented by six paintings here, Linnenbrink used encaustic, a wax-based paint. He first waxed fabric fragments onto wood, then built up his stripes in layers, using fewer colors and spacing them farther apart so that the fabric designs would be visible. Finally he added a layer of clear wax, which makes his colors less bright but creates the illusion that the stripes and fabric are floating in space, hovering at different levels of depth.

In the Red Room, whose title refers to Matisse’s famous The Red Studio, is made up mostly of red orange stripes. Between them are pale gray floral fabric patterns, which might continue behind several stripes before yielding to another pattern, also pale gray. The stripes occasionally curve, widen, or narrow, further undercutting any idea of perfection, suggesting instead a poorly designed manufacturing process or handmade variations. If the patterns were continuous or brighter, one might see them as representing a primal source, but because they change and everything is rendered shadowlike by the wax, neither visual field dominates the other. Their very incompleteness seems to indicate that primacy is no longer an issue, and that the death of hegemonic thinking is Linnenbrink’s true subject.