Walter Andersons

at Ten in One Gallery,

through May 20

Western artists have historically painted subjects declared to be special, high, important: saints, kings, battle scenes, or, more recently, abstractions from the artist’s mind raised to iconic status. Walter Andersons’s recent paintings and drawings, 29 of which are on view at Ten in One Gallery, are the opposite: he weds trompe l’oeil precision with subjects as perversely modest as pencil scratches, producing work one experiences not as a contradiction but as a poetic redemption of the ordinary.

One work made me wonder whether Andersons is ambivalent toward the whole idea of the artist as creator of “original” forms. Die Fahne Hoch (Stella) is a pencil drawing Andersons made of a small reproduction of a Frank Stella painting of the same name, a characteristically geometric composition. Then Andersons covered his pencil drawing with a sheet of paper, pressed against the drawing so that it seems there are tiny relief effects from the pencil areas. The Stella image comes through only faintly, its hard-edged self-declaration lost, diffused and distanced by the paper. I thought of Robert Rauschenberg’s famous Erased de Kooning Drawing, in which he obtained a de Kooning drawing from the artist and actually erased most of it. Was Andersons also expressing ambivalence toward an earlier artist and an older idea of the artist’s role?

Andersons redirects the viewer’s attention to things we all see but seldom focus on. He’s interested, he told me, in “the momentary disruption or perceptual rift that occurs in the viewer when realizing [the work is] painted…there’s a delay that’s central for me.” Often the effect is also humorous. (Newman) Trim is more than a foot high but less than two inches wide, a shape dictated by its subject: the edge of a piece of notebook paper ripped from its binding. It has been painted with almost obsessive precision, right down to the tiny fragments of paper lodged in some tears. The viewer may do a double take, realizing that this is not an actual piece of paper after all. These carefully rendered details make the subject seem oddly important: I found myself thinking about what an utterly violent act ripping a page from a notebook really is.

Andersons’s work recalls the paintings of the two best-known 19th-century American trompe l’oeil artists, William Harnett and John Peto. But the differences are instructive. Peto and Harnett used their formidable technique to create scenes containing evidence of human life but no humans: newspapers, a pipe, tobacco, and other possessions on a table; freshly shot game nailed to a door next to a hanging rifle; an assemblage of letters and notes secured to a wall by a cloth band. Their ability to fool the eye and their grand, almost magisterial arrangements of objects and forms made these pictures sought-after additions to the homes of the wealthy.

To call Andersons’s subjects minimal by comparison would be an understatement. Much of each picture is filled with empty space. In place of the trophy bird proudly displayed, we have here a copy of a note Andersons found on a stack of old phone books: “Do not know were to take theme,” in which he reproduces the note’s spelling of “where” and “them.” By choosing such modest subjects Andersons implicitly criticizes the grand ambitions of our past: earlier painters reproduced every pleat in a wealthy patron’s ruff with the utmost precision, but Andersons calls our attention to pencil marks or to a pen’s irregular trail of ink.

Where Harnett’s pictures are almost equivalent to their subjects, Andersons’s near absence of things concentrates our attention on the act of perception, as does an ironic title like I Wanted You to See This. At first the painting seems to contradict its title–what’s to see? Then one starts to notice the loving precision with which Andersons has rendered in oil the details of a ballpoint pen’s printing of the words that provide the title. The left edge of a single pen stroke may be a brighter or darker blue than the right; a few small blue dots represent the little clots of ink ballpoints sometimes leave. Look at this painted printing for a while and it starts to seem ordered, strangely perfect, almost elegant, even as the printing’s messy scrawl seems the opposite of the substantial, neatly rendered objects of Harnett and Peto.

The message is printed on white paper set against a black rectangle, with a gray “shadow” behind it, but in what space does it hover? And an odd horizontal line across the bottom of the picture, just below the note, is an actual, not a painted, pencil line. Like a film scratch, it calls attention to the image’s surface, contradicting the depth implied by the gray shadow. Andersons calls it an “obvious imperfection,” meant to “ground the image,” to act as an “equalizer.”

This deceptive picture, which at first looks like it might contain an actual piece of paper and then at least seems to have pencil marks on the canvas, eventually reveals itself not as a substitute object–the way Harnett’s nailed game is like a stuffed animal head hanging over a mantel–but as a way to encourage the viewer to question the very nature of perception and understanding. Does “I wanted you to see this” refer to the note? The painting? Some unseen entity to which the note refers? Andersons’s work soon engages the viewer in a double dance of seeing and thinking about seeing.

What saves his work from becoming an intellectual amalgam of modernist cliches about the nature of representation is its endearing, almost naive physicality. He is not the painter Harnett and Peto were, but he doesn’t pretend to be. His shadows lack the strange luminosity of theirs, but his are meant less as real shadows than as references to the idea of depth illusion. They also contrast with the few objects he does depict and thus heighten their presence. And the fact that he paints these notes or the occasional image life size gives them the feel of facts, of evidence.

But it’s evidence that constantly contradicts itself, pulling the viewer away from the world of things and into a process of thinking about things. Painting.Tape.W. contains a picture inside another picture: copies of two of his own earlier paintings, one of which included a copy of the other; the smaller painting itself contains a Picasso reproduction. Above the larger one is a painted image of a piece of masking tape labeled “painting” that appears to be holding up the paper; in the upper right corner another painted piece of tape reads “tape,” and a third, at the lower right, has a “W” for “Walter.”

Jasper Johns, whose work Andersons cites as an important influence, has been painting tape fragments into his pictures for years; they refer to the painting process and cause the viewer to question painterly illusion. Andersons assigns a different kind of naming to each piece of tape; one is labeled with its own name, another labels the painting it appears to hold up, and a third has his signature. Once again one is caught in a circle of questioning and doubt, caught between “facts” (things reproduced actual size, “real” pieces of tape), illusion, and true and false names; the effect is at once documentary, poetic, and almost philosophical.

Andersons, 29, has lived in Chicago since he enrolled at the School of the Art Institute in 1983. He now works as an Art Institute museum technician, installing and packing works of art–a job he says has made him more aware of the way an artwork is displayed. He’s given much thought to “how in different contexts a painting can have a confused meaning, or lose its meaning, or have a completely different meaning,” he remarks. He recalls the pleasure of painting realistically as a boy–“I liked the object quality.” But in his mid-teens he had an experience that caused a shift in his focus from the object to the act of depicting it. “I set out a paper with coins on it, doing a watercolor based on overhead observation of them,” but he found himself paying more attention to the qualities of the painting itself than to his subject. At around the same time he came across a book on cubism that made him feel that he had far more options than he’d realized.

Andersons’s trompe l’oeil paintings of simple subjects have been evolving over the past eight years, but two years ago he also started making drawings. Eight of these are in the show; and several are amazing, even profound, in the complex reactions they produce with a minimum of means.

In each, a white sheet covers underlying pieces of black and white paper cut in various shapes, producing a visual field that alternates between almost solid white and whites that appear to have a gray substructure. In I Paint What I Feel the title is written in pencil at the center; around it is a rectangle of pale gray–the effect of the black paper beneath–inside a larger rectangle of white. Seeing the black dimly through the paper, as gray, gives this simple image a powerful, mysterious depth effect. While the work’s geometrical austerity combines with the title to gently parody the familiar ethos of spontaneous self-expression, its effect is almost as ineffable as that of Mark Rothko’s huge painted rectangles, which hover ambiguously before the viewer in a kind of virtual space, dematerialized.

Nothing in Particular shows the outline of what appears to be a white Rolodex card set against a pale gray background. At first this image seems a found object, then we see it’s the illusion of a card, not a real one, and after a few more seconds we aren’t even sure which layer of the image produces the darker areas, including two small gray holes (in fact three layers of paper are used to produce them). I found the image almost mystical. It’s a postmodern cliche to say that image making has now been “problematized,” but Andersons’s vision of problematized image making approaches poetry.