by David M. Roth
Paints with tin? No, that’s not a punchline or a setup for a joke. It’s Tony Berlant’s modus operandi. For more than 50 years, the LA artist has been gathering metal scraps and turning them into pictures that engage art history and mid-20th century American consumer culture. For a spell, the artist worked exclusively with salvaged product packaging, using imprinted text and images the same way a collagist would. Today, at age 78, he continues to do so, but instead of relying exclusively on found material, he now manufactures some of his own by printing pieces of tin, sometimes with photographic imagery, which he slices into snippets and affixes to wood panels with steel brads.
While Berlant has long employed photography in a variety of forms, found and self-created, this exhibition, unlike others I’ve seen, really seems to be about photography and photographic seeing: specifically how we view the glut of images unleashed by the Internet and by photo-sharing apps like Instagram. Those forces, Berlant seems to be saying, have created an incomprehensible torrent. Several collages in this exhibition embody that condition by packing in so much information that almost none of it can be identified except in the vaguest terms. What makes such pictures compelling is the contradiction they embody: While these works effect the look and solidity of old-world craftsmanship, they also operate as highly unstable objects, evidenced by the way they dissolve (or at least substantially confuse) the relationships between, say, foreground and background, subject and subtext. The result in pictures like The High Ground, Song and When God was a Woman is sheer cacophony. That, of course, is hardly an original theme, especially these days; but I have yet to see it expressed this way by anyone except for perhaps Vik Muniz.
Other works, like Topanga, a wall-sized collage based on a night photo, push in the opposite direction, toward representation. To create the source image for this picture, Berlant held the shutter of his camera open to allow moonlight to illuminate the scene, exposing trees, underbrush and a good bit of the surrounding landscape. It’s bathed in an otherworldly aquamarine blue, speckled at the middle top with pockets of “noise” — what analog photographers used to call graininess. But rather than eliminate it, as some artists might, Berlant leaves it intact and uses it to suffuse the scene with an almost-psychedelic tinge. Onto other parts of the picture he grafts pieces of the source image to create the suture-like surface disruptions for which he is rightfully famous. More fascinating still is the overall effect: The component parts of the original image, which appear shattered up-close, cohere when viewed at a distance. In this regard the piece demonstrates well-known optical properties, but it also breaks new ground for Berlant by placing him in dialog with tech-savvy artists like Jim Campbell who deal almost exclusively with these kinds of perceptual issues.
Similar fragments, very likely culled from the same source, make up the most exquisitely beautiful picture in the show. It’s called Pond, a fusion of light, shadow and deep blue that, if read expansively, can be seen as clouds reflected in moonlit water — but not in a way that linesup with reality. The “clouds,” affixed to a background layer, are really more like celestial archipelagoe or star clusters, and the effect they produce is akin to a mash-up of early Ross Bleckner and Fred Tomaselli. Which is to say: a mix of potent referents for which there is no immediate context, but which the mind reflexively organizes while retaining a keen awareness of having done so.
The remainder of the exhibition consists of objects that have become de rigueur in any Berlant show: boxes shaped like briefcases and houses. The first are covered in an alphabet soup of letters out of which you could probably trace the history of American typography. The second afford glimpses into what could be an abbreviated glossary of mid-century advertising imagery: foodstuffs, beauty products, cars and the like. Both illustrate as well as anything, the artist’s longstanding penchant for cannibalizing art history and pop/consumer culture and diverting them to his own seemingly inexhaustible ends.
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Tony Berlant: “High Ground” @ Brian Gross Fine Art through June 1, 2019.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.