by Renny Pritikin
Isn’t it a wonder when artists part the curtains of consciousness and afford us a momentary feeling of transcendence? Crown Point Press, in its current exhibition, juxtaposes four new etchings by Gay Outlaw (with a large display of works from the CPP archive chosen by Outlaw, titled King Philip Came Over From Germany Stoned.) It is a tour-de-force example of an artist-as-curator giving us insights into color and form.
Outlaw has been a leading Bay Area sculptor since the early 1990s, best known for surprising reuse of industrial materials to make large scale objects of bold solidity that at the same time reveal themselves to be pierced throughout by light. Having done a recent residency at Crown Point Press, she has organized a show of CPP archival prints around her four new works.
The knockout offering on view from Outlaw is called 3 x 3. I associate charming and off-handedly skillful drawings like these with Marcel Dzama, who, in fact, is represented in the show. Its orange background, which reads like a bowl of cream of carrot soup, highlights an array of familiar objects rendered strange. It reminds me of one of my favorite paintings of the past few years (not in this show) by Isabella Kirkland which pictures a taxonomy of nematodes, tiny creatures inhabiting land and sea that most of us know nothing about.
Drawings like these are enough to make you want to run to the studio and make art. The combination of impeccable, solid grounds and meticulous colors with clever doodads displayed in precise aesthetic formation just sends me. They remind us for the umpteenth time that we need to look at the world carefully because there are so many things in it that are miraculous.
If I could issue a title to describe the mindset behind Outlaw’s four new works (and those she selected from CCP’s archives), it would be: What can be done with visual essays inspired by observed corners of life-as-lived and enhanced with punctuation made up solely of color? Ed Ruscha, Wayne Thiebaud and Richard Tuttle are among the artists included who might answer, “to see the world anew.” Several such works look as if Thiebaud’s colors had been spoon dripped over everyone else’s recapitulations of the everyday world.
Take Ruscha’s suite of seven automobile logos, Motor City (2009). When I was a toddler, my dad would bet strangers that his kid could name any car parked on the street. I could. I don’t remember how, but I think I memorized the hood ornaments. It became a family legend. We’re talking 1951 or maybe 1952, the era covered by Ruscha's automobile insignia. They remind us of just how intertwined popular and corporate culture were during those years and ever since.
A class taught some years back by the artist Steve Lambert, about his Anti-Advertising Agency, underscored that point differently. In the first session, he showed a set of 100 slides of
unidentified corporate logos. Almost everyone could name them. Then he asked the students to name any tree they passed as they walked around campus. None could name a single specimen. “What kind of a society do we live in then?” he asked. The answer, contained in Ruscha’s drawings, is clear: These logos are our flora, our Anthropocene landscape, tamed and brought under our control by becoming art.
In Cow Print, Outlaw extends the metaphor of devouring with our eyes. It’s the logo of a butter manufacturer turned on its side and repeated nine times. It shows a cow sitting upright on its butt. In that transformation, Outlaw ignites a “debate” between lemon-yellow and butter-yellow, delivered as a Muybridge-inspired piece of serialism.
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A friend recently turned me on to the HBO show My Favorite Shapes by the comedian and artist Julio Torres. He’s a very camp young guy who muses about the fantastic things that come his way as he sits behind a conveyor belt. They’re toys, mostly, or stuff he turns into toys. The show is hilarious and sweet, but more than anything, it shows an artist supported by a vast media conglomerate deconstructing reality. It made me feel like a page had been turned in history. It might be a coincidence— or even projection on my part—but I feel as though Outlaw has done the same thing with her curatorial choices. She has assembled a group of artworks picturing quotidian objects that argue for the essential joy in being alive and able to see.
Chris Burden’s bridge works, based on Erector Set advertising, echo this same kind of youthful excitement: you can make these! It reiterates Outlaw’s motif throughout the exhibition: multiples that utilize variations on themes.
Her piece titled ted4Phoebe is based on five cat drawings distributed around a 10 x 12-inch sheet of paper. They were inspired by her own childhood drawings and those of her daughter. They retain that sweet imperfection of the best kid's art, but they're also highly sophisticated in the way they become animals only on second glance, floating gravity-free in space, connected by a faint lariat of maroon and brown thought bubbles. Thus, they become the idea of cats, ghosts and memories. They also connect to other things in the exhibition: Thiebaud’s Beach Dogs (1979), Joan Jonas’ Double Dogs (1982), Susan Middleton’s Plain Rain Frog (2008) and Elaine de Kooning’s Torchlight Cave Drawings (1985) of bison.
Outlaw’s fourth piece, Juss, is the only wholly abstract piece in the show. She made it by pressing cloth onto a soft metal plate, producing an image that is definitely textile-like. My first thought when seeing it was of an empty pair of men’s pants, which, in turn, called to mind a famous 1915 poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky, A Cloud in Trousers.
Exhibitions like this send us out into the street with our perceptions altered for hours, transforming the mundane world into one full of visual potential. It’s one of the things I live for.
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Gay Outlaw: "King Phillip Came Over From Germany Stoned": new color etchings + selections from CCP archives @ Crown Point Press through December 28, 2019.
About the author:
Renny Pritikin retired in December 2018 after almost five years as the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Prior to that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. He is working on a memoir of his experiences in the arts from 1979 to 2018.