New Ways of Living”
Jason Gubbiotti has a knack for starting over. In “Field Trip,” his 2001 Fusebox debut, one painting consisted of three canvases stapled on top of one another on the stretcher, two failures hidden beneath one success, the game given away by layered edges visible along the sides. Its name, Beta Pile, referenced not only the Greek-lettered titling of Morris Louis, whose Magna-stained color-field canvases had inspired the image on top, but the idea of the “beta version,” the Digital Age designation for a work-in-progress.
It was less obvious at the time, but Beta Pile was also a metaphor for Gubbiotti’s career in abstract painting—for what, with his second solo on 14th Street NW, can be seen as a pattern of disjunctive leaps that still manage to build on one another. Having graduated from the Corcoran College of Art and Design in 1998, the 28-year-old has already presented us with three distinct phases. If the smooth, squeegeed smears of the late ’90s, when he established himself as a figure to watch in a number of group-show appearances, made it too easy to connect him to Robin Rose, for whom he briefly worked, his first Fusebox incarnation was notable more for its risks than its rewards: “Field Trip” was undertaken for the traveling rather than the getting there; the blips, loops, and blotches seemed underdeveloped, mere way stations on a journey with no destination.
There’s no telling whether his current Fusebox exhibition, “New Ways of Living,” gives us the definitive Gubbiotti—I’m in no hurry for such a creature to emerge, and I suspect he isn’t, either—but for the first time he delivers a body of work that is more than promising, more than clever, that is timely and relevant, not just evidence of a search for a style.
There certainly are indications that we’re still dealing with the same guy. There’s the old preoccupation with surface and texture, as well as with the juxtaposition of the raw and the cooked. Strips of bare wood flank, above and below, a smooth field of charcoal gray in Popular Mechanics (2003). And the bare canvas that bisects Fallow the Leader (2003) is bridged by a stealthy stretch of Golden acrylic gel, a brand of color–less paint extender that isn’t usually used alone. (Gubbiotti calls it “paint without a soul.”)
He still nurses an aversion to fresh-from-the-tube pigments, too, preferring what he calls “colors that don’t have names.” Though namelessness may be a fact of life at the art store, where it’s assumed that further mixing will be done back at the studio, anyone who’s jumped on the national home-redecorating bandwagon knows that down at the interior-latex displays, there’s a name for almost everything. And Gubbiotti’s subtle custom hues—beyond tertiaries, they could be judged quaternaries or quinaries—have been called “designery.” If there were chips, they might read “shocksicle,” “asphalt crème,” or “titanium sachet.”
The coloristic panache plays against assertive carpentry. As in “Field Trip,” painting is as much object as image. Although the handmade stretchers and panel supports aren’t as aggressively outré as those for works such as The Duke, included in last year’s “Situation Room” show at St. Mary’s College, no two are alike, and the frontality of the image isn’t always assumed. Just inside the gallery entrance, the hanging opens with Fallow the Leader, whose image pulls around the corner of the stretcher to the left. On the other end of the room, the blue, curving wood panel of Il Piccolo Diavolo (2003–2004) angles around another corner, leading generously but not jarringly into a very different show by recent Fusebox addition Ian Whitmore.
Between those brackets, Gubbiotti is working with a new iconography, a language of taped-out irregular polygons that derives from a fascination with wartime aerial surveillance. Posted on the wall in his studio are newspaper photos of terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and an article about the callously named Bugsplat program the Pentagon uses to predict damage and select ordnance for bombing runs.
And he’s working with a new sort of paint handling, too, laying it down—mostly oils, but also acrylic, tempera, and enamel in places—in unmodulated layers that have been mistaken for decals. The films of paint are thick enough to have substance of their own but thin enough that they are deflected by the ridged outlines of earlier layers. In a talk the artist gave to American University painting graduate students a couple of weeks ago, he described a reaction he’d once had to a de Kooning: It was “like walking into an opera during the last 10 minutes,” leaving the viewer feeling “left out of most of it.” These new paintings are exactly the opposite: It’s possible to mentally strip them back to the support just by taking note of which layer lies on top of which. The entire process of their making is deducible from the finished product.
Throughout the show, there’s a weird interplay of precision and provisionality. Viewers yet to catch up to where Gubbiotti is now may find that the new paintings paradoxically tighten up the closer they get to them, right where more painterly, imagistic pictures lose resolution and disintegrate back into a collection of handmade marks. Yet once you’ve gained familiarity with these resolutely maplike pieces, you’ll note the imperfections: the lines that extend slightly too far past sharp corners; the blotchy outlines of ghosted forms, made by taping out, painting in, and rubbing out again; the single painterly grace notes laid over flat areas of identical color like swipes of touch-up paint.
Departures from exactitude are considerably more evident in the manufacture of the paintings as objects, where a deliberateness of design is married to a rudeness of construction. The corners of Inferior Mechanics (2003), where the orange-painted canvas has torn over the jutting stretcher top, are secured with a rash of staples and patched with acrylic gel. The gently concave surface of Popular Mechanics is built more like a homemade skateboard ramp than a Donald Judd plywood box, the side-seam slathered with a blue reminiscent of the vinyl cover of a ’60s industrial-manual binder. The effect calls to mind a conversation a neighbor of mine had with a contractor, who told him that the idea wasn’t to build perfectly to spec but within an acceptable deviation from spec. After all, 95 percent is much cheaper than 100 percent, and most of the time it’s more than adequate.
If Gubbiotti’s formal vocabulary is drawn from distanced pictures of foreign structures, the gerrymanderish shapes resonate also with the architectural sprawl of the airports and hospitals, multiplexes and megamalls that have come to define our freedom-loving designs for—and on—public space. And the combination of tricky, cosmetic colors laid atop ingenious but somewhat clunky construction clearly hits close to home. Almost nothing in America is built to last a thousand years; most of it’ll come down in a century or two. And by then it will have been judged sufficient to the task at hand, which is always just getting to next.
The coup Gubbiotti artfully strikes is in suggesting that a line can be drawn between the way Americans envision the built environment—as temporary, instrumental, and relatively unrelated to topography—and the alacrity with which we conduct our exercises in unbuilding physical environments overseas. There’s a political corollary here: What if our rootless, modern vision of society as adaptable, of identity as malleable, of progress as a series of expediencies stacked one on top of another, makes people who are the products of other cultures feel as if the land is being swept out from beneath their feet? In their all-right-for-now-ness, Gubbiotti’s paintings are just right for now, pegging us to beliefs that must surely seem unconscionable to those who haven’t been raised to regard them as part of the scenery. CP