”We Cure Everything”

It’s not an overstatement to say everything changed after Still Life With Chair Caning. Frequently cited as the first fine-art collage, the 1912 Picasso piece marks the enmeshing of nonart stuff into the web of high culture. As painting subsequently asserted its appetite for information systems other than its own, newsprint and other printed matter were likewise ensnared in the cubist net. A few years later, the readymades of Duchamp, a former cubist, dispensed with the idea that any field or frame at all—other than the act of designating the artwork as such—was required for art to absorb whatever object it might have designs on.

In the 90 or so years since, myriad variations on and recombinations of the innovations of the teens have been worked out, with artists folding into the mix whatever concerns and fascinations seemed to render old techniques relevant. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, appropriationist works such as Sherrie Levine’s rephotographed Walker Evans reproductions reflected the thinky tenor of the times, with purloined images functioning as talking points in an ongoing argument about originality, authority, and a host of other pomo concerns—among them, who could make the wonkiest arguments about originality, authority, and a host of other pomo concerns.

Forgive the chalk talk, but it helps to keep in mind that the work of Los Angeles artist Carter Potter, though not exactly collage and not exactly readymade and not exactly appropriation, is a peculiarly lean hybrid of all three. So lean, in fact, that it presents itself most emphatically as a preteens art form rather than a post- one. What Potter does, as seen in his current show at Numark Gallery, “We Cure Everything,” is affix lengths of film to poplar stretchers. The resulting “paintings,” which at first appear unconcerned with their place in the world, are concerned just the same. And, feeling threatened by the prospect of being passed by, they put up a pretty good fight for our attention.

The larger works, roughly 56 inches square, could be called anti-spectaculars—attempts to fashion meditative images out of the most spectacular, unmeditative medium this side of Las Vegas: IMAX film. Potter buys reels of canceled film—a thin line running through the center of the frame performs a function equivalent to the crossing out of a copper etching plate—sometimes not knowing the source of the imagery it bears. But in this hanging of work almost exclusively from last year, much is recognizable: A couple of large constructions use a Lion King trailer; another, Dupe Neg #5, shows part of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Some of the smaller pieces, 14 inches square, come from an animation omnibus, CyberWorld 3D.

Because 70 mm film runs horizontally, not vertically, through IMAX cameras and projectors, the frame is bordered above and below by sprocket holes. Potter spans a stretcher with lengths of film from left to right, row after row, one line right-side-up, the next upside down, until the empty square is filled in. The film is anchored only at the stretcher bars, so each strip assumes a convex profile toward the center of the larger pieces. Although each row is mounted flush with its neighbor, the curling causes the rows to be separated by slashes of space, as violent as the cuts in a Lucio Fontana but as regular as the lines in an Agnes Martin, perforating the picture plane and dematerializing the support—which, because there is no canvas, was never really there in the first place.

The bulging strips catch the overhead lights, suggesting projection into the room without actually offering visual data to back it up. (In fact, faint shadows can be seen on the wall behind the picture plane.) The viewer is, of course, placed in the position of the fictive screen, a notion reinforced by the fact that the film is seen from the back: In the portion of trailer in We Cure Everything #3 (Lion King) that announces the flick’s Christmas Day opening, letters and numbers are reversed.

But the come-and-go, forward-and-back viewing of a painting—even a nonpainted one—in the fluid space of a gallery is completely at odds with riveted-to-your-seat IMAX spectatorship. Up close to Potter’s pieces, the sequential nature of the filmed image is evident. However, the frames coexist in time while being separated in space, so the illusion of motion—usually produced by frames coexisting in space but separated in time—is denied. If you’re familiar with the “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” segment of The Lion King presented in We Cure Everything #4 (Zebra), you’ll find that the temporal rhythms of film have been supplanted by the spatial rhythms of painting. A contrast is implied between the former, which washes over an engaged but essentially passive spectator, and the latter, which must be constructed by a more detached but more active viewer.

In other words, Potter is concerned with how differently we see different things. If his work seems decorative, it’s also brainy and understated: painting that knows what it’s up against and is perverse enough to insist on living with the enemy. Potter’s IMAX scenes change slowly enough across the expanse of the piece that forms rhyme with their neighboring near-mirror images—an effect particularly notable in the stretch of Dupe Neg #5 in which Gaston is about to belt LeFou in the puss with a bent tree branch. Especially in the more monochromatic Dupe Negs and in smaller works such as We Cure Everything (Purple Penguin) and We Cure Everything (Sunset on the Pyramids), in which Potter has offset adjacent strips by half a frame, the effect is of an update on cool ’60s abstraction of the op-leaning variety.

Yet Potter’s project is hardly retro, -spective or -gressive. The artist is just as concerned with where visual culture is going as with where it’s been. Last week, a painter told me about a critique session he had recently done: “This is a good painting,” he had growled, dusting off his best Ukrainian émigré. “For me to poop on!” Half the class laughed; half looked around nervously. Fifteen or 20 years ago, it would have been inconceivable that a university student didn’t know chapter and verse of any late-night routine—that was Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, for those of you still in the dark—but popular culture has expanded to the point that nobody can hope to deal with it all. What once, back in the three major networks’ glory days, served to unify taste and reference now divides them into millions of shiny fragments.

And that’s the popular stuff. How can old-fashioned or marginal cultural forms hope to keep up? Well, they can’t. But maybe they don’t need to. The happiest result of the fracturing of cultural hegemony is that old and new, mainstream and marginalized all coexist, all currently struggle for their own sliver of the public-attention pie.

What we should have learned—and what Potter’s work counsels—is that, although styles continue to change, forcing us to reclaim via historical consciousness what can’t be expressed in the here and now, we shouldn’t compound the problem by giving up on entire modes of experience. And that’s what painting is—not simply an obsolete technology for the manufacture of still images, or even an arena for the deployment of sticky, smeary pigment, but a way of regarding the world one image at a time, a manner of thought and perception that has proved utterly irreplaceable. And if film, even IMAX, can be enclosed by painting’s framework and subverted to its ends, then the old medium is more adaptable—and more recalcitrant—than we may have imagined. CP