At the Ralls Collection
to Nov. 9
In the statement that accompanied his 1990-1991 piece Bio Gel (aka The Jolly Green Giant), painter Dennis Ashbaugh took Andy Warhol’s dictum that “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes” and updated it for a more techno-savvy era. “I decided,” Ashbaugh wrote, “that I would make paintings that would confront the idea that we are about 15 minutes into the future.”
Beginning in 1987, Ashbaugh had begun to make paintings based on the Southern blot and gel electrophoresis methods for DNA analysis. Though gel electrophoresis was invented in 1950 and the Southern blot in 1975, it wasn’t until the late ’80s that these tests seeped into popular awareness, thanks to the rapidly expanding field of biotechnology and the growing role of DNA testing in death-penalty cases.
By the time Ashbaugh made Bio Gel, not everyone was famous, as Warhol had predicted, but DNA-fingerprinting technology had erased the possibility of strict anonymity. Scientists had discovered how to take advantage of the fact that humans shed clouds of microscopic particles as they move about their days, these trails of sloughed-off cells rendering each individual identifiable and traceable. DNA fingerprinting has been used to solve crimes, prove paternity, and identify the mutilated dead.
Ashbaugh, however, has used the technology to represent things you can buy in the produce section of the supermarket. Ashbaugh’s paintings of DNA-test gels render their subjects abstractly but exactly in a novel form of photorealism. Mediated by the transformations of science, people and plants alike can be viewed as columns of fuzzy, irregularly spaced rectangles. Ashbaugh reproduced the results of these transformations on his canvases, taking the representation of the real yet another step into the realm of abstraction. The shapes and colors that have appeared in Ashbaugh’s paintings speak to the impact of science on society, but they also reference the history of artistic abstraction, from Mark Rothko’s luminous rectangles to Morris Louis’ veils of seeping Magna.
But whereas identity-revealing DNA tests seemed like sexy science in the late ’80s, such tests seem today like little more than a workaday part of the scientific armamentarium, eclipsed in prominence by more
sophisticated methods and new, more worrisome developments such as cloning. And these days, cutting-edge artists who seek to comment on genetic technology have a new tool at their disposal: the high-powered, graphics-capable personal computer. A sort of Photoshop surrealism, as exemplified by the work of photographer Margi Geerlinks, has eclipsed more traditional approaches to representing the interaction of science and technology—all of which makes Ashbaugh’s blots and gels, currently on display at the Ralls Collection, look much more 15 minutes ago than during his last D.C. show, in 1993.
That said, the most painterly of Ashbaugh’s recent works possess a visual magnificence independent of their points of scientific reference. It’s been some time since Ashbaugh attempted strict DNA portraiture. His large paintings at the Ralls Collection are the purest of abstractions—fictional gels of fictional proteins. At 50 inches by 55 inches each, Celery-Cantaloupes, Cherry-Watermelon, and Grape-Pumpkins dominate the exhibition. Ashbaugh’s dispassionate approach is reflected in the paintings’ colors, which are drawn directly from the fruits and vegetables in their titles: Celery-Cantaloupes consists of five columns of bands in celery green and cantaloupe orange, Cherry-Watermelon runs to luminous red and a darker green, and Grape-Pumpkins stacks six rows of purple and orange bands of varying intensity across a pale-pumpkin ground.
Because these works are not representations of actual gels, they bear marks unlike anything found in the laboratory. Ashbaugh keeps his methods and media a closely held secret, labeling all his paintings “mixed media.” It looks as if thin washes of paint have been allowed to pool on untreated canvases, the pigments’ medium leaving halos around some of Ashbaugh’s blots.
Smaller pieces, a numbered selection from an incompletely displayed series, appear to be computer-printed copies of actual assay results that have been digitally altered, pasted onto 8-inch-square
canvases and then heavily lacquered so they look like ceramic tiles. Sometimes Ashbaugh layers one image over another; sometimes he re-orients the columns of dots and turns them into rows. But it is the colors that make these works interesting: neon green and vivid pink as bright as reagents, reds as subtle and translucent as pomegranate seeds, purples and blacks as murky as ancient mimeographs and photocopies.
Another series of small works represents a new direction for Ashbaugh. Titled Gene Puzzles, these pieces are puzzles in name only—and also the least successful of the images on display. They look like collages of DNA-test printouts and colored paper that has been cut into biomorphs, pasted over the printouts, and then lacquered. #135DA Gene Puzzle, for example, combines garish tones of purple, mustard, and canary into bloblike shapes that add little meaning or interest to the underlying gels.
A further series takes color out of the question entirely. Riffing on a scientist’s use of red oil pencil to mark gel-test-result sheets, Ashbaugh used charcoal to mark particular parts of his collages, then photographed or photocopied the isolated images. On one, a charcoal fingerprint is apparent at the margin—the sort of accidental marking that can, with today’s science, lead to a whole DNA portrait itself. Reduced to tones of black, white, and gray, the compositions have a power absent from the colorful Puzzles. Like photographs that have been duplicated too many times, they both suggest and obscure a crisper, clearer world behind their smudgy surfaces. CP