Credit: "Blue Painting," by Graham Collins (2016)

The backside of “Tribute Painting” (2016) greets viewers at Graham Collins’ solo show at Civilian Art Projects before they enter the gallery. The painting hangs in the center of Civilian’s storefront window, facing into the space, while the back glares out to the street. The front is a Cubist collage of eyes cobbled together from various oil and acrylic paintings that the artist has carved out and stitched together. The back of the painting, a Frankenstein patchwork of canvas and linen and thread revealing his handiwork, glares out to the street. The face of the painting is a mess; backstage is a revelation.

“Tribute Painting” is the first of many hints that Collins’ work is as much sculpture as painting. Not that there are a lot of easy handholds in Collins’ work. “Laughter,” his first solo show with Civilian, features nine works that seem to coexist as two genres. Formal and brooding, most of his pieces are large objects that at first glance bear all the telltale signs of abstract painting: severe wooden frame, glass, canvas. That Collins’ canvases are mostly monochromes (the artist’s gaze-painting notwithstanding) only enhances the effect, contributing to an impression that this is serious work from the post-war school of serious American painting.

The details tell a different story. Collins relishes in the finer questions of craft and context, even when that means using refuse materials. “Tinted Monochrome Painting” (2016), for example, follows a familiar format in the show. Underneath the glass is a monochrome enamel painting on canvas (red in this case). But over the glass, Collins has applied auto-window tint, rather sloppily, to boot. The bubble-infused window tint obscures the painting, but it also makes the work. The air pockets in the tint serve as a kind of mark-making that Collins can’t control, a gestural system that, at best, he executes or oversees. The actual paint-on-canvas, meat-and-potatoes part of the painting, the part where the narrative stuff usually goes, is beside the point.

Credit: “Gondwana,” by Graham Collins (2016)

On the other hand, the wooden frame in “Tinted Monochrome Painting” is excessively cared over. Again, it’s fugitive wood, or at least not the stuff frames are normally made of: He sources his oak from a salvage yard where construction timber for shoring up ditches gathers. The backing boards to his framed canvases are a rough, cheap particleboard. And yet the frames in Collins’ “Laughter” paintings may be the only aspect of his work that bears his hand.

Chin-scratching studies into the teleological status of paintings are nothing new. Lucio Fontana cracked the case wide open when he presented, as an innovation in painting, canvases slashed with a knife. But there is a materiality in Collins’ work that signals he doesn’t hail from the ivory tower. 

“Large Unfinished Painting” (2016), a gobbledygook hodge-podge of thrift-store landscape paintings, diced into unidentifiable segments and sewn together in a grand 15.5-foot-by-10.5-foot meta-landscape, is a real exercise in craft. The painting looks at once like farmland seen from 30,000 feet in the air and also like a Diebenkorn painting if you squint and still also like a loose gestural abstraction of a dark celestial body floating over the firmament—its own thing. Collins isn’t making a conceptual statement. He’s trying to coax something epic out of things that are not.

It is almost as if Collins has shrugged off a half-century of post-minimalism or post-conceptualist history and decided to go back to the source to see for himself. “Yellow Painting” (2016), a scaled-down and restretched fragment of another yellow painting, looks like a funky crescent moon, suspended on a plain 15-foot panel that stands between the basement and ground floors of Civilian along the stairs; it’s hard to read it as anything other than a wink-y Ellsworth Kelly or a chuckling Richard Tuttle. But then “Assemblage” (2016), a small painting that’s so dense and tense it seems to vibrate, is a perfect little minimalist exercise hiding behind scattershot window tint.

In “Laughter,” Collins touches on just enough of everything to keep it interesting: patchwork composition, sculptural flair, academic ambivalence, an eye to the labor politics of the art world, and even humor. Work that might at first glance get tagged as “zombie formalism” instead shows off strong signs of life.

Through July 9. 4718 14th St. NW. Free. (202) 607-3804. civilianartprojects.com.