Complex Interiority: Where Were You? at Lisson Gallery

Julia Rommel, Robot, 2014. Oil on linen. 193 x 141 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Lisson Gallery, London

In late 2013, New York art critic Jerry Saltz antagonistically questioned, “ If art comes from everywhere and everyone thinks differently, why does so much of what we see these days look the same?” This was a fair enough assessment of a trend that Saltz categorized as neo-mannerism – large, gestural, often monochromatic paintings that are as decorative as they are derivative, and ever-present on the contemporary art market.

The dilemma of redundancy is very real. And while originality can be tough within any creative practice, it is even more so when the object in question is a vast, predominantly bare, canvas. This is where Lisson Gallery’s summer group exhibition Where Were You? begins its inquiry. Bringing together Allora & Calzadilla, Cory Arcangel, N. Dash, Robert Janitz, Paulo Monteiro, David Ostrowski, Michael Rey, Julia Rommel and Dan Shaw-Town, it frames these 10 international artists by their disparate individual art historical trajectories rather than an aesthetic manifesto.

The title of the exhibition is derived from the eponymous 1978 song by British punk band The Mekons. The opening lines read as follows: 

When I was waiting in a bar, where were you?

When I was buying you a drink, where were you?

When I was crying at home in bed, where were you?

When I watched you from a distance, did you see me?

David Ostrowski, F (Plo?tzlich Prinzessin), 2014. Acrylic and lacquer on canvas. 241 x 191 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Lisson Gallery, London
David Ostrowski, F (Plo?tzlich Prinzessin), 2014. Acrylic and lacquer on canvas. 241 x 191 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Lisson Gallery, London

It is a song of denied affection (a scorned lover, a missed connection, a delusion). The accusatory tone is rhetorical, spoken out loud but to the self. As such, Where Were You? becomes a metaphorical mediation on the dialectic nature of an artist’s own practice. The varied scale and approach seen throughout the show all owe to the influence to minimalism. However, unlike the movement’s traditional renunciation of emotional engagement, these works become personifications of solitary artistic action. It is as much about subject as it is about object.

In Lisson Gallery’s entry room, Cory Arcangel’s Photoshop CS: 84 by 50 inches… and David Ostrowski’s F (Plötzlich Prinzessin) are situated side by side, the beauty and the beast. Photoshop CS: 84 by 50 inches … is taken from Arcangel’s Gradient series and is a striking, large, vivid chromogenic print of deep navy blue and orange created using the Adobe programme. The title is a list of technical instructions that allow any Photoshop user to recreate the exact image, harking back to Sol LeWitt’s instruction based art. By contrast, David Ostrowski’s F (Plötzlich Prinzessin) takes its cues from Rauschenberg, with its untreated canvas with acrylic and lacquer and an understated graffiti scrawl across the base. One is vibrant yet sterile, the other dark yet intrinsically emotional. Upstairs, Robert Janitz’ particularly stunning Love is an Object presents a rose-hued canvas that has been covered up with a milky concoction of wax and flour. The thick, unfinished and opaque gestures point to the process of painting itself and the surface it requires.

In the art world, the heavy weight of history is often mixed with the personal stress of intent, contemplation and revision. Works build off each other, their audience and their art peers. Where Where You? relishes the romantic idea of the artist holed up in a studio stewing away in the complex interiority that such a profession dictates. It simultaneously acknowledges the viewer’s role as audience member, and cries out for attention, value, and worth. But any unwilling visual familiarity is bluntly stopped with the catch-all thesis that might as well read “When I was in my studio, where were you Jerry Saltz?”. Perhaps more importantly, where are we to go from there? 

Text by Devon Caranicas


Read an interview with David Ostrowski in the latest issue of Sleek

Read more about art in our Showroom section

Where Were You? is on show at Lisson Gallery from 19 July – 23 August 2014

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