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Lost-Picture Show


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at Roy Boyd Gallery, through July 6

The largest piece in Buzz Spector's show at Roy Boyd Gallery might at first bring a smile to the viewer. On the floor next to a freestanding white wall almost seven feet high with eight rectangular indentations lie eight rectangular books that match the indentations in length, width, and placement. One's first impression is of a minor gallery disaster: the books have fallen out of the wall.

But of course if the books had fallen out they would have landed haphazardly, and these have obviously been carefully placed. Further, while each book is a different thickness and each wall groove a different depth, the depths and thicknesses don't match--if the books were placed into the grooves some would be flush with the wall, some would be indented, and some would protrude. As one contemplates the precise, geometrical arrangement of the wall and the books, considers the sense the work gives of a picture that's fallen off the wall, and becomes aware of the fact that because of the mismatched thicknesses reconstructing that picture would be impossible, the work begins to exude a strange melancholy. Spector has found a highly original way to express certain themes of much recent art: the demise of pictorial illusion, the end of the flat picture plane, the death of the artist's controlling consciousness, expressed through handmade works.

But there is more, for the title and composition of this 1991 work, Malevich: Eight Red Rectangles, are based on a 1915 painting--Suprematism (With Eight Red Rectangles)--by the great Russian artist and founder of Suprematism, Kazimir Malevich. This is not some art-historical secret available only to the initiated: Spector has printed this information, the painting's dimensions, the fact that it's oil on canvas, and the name of the Amsterdam museum that owns it on the spines of his eight fallen books--whose covers are, of course, deep red.

I am not normally a fan of works that appropriate past masterpieces, but in this case if one knows something about Malevich, the paradoxes the reference to him generates approach a kind of poetry. Indeed, the double vision produced without reference to Malevich--a split between the viewer's immediate pleasure in the work's elegant form and materials and the sadness that the work can never be reassembled into a picture on the wall--is reconstituted on a much more sophisticated and resonant level when Malevich is considered.

Malevich began as a realistic representational painter, was soon influenced by and sometimes imitated various phases of European modernism, and eventually found his own authentic style, which tended increasing- ly toward geometrical abstraction. When Malevich reached his mature style, around 1915, he declared that art would no longer "reflect the nooks and crannies of nature" but would move toward "the pictorial end of itself." And in a sense Spector's work faithfully reproduces this notion. By transforming Malevich's rectangles into books, he suggests the idea of abstract art as a kind of knowledge; the fact that all the books' pages are blank is appropriate to the idea of the artwork as an end in itself, not translatable into words; and the blank pages resemble Malevich's white-on-white paintings of only a few years later.

At the same time, Malevich's works have a very different effect from Spector's. Malevich's are suffused with a strange incorporeal beauty; the purity of their colors and forms clears the mind of all quotidian thoughts, and indeed gives the viewer the sense of being not only separate from nature but removed from any physical reality. Malevich proclaimed a desire to "break loose from the earth" and effect "a revolution of pure mind": "Sail on! The white, wide-open depths, eternity, is before you."

Malevich's paintings may seem flat, but Spector's installation literally falls flat--one can almost hear the thud of the books landing on the floor. Malevich's insubstantial, transcendent forms are here reified into actual objects, elegant red books that with their interesting shapes and gold-lettered spines could easily grace the toniest bookshelf. Spector hasn't failed artistically but rather is intentionally declaring a difference: our culture is devoted not to soaring spirituality but to collectible objects; our minds tend to reduce abstract concepts and untranslatable experiences to the palpable, the physical. And so the initial melancholy returns more pervasively: the impossibilities the work asserts seem a condition of our times.

This exhibit also contains two other versions of the same Malevich composition, which present the argument in somewhat different terms. Eight Red Rectangles (1992) consists of eight thin, red aluminum plates embedded in a gallery wall. The plates are not perfectly joined to the wall, making the viewer aware of their status as objects rather than as passageways to Malevich's "wide-open depths." The color serigraph Suprematism (With Eight Red Rectangles) (1992) duplicates the composition again, this time with outlined rectangles that are not themselves red but have within them red lettering that repeats, almost word for word, the lettering on the book spines: Malevich's beyond-language composition is turned into a series of words that in a further irony merely identify the original painting.

More than half the works in this show are constructions that Spector, a serious postcard collector, has made by arranging old postcards in a grid. Most also generate contradictions. The postcards' present reality as objects is opposed to their irretrievable past, their distant locations, and their eventual ruination. At the same time there's a contrast between the artist's own grid-ordering systems and the unalterable givens of the postcards' images.

This contradiction is especially apparent in the largest of these works, 66 Ruins (1992). Color and black-and-white cards of famous monuments, almost all European but not all ruins, are juxtaposed with cards of U.S. industrial plants, some defunct and some still functioning. The U.S. and foreign cards occur in strict alternation whether one reads the work in rows or in columns: a monument is always followed by a factory. Further, Spector has arranged many of the cards so that compositionally similar images are adjacent. An acid plant rising from green grass is flanked by a castle on a hill and a soaring Gothic cathedral; the large windows of the Crosby Frisian Fur Company are juxtaposed with the similarly dominant openings of the Roman Colosseum.

The viewer is immediately aware that Spector's contributions to this work--the grid, the alternating subjects, the formal connections--are not particularly subtle or original. The richness of 66 Ruins lies instead in the way these simple ordering schemes contrast with the complex structures depicted on the cards. The straightforward grid encourages the viewer to revel in the near-baroque sprawl of a huge factory, the aggressive stone facade of Florence's Palazzo Vecchio, the elegance of a group of windmills. Spector compares the complexity of European architectural masterworks and American industrial buildings with a standard modernist strategy, the grid, and finds the latter wanting--except perhaps as a method for presenting the former.

There are other levels in 66 Ruins as well. The postcards themselves, generic commercial images to some, have been selected with a collector's eye for the elegance of their texture, line, color: they are in themselves wonderful. Many of the buildings depicted have begun to decay, and in the patterns of decay one can observe an entirely different ordering system than Spector's: an order imposed by the powers of nature, of the sun, wind, rain. This decay reminds the viewer that all these things--the buildings, the postcards (some of which are beginning to show signs of age), and of course the artwork itself--will ultimately be dust. The work finally produces nostalgia and regret: that this artist, who participates in the world as a collector and arranger rather than as a synthesizer or dream maker, is unable to stop time and decay.

These issues are present in still more complex form in Anatomy Lesson (1991), a large grid of greeting cards that depict roses. The cards are oriented in different ways--some are sideways, some upside down--and silk-screened over the center are drawings of two arms taken from an anatomy textbook, severed at the elbow to show an anatomical cross-section. Outlined in red, these arms have a certain simple elegance that echoes the cards' images of roses. The viewer is also aware that both the arms and most of the roses are cut--severed from the bodies that give them life, just as the cards are pictures, not actual living things. In addition, the arms are placed as if welcoming the viewer into the work with "open arms"; between them Spector has placed one of the few cards in which landscape predominates over flowers, showing a fantastic romantic night scene with a road and a body of water. Both recede into the distance, creating a strong depth effect; but the illusion of being drawn in by the arms toward the cards' otherworldy vanishing points is quickly dispelled by the work as a whole, whose every-which-way arrangement of cards asserts its own present identity as a collection of found images.

Also included in Anatomy Lesson, and many of the other card works, is a single card covered with black acrylic so that the underlying image is visible only in relief. At the center of Juliette (1992) is such a card, of a woman; around her are grouped black-and-white postcards of chateaus. The unknowable mystery of the dark lady parallels fundamental truths about the chateaus: that we'll never see inside them, that we cannot retrieve their pasts. These dark elements in otherwise even-textured grids also suggest that the grids themselves, which in a sense the viewer "reads" almost like texts, are not necessarily what they seem: any of them might hold undeciphered mysteries.

Spector, born and raised in a Chicago Jewish household, told me, "In Hebrew school I heard the story of a Talmudic scholar who was so learned that if you pointed to a particular letter in a word on any page of a Talmudic book he could tell you what letter occupied that site on every successive page." This story adds a certain resonance to the works: the position of each element in the grids, and perhaps especially of the black cards, has clearly been carefully considered. More generally, the Jewish intellectual tradition--which focuses on commentaries on texts and commentaries on commentaries--is clearly present in the way Spector begins with a few found elements, then generates several layers of meaning.

Not all the card pieces are completely successful as autonomous artworks. At times Spector the collector seems to overwhelm Spector the artist: the cards themselves and their intriguing images exercise too strong a hold over the work.

But at its best Spector's art offers a skein of paradoxes the viewer perceives as an indissoluble, almost poetic unity. Such a piece is Butter Roses. A commercial freezer case holds a large number of red roses laid out in a row and lit by fluorescent lights built into the case. Placed amid the roses are hand-carved rosettes of butter. Here a number of Spector's themes converge. He compares Nature (roses, but cultivated and cut by humans) to another natural (but still more manufactured) product, butter, which has been sculpted to resemble roses. The repeated rose shapes are compared implicitly to small sculptures, just as postcards in other works replace a painter's or photographer's original image. For the time being the freezer suspends the decay that marks the passage of time, but the freezer's noisy motor cycling on and off continually reminds the viewer of the threat of decay. This work encourages the viewer to think and think again about images as frozen moments of unrecoverable time, about the removal from nature engendered by our industrial civilization.

The difference between human and natural orders is recast in starkly oppositional form in Re:Collections (Shells) (1990). A wooden frame divided into 32 square compartments surrounds a large metal plate painted to resemble the gallery wall. On the plate are two fascinating texts: one from a scientific work ("The Carrier or Collector Shell . . . disguises itself by attaching stones, or other shells, and miscellaneous debris to its cone") and the other an unattributed quote from aesthetician Walter Benjamin describing the pleasure art collectors take in completing their collections.

Each cubbyhole holds a different carrier shell. They provided the exhibit's greatest purely visual pleasure: these animals are artists. Some are "formalists": they specialize in a particular type of shell or shape of stone, attached in concentric circles around the carrier shell's cone, each higher circle displaying smaller versions of the same kind of object. Other carrier shells exhibit postmodern tendencies, showing an eclectic, almost chaotic taste. A few, like makers of monumental sculptures, attach to their tops pieces of coral larger than the original shell. These collections are never haphazard, exhibiting the same mix of repetition and variation one finds in other natural processes. I found myself recalling Karl von Frisch's wonderful book, Animal Architecture, an illustrated study of the structures built by mammals, fishes, and birds.

Re:Collections (Shells) is not without art references. The wooden frame with its ornate contents recalls the ornate frames that surround older paintings, while the neatly lettered wall texts suggest minimalism and recent text-oriented art. It's hard not to find here a disparaging comment on modernism, but Spector doesn't propose a "return to the figure" or offer any of the other stock reactions of antimodernists. Instead he counterposes to the wall texts and the grid, which recall recent art, objects produced by supposedly unintelligent nature--subtle, varied, and beautiful things. If Spector's human-collector grid seems relatively pedestrian, this is likely intentional: its simplicity beautifully highlights the pieces he's selected, surprisingly complex arrangements made by the long-gone beings that once inhabited these shells.

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