Adhered to Canvas by Bob Nickas, 2014
A visit to Erik Lindman’s studio once meant heading uptown to Harlem, to a block on the West side where time mostly stood still. Walking along 126th Street on the way from the subway, you might pass some warped sheets of wood veneer spilled on the sidewalk, a rusty piece of metal leaning against a spindly tree, a window frame with safety glass that had cracked just the same. The studio building, dating to around 1900, had once been a brewery and warehouse. The studio itself, a small cave-like space perched above a large room, no longer had windows or natural light. Reached by a few narrow stairs, it must have originally been a foreman’s office, a place from which to survey the work floor below. Although you couldn’t see the world outside, Lindman had brought some of its texture and traces in with him, or at least their memory. In some paintings he would incorporate things discovered in his immediate environment, and they sometimes served as the main support. When the found aspect of abstraction and found materials came together, it was always a refinement of his sources, whether physical or mnemonic. It’s important to note that he never went out of his way to look for anything, and occasionally the worn down surface of a painting would turn out to be purely of his own invention. Objects and materials have their history, and as with paintings it is embedded in a surface that can be thought of as a map. While some of his transformations and detours were ever-so-slight, they were also quietly sophisticated. If you looked and listened, you could almost hear the artist thinking—about what to do, where to go, about what should be added and what should be erased. In the space between choosing and decision-making, you could detect the sign of both his mind and his hand, and their interplay. And his was not a distanced position, since he didn’t pursue objects and object-type painting in terms of the time-worn readymade, or follow a set of procedures as a means to merely replay process art and the game of un-painting. This clearly set Lindman apart—and still does—from those artists of his generation who allow painting to chase its own tail, blissfully unaware that their “transgression” is yet another form of obedience, particularly when the polarity of the artist/market dynamic seems reversed, and it’s the tail that wags the dog. Lindman’s priorities were and remain elsewhere, and if he sets out to find anything it is the painting itself, his place in it, and the work that had to be done to get there.
In this space of the mind and the hand, and of chance and deliberation, Lindman brings his ideas to bear on notions of work and the handmade, proceeding with the intention to make or build something—a surface, an image, an object—and on his own, without recourse to assistants and outside fabrication. His sense of potentiality in the everyday, for the physical and poetical resonance of things encountered and recalled, aligns him as closely to photographers and writers as to similarly minded artists, perhaps even more so. Within their field of vision, the photographer takes the picture and the writer captures the scene, often picking up on details that might otherwise seem insignificant. Whatever has been recorded has been filtered through a particular sensibility, and so the recording is an act of articulation. In this respect, no one can do it for them, and not with much integrity. In our time, artists routinely rely on fabricators (to fabricate is also to lie), just as it’s common for celebrities and former presidents to author books with ghost writers. While in art there is no such formulation—would that be ghost painters?—we have them just the same. You can’t help but wonder: who tells or haunts the story? More pragmatically, and Lindman is a pragmatist who embraces the absurdity of art and life, how can the artist convey to someone else their own innate sense of touch and feel, their willingness to act on indecision, to rip it up and start again? This point underscores for Lindman the fact that only he can make the painting, because to make the painting is to change the painting. This is an inevitability that parallels the act of writing, which is always a matter of re-writing. And so he, unlike some younger artists today, is actively engaged in something considered relatively old-fashioned, a painting practice.
Recently, Lindman relocated his studio to Brooklyn, to a mostly industrial area within Sunset Park, so named for its once uninterrupted view West across the Upper New York Bay. Although this is not what he sees from his window, there is daylight and the sky spreads out on the horizon. As befits the area and his work ethic, the studio has the feel of a workshop, a place where things are built or reclaimed. On the way into the building, you pass a scrap metal business, and once inside there is almost always the persistent sound of machinery, at least until half past four. In the studio there are a number of large tables upon which the paintings are placed. He paints exclusively on a horizontal surface, working on more than one at a time, and the paintings are only hung on the wall to be looked at, to be photographed, or when Lindman considers them finished. And even then, seeing them as they will be seen in a gallery, he might take one down and table it again, to fine-tune it or to paint something out. Once he’s at work on the table, it should be noted, Lindman has already decided on the painting’s top and bottom, a matter as much for its orientation as for that of the artist. For painters who work on the wall, whether their paintings are abstract or not, the picture plane may come to occupy more of their attention, while the painting occupies a space nearly interchangeable with that of the gallery—the finish line and its attendant anxieties. Even where no representation exists, the figure/ground relationship remains implicit, as the painter stands before the canvas. This is true as well for an artist who works on the floor, and who, hovering above, can at any time step into the picture, a landscape as it were. For artists who work on a tabletop, the surface of the painting can be seen as a topography that is surveyed laterally on the eye/hand axis. On the table, every painting is a work-in-progress, and the situation is provisional. All four edges are visible, and so too is the back as the panel or canvas is taken on and off the table, and so what is usually unseen may be taken into consideration. One of Lindman’s new paintings, for example, prominently incorporates two wood panels that were originally the back of another painting that, as he remarks, “didn’t work out,” and seen as more successful in their own right, were salvaged. When you look at the painting, to whose composition and structure they are essential, the panels seem to have been there all along, proof of Lindman’s intention and desire that “the material is integrated into the surface and would become seamless.”
Where Lindman’s previous studio felt dim and enclosed, even rooted in the past, this new space is bigger, brighter and in every way present. This is clearly reflected in the paintings he has been making there. While smaller and medium-sized works continue to be produced, and which we may relate to the head, the larger paintings, when they are hung, resemble tall windows or doorways and correspond to a vertical body. They also have the presence of sculpture or an architectural fragment, and yet they haven’t simply been scaled up. The paintings retain the strong sense of touch and intimacy that we associate with Lindman’s earlier work, as well as the defining quality that is its connective tissue—the fact that everything is so thoroughly considered. And in the end, no matter how abstract they may appear, they are still meant to carry an image forward. That the overall image is now larger reminds us that scale must also be taken into account in terms of the painting’s subject matter. Mindful of both its history and its limitations, the artist understands that painting is always its own legitimate subject, and in this new body of work, besides scale, what immediately registers as different is that Lindman is painting more than ever. In two recent paintings, which are predominantly white, the paint application is reminiscent of frosting or whipped cream (a reference he may not necessarily appreciate). In the lone horizontal painting, his first in this format, the application is heavy, thick and gnarly, as if putty had been quickly spread to repair a car’s damaged bodywork.
This painting features a long piece of enameled metal, sourced from the shop downstairs, which was placed at eye-level and screwed into a structural support that was added behind the canvas, defining its full width. The screws can be seen all along the edge of the metal sheet, which was originally green. Having been painted white, it appears glassy, like a rear-view mirror or a windscreen, and Lindman sets up a play between hard and soft, between industrial and painted surfaces. In another new work, the frosted paint application is balanced by the visible materiality of the support and an internal framing device that combine to suggest an eccentric image/object, a non-reflecting mirror in an ornate frame. The painting is comprised of linen stretched over panel, on top of which Lindman initially glued a large piece of leather (cow hide), and then subsequently cut most of it away. This left the irregular “frame” and exposed the panel beneath. When the leather was first glued on, Lindman had turned the material around so that only a trace of the bright red dye came through from behind. In effect, he re-skinned the hide to reveal what was hidden. Lindman thus builds these paintings by introducing, inverting, and partially removing material, muting the coloration and even its materiality to merge with the painted surface, and arrives at a new fact which alternately reveals and conceals its path into the world. All of the paintings emerge from the studio, from the oftentimes subtle hand of the artist, and yet some of their constituent parts have prior lives. Although for some viewers the paintings may appear to bee unfinished, this should actually be seen as a strength, since the traces of how they came into being continue to perform.
Another recent large work show us very directly how the artist intentionally stages the painting, or intends for it to stage itself. The main surface, hemp coated with acrylic medium, serves as a surrogate wall on which a picture has been hung, an abstract drawing of sorts. The picture is a panel of found plywood that has been glued to the hemp, then sanded down, as the artist remarked, “to remove the information.” The dark areas that comprise the drawing’s surface incident were created by stain that had absorbed into the wood, and which the sanding enhanced. The wall is red oil paint that has been applied as if to expediently fill in the space, appropriate to the tough physicality of the hemp, with no finesse whatsoever. And yet it is no way indifferent. It may well have been applied by the same animalistic hand that inscribed a wavering line in Philip Guston’s great 1968 painting, Paw. Created in a charged moment when this artist moved away from abstraction and into figuration, the image matter-of-factly upends the age-old put down, “as dumb as a painter.” This, of course, is its unqualified, offensive brilliance, and the fact that Guston equates the act of painting with the act of writing should not go unnoticed.
“On Painting,” a short text of Lindman’s which was published as a slender pocket book in 2011, is subtitled, “The absurdity of art must measure up to, not exceed or sell short, the absurdity of life.” In his closing remarks, Lindman states methodically:
“The linguistic function of painting does not mean that the source of referents stands in isolation to the world, or that the referents form a closed loop. The linguistic function, as art itself, stands in parallel to the world, but when these line up symbolically, not materially, a synergistic reality is activated. This reality encompasses the world and art. Art is separate from the world, the world is separate from art, but they are both encapsulated by reality. Reality is often most clearly imagined through the absurd, through art and through God. The world is difficult to see through the guise of the world itself. As in the mimetic cycle, the world needs another world to be the world.”
To access the concentration necessary to reflect on what one has done, or might do, since the closed system of painting offers endless possibilities, is not so easy. On a recent visit to the studio, the whirring sound of the machinery from the floor above, where custom cabinetry is made, was loudly insistent, though Lindman claimed not to be bothered by the noise. This was near the end of the afternoon, when the workers usually finish for the day, and just as suddenly as there was quiet, an odd squawking repeatedly pierced the air. Then a constricted “hello,” seemingly delivered by a miniature ventriloquist. The voice was identified by Lindman as that of a parrot which resides in the shop upstairs. With the linguistic function of painting in mind, the paintings hung on the walls around us, and those in progress set on tables awaiting further operations, nature asserted itself unequivocally, the mimetic cycle, phenomenologically speaking, could not be denied.