Erik Lindman: Blanks by Alex Bacon, 2015

The following is Alex Bacon’s catalog essay for “Blanks” at Almine Rech Gallery, 2015

Erik Lindman goes about making each of his paintings in a very particular and purposeful way. Consider the blue painting, Untitled (2014) [pg. 26]. To compose this work Lindman took a sheet of metal that he found on the streets near his studio, in the industrial Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, and traced it onto a piece of canvas, which he then cut and glued onto the primed surface of a 96 x 60 inch canvas stretched over a wood panel—his favored format. At first it appears as if this is simply a device to carve an abstract image out of an otherwise unbroken cerulean field. Roughly rectilinear, this shape could be read as referential to that of the work’s panel support, which it mimes. However, time with the painting complicates this deductive reading of the work’s composition. From afar, and in images, the white outline wobbles and seems to stake its place in the painting only tentatively, holding strong in parts, while in others almost entirely surrendering to the encroachment of blue from either side. But careful examination reveals that, as much as a graphic division of the painting’s surface, it is also the result and remains of geological activity in what is perhaps best described, given its numerous dense, palpable layers, as the painting’s topography.

“Blanks,” the title of Lindman’s recent exhibition at Almine Rech in Paris, evokes the kind of double play that is going on here. For the shape delimited in the painting by the buried imprint of that canvas copy of a metal sheet can be considered a blank in several senses of the term. Content-wise it is “blank,” in that it is an expansive passage of a single color that does not form an easily discernable image, except the purely abstract, geometric one of the rectangle that it approximates rather than delineates, despite its origins in something taken from the world, already made. Indeed, that very act of appropriating a found object to generate a piece of shaped canvas can be considered a “blanking” out of its meaning: the functional role it had in its original form as a sign. A gesture that Lindman rendered further abstract and distanced by cutting along a fold that had been made in the sign to make it easier to carry, a pragmatic act that, ironically perhaps, serendipitously generated an abstract shape determined by this object’s practical history of use, rather than by its original, intended purpose as a passive support for text. For this reason, Lindman’s very particular use can also be seen as an action that should draw the painting into an explicit dialogue with the world around it, but in this case does not, an ironic spin on the notion of “shooting blanks”: an ineffectual, impotent use of a gun. All of this suggests that we should not take this central image too seriously as establishing subject matter, non-objective or otherwise.

For, when we are able to get up close to one of Lindman’s paintings—and Untitled [pg. 26] is a great example—we are confronted less with further details within that “blank” field that might fill it out allusively, but more with a palimpsest of material accretion that, by introducing tactility into the perceptual equation, redirects our attention away from the primarily visual quality of the linear marks that we perceived from afar. As much as that white line determines a form, even more so it is alternately—at a practical, material level—the ridge and the ravine between two subtly different cerulean fields, each of which has a slightly different facture. This is the result of Lindman then building up layers of paint over and around the canvas shape, an act that both submerges it, and draws out its contours as the most active player in determining the painting’s composition.

Thus, coming close to the surface we see that, as with the layers of earth beneath us, each layer of pigment in one of Lindman’s paintings betrays a history of use and change that contributes to the characteristics of the next. All of them buried, one atop the other, as the canvas shape literally is, with the perceptual result being the final, surface layer, which is the ultimate record of all that has happened below. In this it is like the seductive, waxy surfaces of Brice Marden’s encaustic monochromes of the 1960s and ’70s, where a margin left along the bottom of the canvas allows the history of the painted layers to show through; an objective, materialist point of comparison for the haptic and visual experience of the taut, singular color plane Marden arrived at through his process. For both Lindman and Marden, by linking the tactile quality of layered painterly accretion with a luminous optical dynamism, this is a phenomenon having to do primarily with a shifting, fugitive experience of dense, rich, if sometimes muted, color. For, as Norman Rosenthal notes of Lindman’s work, “the paintings on close inspection are full of subtle color. Blacks are in fact deep blues, and hidden between the white layers are subtle shades of pinks and reds that are wonderfully and openly suggestive.”

Untitled [pg. 20] is thus at once an image of a thing in the world, an abstract composition within a painted monochrome field, and the physical result of the process by which the work was created. As Lindman remarked to me, in his work, “material and image and concept mesh.” Each of these aspects is equally present in the work as the background that enables, and gives context to, the sensorial impact that the resulting field of color and matter has on us as a viewer, which Lindman activates and actualizes through the physical and intellectual labor of making. All this is underscored by the fact that, looking around Lindman’s show at Almine Rech, we find other examples of this rectilinear form repeated. In some cases the repetition is relatively obvious. The green-black and tan painting, also Untitled (2014) [pg. 38], has essentially the same composition as the blue one we have thus far been considering, just that now the metal panel, reversed, and traced directly onto the canvas, without the mediation of the canvas collage introduced into the blue painting, determines a tan “blank” in a green-black field.

In others the form is buried deeper in layers of paint. For example, in the white painting with thin lines of blue, Untitled (2014-15) [pg. 42], we at first discern a sinuous blue t-shape, and only with time does it become clear that these are partial outlines of what could be that same panel, casually, rather than programmatically impressed, then flipped over and impressed again in reverse. Bob Nickas has described the experience of beholding one of Lindman’s paintings thus: “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 line with Nickas’s observation we can imagine, looking at the painting, the exploratory moment of Lindman in the studio, struck by this idea. Looking longer still, it becomes clear that this t-shape is also contained within a larger form, white-on-white, which is also analogous to that same panel. This complicates our reading of the source and subject matter of the forms in the work.

Other of Lindman’s paintings in the exhibition have this same approach, attracting us first with what appears to be an inventive new form, but which, over time, reveals its kinship to these shared, “parent” forms, which we discover repeat from canvas to canvas, yet give rise to different compositions in each, based on the intuitive decisions that Lindman works through as he addresses each canvas. Yet this repetition creates, not so much a sense of seriality, as one of unity between the works as a whole, which is a marked shift from the diversity of paintings on view in Lindman’s previous exhibition at Almine Rech in 2014. It should also be noted that this form, despite the time I have spend on it, is not the only one in the show, though it is by far the most prevalent.
The final aspect of Lindman’s particular brand of process-oriented materiality to consider is the recent introduction of varnish in these most recent paintings. Historically this technique has been used to “complete” a work, fixing it in an archival fashion and adding a slick luminosity to each brushstroke, which is why Lindman, on an initial, practical level, turned to it. However, reading it through a contemporary lens where (visible) varnishing has been out of vogue for decades, Lindman’s introduction of the technique goes a step beyond pragmatic functionality to underscore the conceptual open-endedness of his work generally. Paradoxically, in his paintings varnish serves to make the painting seem still wet, such that it feels both seductively available and forever in flux, refusing the closure a dry surface suggests. The coat of varnish in Lindman’s paintings is factually present, right there before us, we could even reach out and touch it, but it is visually perceptible only through the evidence of its effects—liquid luminosity. It thus heightens our optical access to the paint by accentuating certain aspects of its materiality, while denying others, suggesting yet another kind of blank: an empty, because invisible, surface.

As we have seen, this play between the objective evidence of process, and the masterful obscurantism of painterly technique is key to the aesthetic and conceptual valences of Lindman’s works, where sometimes a material might appear in all its objective factuality, and at other times, might only peak through as the crest of paint that a gesture, now buried deep below, caused to form. Because of this willful duality and indeterminacy on Lindman’s part, it is an open question how these formal issues both do and do not relate to the historically and culturally freighted concepts that attach to tactile and visual experiences, which range from the status of subjectivity, authorship, and originality, to dualities such as that of image versus object, to art’s political relevance (or lack thereof). And so on. By yoking aesthetics to an open-ended, provisional approach to process, Lindman leaves these same questions open, giving us ample tools, in the formal and material terms of the paintings, to work towards our own conclusions.

[Note: all references to pages correspond to the catalog “Blanks” published by Almine Rech Gallery, 2016]