Sebastian Black: Tales I Knows
396 Johnson Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11206
November 5, 2015 – January 10, 2016
In his latest exhibition at CLEARING, New York, Sebastian Black has scaled up his puppy paintings to an unprecedentedly large dimension. What, against all odds, scaling has proven to be for Black is a device to invigorate color and form. It seems that it had become necessary, to find new life for this series, for Black to discover a new way of approaching it. Working coloristically from a JPEG of an old painting means that Black’s method is not only mediated, but also based on color memory, given that the JPEG approximates, rather than fully captures, the cast of the original oil pigment. This enables Black to free himself of any didactic relationship to color, which is ironic considering the procedural way that scaling typically functioned in older art (think of the evolution from the working up of a fresco from a preliminary cartoon in the Renaissance, to the sign painters who meticulously render advertisements on the sides of Williamsburg, Brooklyn warehouses).
He made this series by working from projected JPEG reproductions of paintings that he first produced at a small scale the summer prior. The color is inevitably off in these cast images, and the size has become non-specific, because it is no longer tied to the act of painting that originally produced the images within the boundaries of a canvas of certain dimensions. The same is true of the yoking of short stories with various paintings as a means of titling them in a form of disjointed ekphrasis, since the narratives are unrelated to the works. By negotiating these factors, Black unwittingly introduces a perverse system that has enabled him to push this body of work forward by way of new coloristic and formal relationships that did not exist in the original works—specifically a morphing and pulsing of forms within a tightly controlled two-dimensional plane, like amoebas oozing and flowing across a petri dish.
In Black’s latest paintings, the vibrantly hued forms are able to curve and interlock, bringing them both closer to the picture plane, and accomplishing a greater degree of flatness overall, but also retaining the sense of optical play that has always characterized the success of his paintings. Now his forms have a sense of sliding laterally, rather than of oscillating backwards and forwards. Further, scale itself changes, as different kinds of perceptual spaces seem to coexist on the surface of the same canvas.
A further context is given to Black’s use of such a curious constraint in these new paintings, and Black’s way of working in general, when we consider that this body of work was originally born around 2008, at which time Black was inspired (as he recently told John Ganz in an interview published in the Brooklyn Rail) by the “dumb” unselfconscious abstractions of Josh Smith. In response to these Black set himself the task of exclusively painting cartoonish puppy faces as a kind of youthful thumbing of his nose at painting’s modernist heritage, and here specifically cubism, which his fractured planes superficially resembled. An initially off-hand decision paradoxically introduced an unconventional formal ordering system, for Black quickly found that the puppy face could act as a grid of sorts, organizing the canvas into discrete parts that he could then manipulate in infinite ways.
Through his occult faith in such unconventional logics, over time, Black has pushed the formal attributes of the puppy motif, exploring first the playful interchangeability inherent in certain parts of the puppy’s visage—for example, how, rendered a certain way, a puppy nose can double as a female pubic region—to then allow for a more abstract play between parts, such that, by now, any recognizable canine features have become nearly unintelligible. This is because Black has been able to learn from years of painting within various possibilities. For, like the grid, the puppy face is endlessly malleable. When the goal is making a successful abstract painting, rather than rendering the likeness of a dog, as it is now, it is possible to push it far beyond its conventional limits.