Weaving Histories

Imagine if one were to, say, remove Jasper Johns’ iconic flag painting from its support and drape it over a pedestal in the middle of the gallery.  This is not entirely inconceivable, as Johns’ good friend Robert Rauschenberg would have, when Johns’ flag was made, just completed his Erased de Kooning by erasing a drawing de Kooning had given to him.  But the flag over a pedestal—from some angle you would discover it for what it really was, seeing only the folding of red and white stripes, recognizing that it is, like all flags, a piece of patterned cloth.  And what if Op artist Bridget Riley were to see this flag draped over the pedestal and recognize that by recording this visual experience, and relocating the two-dimensional that had become three-dimensional back onto a two-dimensional surface, she could create a purely abstract, optical illusion that builds a question between what the intellect knows and what the eyes experience?  In a strange twist in real, not imagined, history she could have experienced this movement between dimensions in her own work, as her paintings would, unbeknownst to her, be turned into fabric patterns and mod clothing by the collector and dress manufacturer Larry Aldrich.  Riley, then, would have seen her flat, hypnotic patterns re-activated by the body.[1] 

This back-and-forth between two and three dimensions, between paint and pattern, and between optical illusion and visceral matter might close in on the language of Chris Hyndman’s paintings.  Hyndman’s work is enmeshed (the term is not lost on me) in, and carries forward, the set of questions that painters, and especially abstract painters, were forced to contend with after Modern Art’s natural finale with, I would argue, Pollack dripping paint on the horizontal canvas.  Painters sought new ways to advance the discussion of painting, abstraction, and opticality, without the end-goal of modernism.  Hyndman’s work comes out of this tradition of skepticism—wondering what painting does, what should be painted, and why? His work casts a wide net over the movements of the latter half of the twentieth century—from Pop to Minimalism, to Op–and feeds these languages through the digital until they come out the other side, beautiful and optically bewildering. But also funny, and slightly tragic, as any painting may be that truly wants to explore beauty, color, and form at a time when those qualities are so generally disregarded in favor of, as David Joselit has recently claimed, the “buzz”[2] of networks.

Painting has become a somewhat covert activity since the end of Modernism, which had at least outlined what painting should do.  Painters have had to find a way to work on the things that actually interest them in the face of the dominant discourse claiming that those things do not matter.  To be able to really reflect on color, light, and surface, in the face of global capitalism, is quite difficult, but that is part of what painters think about.  And painters have been known to throw us “off the scent,” so that they are able to follow what really interests them without having to rationalize their pursuit.  Just as Johns, describing his use of the flag, speaks of moving “on to similar things like the targets, things the mind already knows. That gave [him] room to work on other levels,”[3] Chris Hyndman’s playful images let us in through recognition of the known, whether a fabric pattern or cartoon eyes, only to go somewhere else once we are hooked.  Don’t be fooled, these paintings are dead serious—look at their investment in construction, their ability to be both object and image, and their willingness to address the history of painting and cultural images.

Taking the ubiquitous pattern of the plaid, Hyndman starts at a kind of ground zero for pattern and color.  This oft overlooked fabric is the natural condition of weaving, of warp and weft, and of the optical play of color, as the weaving of two different colors creates a third.  Here we have the grid, intimations of the halftone, a product of the machine: the stuff of Minimalism.  Yet these important modern cornerstones are twisted and thrown in the air; the minimal becomes sensual, nearly baroque, and deeply optical.  Hyndman’s paintings delight in the visual, but do not settle there, asking how an abstract visual language might speak.

While Hyndman’s work can be appreciated, certainly without my fictional history, and without knowing the history of post-war painting, I believe that the work is enriched by its insistence that it cope with the complex conditions set up by the painters who did not try to side-step, through post-modernism or “casualism,”[4] the questions surrounding contemporary painting.  What if one is still interested in the substance of paint, but is not sure it has to be “expressive”?  If one is interested in color? Or the formal language of abstraction?  Hyndman pushes these questions into the twenty-first century, paying homage to a history that he respects, while finding new ways to take the lessons of painting after 1960 and to allow his work to speak to our experience now, in the “Digital Age,” when images are infinitely reproducible, transmutable, and often viewed through a screen.

Hyndman’s paintings reference a virtual space, suggesting that the information for painting might come from a different place now.  Gravity is not in play here, and light, while present, is hard to locate.  There is a sense of a vacuum.  The cloth (that is not cloth) drapes and moves around some type of a force, but it is invisible to us.  There are suggestions of magic, in some pieces even using the cloth in the way a magician might—to cover something, only to pull it away in a flurry, “voila,” revealing that nothing is there.  The paintings do what complicated paintings should do—allure, attract, but also comment on their own emptiness.  Reminiscent of Mike Kelly’s Riddle of the Sphinx, where his use of another lowly fiber, the afghan, is distorted as it drapes over invisible forms (most often throw away stuffed animals), Hyndman also creates visual riddles—what motivates these forms in space? And perhaps Hyndman’s recent use of cartoon eyes alludes to the pure spectacle of magic, questioning the spectacle of painting and illusion.  For it's a complicated business, this pleasure in painting—a fine line between the sensuality of paint falling into pure entertainment, versus when the optical, the eyes, can tell us something about our present condition.  Chris Hyndman walks that tightrope, maintaining the tenuous balance that allows for the pure optical pleasure in a picture to communicate over time, engaging the viewer to tease out the puzzle.


[1] As described by Pamela Lee in her book Chronophobia.

[2] David Joselit in After Art.

[3]{C} “His heart belong to DADA,” Time 73, 4 May, 1959: 58; as quoted in Jasper Johns, Writings, sketchbook Notes, Interviews, ed. Kirk Varnedoe, Moma New York, 1996, p. 82.

[4] A term use by Sharon Butler in “The New Casualists,” in the Brooklyn Rail.