Slow Drag In Margaritaville

Lyles & King New York, 2015

Slow Drag in Margaritaville

September 8 - October 4, 2015

 Often, in essays noting that the work of an artist is funny, writers compulsively preempt that acknowledgment by immediately declaring that said artist’s work is also interesting, as if comedy was intellectually suspect. Chris Hood, at his studio, wondered aloud if some of the big gestures in his paintings might risk appearing jokey or dumb. Some of them do, but that doesn't preclude the work from being serious, intelligent, and timely. Humor and sagacity, in Hood's work, are interdependent.

Case in point: Hood’s early work was just as interested in Rimbaud as it was with silly string sprayed out of a tube from the party store. His cool style was honed while working design jobs—logos for trendy restaurants and magazine ads, an ideal job for a young and capable art school graduate. Hood completed his MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute, home of the Kuchar brothers and Kathy Acker. In a painting department where Burning Man was often seen as a legitimate counterpart to the New York art world, he developed a comedic and conceptual approach to painting. The nonsensical figments of clip art imagination that populate his paintings can be seen as brooding protagonists. They seem to have been chosen because they matter not at all. In an era when comedy has attained such prominence, one might consider the comedian the contemporary poet philosophe. If Hood’s work belies a joke, it is a trenchant one, as in Louis C.K.’s darkly truthful stand-up.

What elicits a pensive laugh? Collage and appropriation from high and low culture, cartoon hearts, ghouls, and ectoplasmic rainclouds, repetitions of same, shearing distortion, big whorls of variegated color nakedly gesturing at Van Gogh and Abstract Expressionism and Pointillism, and actual gestures in the form of large and loose lines crossing over and between and under and spiraling through the imagery. And then there's the fact that the whole thing is totally, literally backwards: Hood paints from the verso of the raw canvas, staining the pigment through to the front, so that the actual, real painted image isn’t even visible except as a shadow. Or really, what one would normally take as the actual, real image isn’t, since it’s superseded by the contingent stain. This distinction between intentional image and palimpsest gets folded over into a Möbius strip.

 In building the images backwards, Hood fills in the cartoonish top layers first and then adds the swirling, post-Impressionistic background as the picture develops. Usually, the initial comic images are plaited into the crust of peachy pinks, teal greens, darks made with browns and purples and deep blues. His cartoon elements are often smeared out across the surface, their bodies broken or interrupted—a bit of pathos, like a glass shard in a piece of candy. The deformations of those flat, sticker-like avatars, Hood notes, are the sorts of manipulations that a lot of people are now familiar with from Photoshopped pictures. In paint they take on subtler analogies: a brush’s stroke, a spill, an emotional evocation (Munch’s The Scream as a heart with legs and eyeballs and a cigarette). There’s real feeling tempered by jokes, and then also jokes spiked with earnest sentiment.

Many of the paintings are girded by large, single-color gestural marks, which careen across the canvas over carefully inscribed icons and the composed layers of whirling color, alternately echoing or interrupting the other imagery. Their directness can be read in a lot of ways. They're big, painted, scaffold-like gestures on which the rest of the image hangs. They’re reminiscent of the rough geometric abstractions found in petroglyphs, and their function and full substance is similarly ambiguous: a ritual symbol, a connecting tissue between signs like a constellation or the paths within sanctified topography, or the distillation of meaning into a neanderthalic scratch. They conjure up the path of a cursor on a screen, moving along the approximately gridded terrain of icons and links, though with the coarse promiscuity of a hand rather than the fetishized, minimalist certainty of a machinic circuit. There are characters in something resembling a landscape, with marks that can appear to connect them; it’s the suggestion of a possible narrative that hasn’t yet coalesced. And all this stuff is on the surface, made absolute in a way that both accedes to the construction of space and story, and then pulls those elements back into the canvas, soaks them up, flattens them, gets ambivalent about how committed one should be to a given interpretation.

The canvases are at once joyous and mournful. You can see that something’s in the process of dying, as with a still life tableaux of flowers at their highest bloom. Within these works, at close attention, is an awareness of the mercurial and quixotic value given to painting in contemporary culture. With corrupted allusions to Starry Night, the best-known painting on Earth, he isn’t merely reaching for a token of beauty, he's wringing its presumed and actual powers to invoke value and call up memories. Hood avers that maybe this imagery—which translates “crude” and “refined” in one plane—can be a way for art to retain its surprise in a world where viewers are imagined to be savvy consumers and curators. And it has the potential to bring about some self-conscious reflection. The accumulation of jokes, signs, and gestures is, here, sharpened—a sum made even smarter than its apparent parts. Chris Hood (b. 1984, Atlanta, GA) lives and works in New York. Slow Drag in Margaritaville is his first New York solo exhibition.

Essay by Noah Dillon