In the decade since he graduated from CalArts’ Art and Critical Studies program, L.A.-based artist Brad Spence has produced a half-dozen remarkable bodies of work, beginning with 1998’s “Philosophy Minor,” a striking series of skillfully airbrushed paintings on paper that — on further investigation — turned out to be appropriations of vintage mass-market paperback philosophy books with the text removed. The resulting pictures — ranging from midcentury Modernist abstract designs to a photo-realist bust of Socrates — were among the most enigmatic and refreshing visual statements to emerge from the sticky swamp of passive-aggressive eye candy that was L.A. painting in the ’90s.
With a number of highly idiosyncratic detours (re-creating the holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation; an entire show consisting of airbrush-painted live houseplants; curating the first-ever retrospective of lost-at-sea conceptualist Bas Jan Ader), Spence has steadily built on this ambivalent admixture of problematic painting tropes and found or borrowed pictorial signifiers of the Inner Life. First came the off-kilter à gogo purge of the Freudian primal scene (Mom and Dad doing it — with a side order of shrimp cocktail) in “As I Was Conceived,” which derived its explicit but curiously flat sexual imagery from ’70s softcore porn.
His 2003 museum show at Cal State Long Beach drew exclusively from the similarly anachronistic graphic design and staged commercial symbolist photography of the ’70s-era Psychology Today magazine. The following year’s “Welcome to the Afterlife” was something of a breakthrough. A break on through. Like to the other side. Each canvas compiled three or four images gleaned from Internet searches into a jagged, off-register simulation of a near-death, out-of-body experience (another cultural touchstone of the ’70s), resulting in a sort of rectilinear Venn diagram of somewhat arbitrary symbols (a tunnel with a light at the end, sure — but an ice sculpture of a mermaid?) that produced a dense visual and informational interference pattern as deeply superficial as an Andy Warhol electric chair, as reflective of contemporary visual structures as six hours of Web surfing, and as seductively exquisite as a stained-glass window.
What made these patchwork clusters of phenomena so original was their haphazard synergy. In earlier work, Spence relied on individual appropriated images for both their visual impact and their dislocated symbolic significance. In the “Afterlife” paintings, the dislocation was bumped up a notch. Each tarot-deck hand of interchangeable pictorial units — insignificant on their own — swarmed together to convey the complex and loaded conceit of the soul’s journey after death, a visionary numinous light show constructed from an accumulation of mundane found snapshots.
The potential discursive fallout from this formula is enormous — especially considering Spence’s noncommittal attitude toward near-death-experience phenomena, which endorses neither the “Stairway to Heaven” model nor the “cerebral anoxia-triggered flood of serotonin” explanation (not that such theories are mutually exclusive outside the true-believer camps of spiritualists and crank skeptics). Inevitably, Spence’s sweeping agnosticism raises the question of authenticity — not just in the case of NDEs (which are indisputably authentic visual experiences, whatever their philosophical implications), but in a panoply of contemporary conceptual concerns arising out of painting practice — not the least being “Is there life after the death of painting?” Spence’s answer: an emphatic and liberating “I dunno.”
Nevertheless, he has continued to paint. Spence’s third and current exhibition at Shoshana Wayne Gallery is his most varied and ambitious to date. Continuing his head-on circumnavigation of sentimentality and psychological expression, he baits art-world prejudices from the get-go by naming the show “Art Therapy.” The therapeutic function of art is a highly controversial topic — especially among L.A. critics, for some reason. As an ideological concept, it underlies both the institutionalized Great Society ideal of art-as-social-work in the universities and museums (and the tsunamis of preachy authoritarian knickknacks that result) and the medical community’s pigeonholing of art as a tamed surrealist parlor trick for the diagnosis of repressed emotions (which can then, of course, be treated with the appropriate pharmaceuticals — putting the cart before the horse, if you ask me).
While Spence deploys his signature post-photorealist airbrush technique to its full fuzzy luminosity in the new works, they have grown significantly in scale. And the recombinant mash-ups of “Afterlife” have been distilled into their discrete constituent ingredients. Almost every one of the large canvases consists of a single misty photographic re-reproduction, some found, some altered, some staged with models. A couple of these depict the kind of totemic handcrafted figurative sculptures commonly arising out of a clinical art-therapy session — the wonky cardboard toilet-paper-tube family of Gaggle and the (deliberately) awkwardly installed, strangely Magritte-like Figure, which the artist copied as a sculpture from an art-therapy book before rephotographing it for its eventual transubstantiation into Real Art.
Other pieces offer deadpan metaphorical illustrations of various psychological states — a Tangle of electrical cables; a shattered, reflective sheet of Glass; a rocky landscape almost entirely shrouded in Fog. Others are more obscure — a blurry photo of a suburban building (titled Center — some sort of treatment facility?) made rainbow-hued by an optical flare; a similar shot of a generic waiting room, drolly titled Literature after the rack of colorful pamphlets at the canvas’s compositional center; the intricate light-play in the arrested Flush of an institutional stainless-steel toilet.
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There are even a couple of abstractions. The handsome Passage revisits Spence’s earlier quotation of Bauhaus-saturated graphic design, while Remedy resembles nothing so much as one of midcentury Modernist Agnes Pelton’s glowing geometric Transcendentalist orb paintings. The “Art Therapy” paintings — though virtually exorcised of evidence of the artist’s touch — are uniformly beautiful, embodying their complex tightrope walk of symbolic potency and theoretical rigor in a formal visual vocabulary of rich but muted color, a magpie sensibility for found composition, and a — well, transcendentally flat treatment of the painting surface.
All the easier to break on through. One of the neatest conflations of Spence’s pictorial, art-historical and metaphorical strategies lies in Boundary — an image of a featureless gray interior almost entirely occluded by a purplish rectangle, as might be seen in an incomplete or corrupted digital file. On closer inspection, the mostly hidden interior reveals a shadow — the artist, the viewer, the Other, whatever — whose connection to its casting agent (and, by extension, the painting’s function as a psychological projection surface) is truncated by the Purple Minimalist Menace.
As powerful as the individual works may be, in the case of the “Art Therapy” exhibit, I recommend seeing the entire show in situ. By dismantling the composite pictorial mechanism of the “Afterlife” paintings into its elementary components, Spence has created a sort of installation where the viewer stands at the vanishing point of a dozen slightly indeterminate psychological perspectives, resulting in a simultaneously unnerving and amniotic sense of creative suspension and potential. Whatever Spence’s intentions regarding the therapeutic efficacy of art — and it’s unlikely anyone could make art this good for this long without feeling a little better — the work itself manages to maintain a precarious openness to the possibility that art can be an agent of psychological — even spiritual — evolution. I’ll see that bet.
BRAD SPENCE: Art Therapy | Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., B1, Santa Monica | Through Oct. 27