Black “Paintings”: a response to Jackson Pollock [summer 2016]: Beverly Baker’s incessant ballpoint markings, James Buss’s puddles in plaster, Phoebe Collings-James’s body paintings, Luke Harnden’s repeated linear fields, and Maximilian Prüfer’s rain tracings. [Scroll down for gallery.] Slide The use of black in painting is primordial, dating back to our ancient prehistoric ancestors who applied a mixture of charcoal and animal fat to cave walls thousands of years ago in the creation mankind’s first artistic expressions. Today, artists Beverly Baker, James Buss, Phoebe Collings-James, Luke Harnden, and Maximillian Prüfer, all make use of black in ways that recall its primordial origins, as well as its recent history as seen in the work of Jackson Pollock and his contemporaries.

Originally conceived as a response to the Dallas Museum of Art’s groundbreaking exhibition, Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots (November 2015 – March 2016), Black “Paintings” is as much a testament to the legacy of Pollock’s use of black as it is an indication of the timeless popularity of the color among painters across generations. Pollock’s black paintings represented a deliberate shifting in the artist’s work away from the colorful drip paintings that made him famous, toward a monotone color palette that would—in Pollock’s mind—reestablish a level of seriousness the artist felt was always inherent in his work. While Pollock’s black paintings signaled a departure for the action painter, they maintained certain signature “Pollock” qualities, including his famous method of applying paint that employed grandiose bodily gestures, drips and gobs of paint, sweeping flicks of the paint-laden brush, and movement around the canvas that many have likened to a choreographed dance. Contemporary artists owe a certain debt to Pollock’s legacy, but as is the case for artists in Black “Paintings”, new methods and techniques are continually being developed and utilized in ways that subtly nod to the monolith of American 20th-century painting, while paving the way for artists of this and future generations.

In terms of Pollock’s legacy, Collings-James’ trio of paintings entitled Tar Baby relate closely to the action painter’s use of his body to gesture and “dance” around the canvas, as well as the revolutionary act of removing the canvas from the easel and placing it directly on the floor. Like Pollock, Collings-James “paints” these works using her body in a unique process akin to a performance involving dancing, sliding, and running across unstretched, floor bound canvas. Collings-James’s use of her body as a living paintbrush recalls Yves Klein’s anthropometries of the early 1960s, for which the artist applied paint to the bodies of naked women and then dragged them over the surfaces of his canvases in events that doubled as performances. David Hammons’s body prints of the 1960s and 1970s more closely relate to Collings-James’s work for their shared political nature of the use of the Black body in art, as well as the use of their own body in their work. Collings-James’s Tar Baby canvases are startlingly corporeal—a glimpse of the artist’s footprint here and there—as well as abstract, with varying gradations of black smudged and pressed into the unprimed canvas.

Harnden could be mistaken for a traditional painter for the seeming simplicity of his practice: like Pollock, Harnden relies on the two materials of paint and canvas to create his abstract works. For Black “Paintings”, Harnden includes a group of eight paintings, each bearing alphanumeric titles that are as abstract as their compositions (for example: K120f, K4.32h, or K117). From a distance, Harnden’s heavily patterned paintings could be mistaken for television monitors forever frozen in moments of glitch. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear
Harnden’s canvases are hand-painted renderings of digital processes, with surfaces that are heavily textured and not at all the smooth, even surfaces of glass television or computer monitors. His combination of analogue and digital processes results in abstract canvases that could also be mistaken for organic materials such as tree rings, water in movement, or aerial landscapes. Like Harnden, Buss’s works are heavily textured. Comprising plaster and ink, these “paintings” cross the distinctions between the flat picture plane associated with painting and the three-dimensional space that sculptures occupy. Buss’s use of plaster connects him to centuries of history: Derived from ground or powdered limestone mixed with water, plaster was used by ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans for building purposes, before being co-opted by sculptors as an inexpensive and highly-workable material in making sculpture. Buss’s works fall somewhere between sculpture, painting, and architecture—propped against the wall the paintings become architectural, while their highly textured surfaces recall relief sculpture. Buss’s addition of ink to the wet plaster introduces a painterly aspect, as well as the element of chance. Once added to the plaster, Buss allows the ink to spread, flow, and ultimately be absorbed into his plaster cast panels.

Prüfer’s naturantypie is perhaps the most enigmatic process in the exhibition. Developed through a combination of scientific documentation and a printing process the artist invented himself, Prüfer’s naturantypie utilizes highly sensitive paper to capture the subtlest of mstsovements. The pair of naturantypies in Black “Paintings” represent the artist’s attempts at capturing traces of raindrops. Rather than render an image of the rain, Prüfer collaborates with nature, whose gestures—moth’s wings, ants marching, and in this case: rain—create the composition. The result is a stunning trace of natural phenomenon that raises metaphysical questions of being and challenges the continuance of the anthropocene.

Completing the exhibition is the work of Outsider artist, Baker, whose obsessive layering of ballpoint pen ink on found pieces of paper—such as magazines, calendars, and books—transforms the ink from its advertised color to a saturated sheen of metallic copper. The intensity of Baker’s repeated gestures is apparent in the grooves throughout the surface of the paper. What begins as primitive mark making, akin to the work of Cy Twombly, evolves into a painterly sheen, the unintended consequence of Baker’s methodical and instinctual gestural repetition.

The artists who comprise Black “Paintings” build on Pollock’s legacy and create works that achieve a level of alchemy on par with his mysterious and evocative canvases. While the 20th century witnessed the transition initiated by Pollock from action painting to performance (as in the work of Klein and Hammons, among others), these artists—Baker, Buss, Collings-James, Harnden, and Prüfer—demonstrate how this legacy lives on and will continue to evolve well into the 21st century.
– Leigh A Arnold, PhD BLACK PAINTINGS: A RESPONSE TO JACKSON POLLOCK