Otis Jones and Bret Slater are no strangers to one other. Theirs is a strong personal relationship with a shared admiration for a particular kind of art making. Their work is related, but different. Both artists approach painting as though they are making models of painting, and their models churn out paintings that are, respectively, anti-illusionistic and personifications of paintings.
This is the first time I’ve seen Jones’ work face-to-face, and it is impressive how he plays with the idea of space. Tactile and inviting, the work is calculated to be a smack in the face of formalist dogma. A pancake stack of glued plywood, gouged furrows, discs of thickly applied color, and lots of distressed surfaces replace the pure opticality of high modernist painting. What you see is what you get, just in case you thought painting should depict a field of illusions. Instead of wanting to virtually inhabit them, we want to use them like furniture. Jones’ “paintings” — they are more like relief constructions that refer to an idea of painting — serve up a buffet of high modernist art theoretical demagoguery turned on its head. They exude resolve in the way Hercules might have expressed it as he approached the task of cleaning the Augean Stables: this is going to be a messy job, and I might be some time.
Slater’s work is equally removed from being an earnest illustration of anything remotely like high modernist principles of taste and decorum. These small works speak to us, too, but in a different register, a more churlish, impish, and contrary tone. They’re like a plate of steaming sarcasm—but the plate is really nice. Here’s everything that a modernist painting is supposed to have, as well: a surface with no illusion of depth to speak of and just enough figure-ground action to stop short of being a pure monochrome. The pours are good, because they make us think about the heroes of painting like Jackson Pollock, or the heroes of process art, like Linda Benglis.
But wait, something’s not right. It all looks a little too staged, like a neat emblem of improvisation and unruliness. Slater’s paintings appear cool, breezy almost, without a hint of anxiety, whereas we can taste the effort in Jones’ works, however much they may look like they were slapped together.
Jones and Slater both make paintings that seem to be a bit messed up. But Jones came first, so we can’t see Slater without also seeing Jones. And Jones and Slater talk to each other, so I wonder what they say. Imagine a conversation between their artworks, what a lot of attitude. Jones’ work says painting can be about anything made with the materials of painting, stripped down and going through its paces as stuff. It doesn’t have to look pretty or conform to any person’s idea of the destiny of art; it just has to be true to itself. What you see is what you see. Slater’s works say that too, but with a lighter approach. There’s a kind of freedom in both artists’ works, but Slater’s seem happier. His are nattering amulets, little painting-characters who want to tell us something. What are they whispering? I know: “We are from the future and we have come back to eat your copy of ‘Art and Culture.’”
Jones’ paintings are objects, but there is nothing “specific” about them. They wear their history on their sleeve; I can see how they were made. And when I recall what came before them in the history of painting — slick, corporate, aloof, pristine painting — I can guess why they were made. Slater’s works, on the other hand, betoken a more peaceful setting. They slide in and out of my consciousness, flowing like the viscous pours that some of them are made of. I like both sensations: the hard, scruffy honesty of Jones and the intense, giddy menace of Slater. This is an exhibition of intimate entanglement; each affect would be poorer without the other. Just like the work of Jones and Slater, only more so.
Otis Jones + Bret Slater is on view at Holly Johnson Gallery in Dallas through July 28, 2014