Why I Love Wade Guyton

Wade Guyton’s work functions beautifully on material and conceptual levels. Guyton, currently represented by Friedrich Petzel in New York, is well-known for his work using the symbol X: represented sculpturally by black planks propped in a landscape, or markered onto a photograph, or printed in repeating patterns on linen. But lately I’ve been looking at his large-scale paintings from 2007/2008 and marveling over the way they employ familiar codes to arrive at an new end.

Wade Guyton, Untitled (2008). Epson UltraChrome inkjet on linen, 84 x 69 inches.

The untitled canvas above is an excellent example of how Guyton manipulates a well-known set of cultural markers. Materially, it is composed of linen stretched over supports in a rectangular shape; therefore, it participates in a system of objects commonly classified as painting. There are thin lines on this canvas, some overlapping and creating a black mass on the right, and some thinned out, creating grayer areas on the left. There is no representational subject matter—it is an abstract composition—so we could say that this work is expressionistic and builds on the history and conventions of mid-century American modernist painting. But look at the caption: this work is not created by an “original” vision, or a brush in the hand of an Author, but instead printed on an ink-jet printer. Gray areas are created where the printer is running out of ink, the blacker areas exist where the old print cartridge is exchanged for a fresh one. The white line in the center? That’s where Guyton folded the cloth in half because it’s too wide for the Epson 9600 to print in a single pass. Guyton rejects aesthetic decision-making in favor of the vagaries of mechanical reproduction and the limitations of technology. Further, I find it intriguing that he uses only black ink. Unlike color printing, black is associated with a specific mode of ink-jet printing: the publication of information and text. The side-by-side rectangles echo columns of print.

What are we to make of this? Is it a parody of modernism, with its tradition of “great-man” authors creating heroic (even macho) works? Does Guyton thumb his nose at our expectations for a painting to be the cumulative effect of a series of decisions about color, line, shape, and even texture? What does the work tell us about aura, or digital reproduction, or the presentation of information? And what does it tell us about the culture we live in now? Guyton himself gives few answers.

Installation view, Friedrich Petzel Gallery 2007.

There’s a great line by art historian Benjamin Buchloh: “Appropriation of historical models may be motivated by a desire to establish continuity and tradition and a fiction of identity.” Guyton simultaneously follows and breaks a lineage, participating in a system in order to disrupt it. He appropriates the symbolic form of modernist painting and restages it in a new digital context. Creating the work by mechanized means provides a kind of counterargument to the original claims of modernism and contributes an example of what art critic Jan Verwoert has called, “art production as the gradual reshuffling of a basic set of cultural terms through…strategic reuse and eventual transformation.” Like other kinds of appropriation, Guyton’s work borrows the history and symbolism of the form to which it refers, making another link in a chain of associations and producing a new document that interacts with the system that it both inherits and succeeds.

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Guyton’s work is currently on view at Malmö Konsthall (November 11 – December 12), Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris (October 21 – November 20), westlondonprojects, London (October 15 – December 11); and will be exhibited at Gavlak Gallery, Palm Beach (November 26, 2010 – January 8, 2011).