The latest exhibition of work by Los Angeles-based artist Neal Rock, currently on view at Culver City’s Loudhailer Gallery, asks viewers to consider artistic materials in a fresh and interesting way, but falls somewhat short conceptually. Rock’s abstract, sculptural works combine found components, such as insulation material, with layered experiments in oil paint, silicone, and printing. These idiosyncratic objects are tantalizingly ambiguous in tone but clearly delight in the possibilities of texture, color, and material combinations. At times, they are baffling: The silicone looks hefty, shiny, and dense, like glazed ceramic, yet the objects affixed to the wall seem to float weightlessly.
Most successful is Rock’s demonstration that the idea of an artistic medium is best understood as encompassing both material and process—as the intersection of inert substance and physical action. He achieves this by using paint as both a tool for mark making and as a material or armature on which to print, paint, and construct. It is not only used as paint in the traditional manner, but also as a canvas and a sculptural material to be molded and shaped. This contortion is a physical exertion as well as a visual experiment with color, abstraction, and patterning. Rock has, in this work, moved from applying paint directly onto silicone to using a screen for printing the pigment; this allows the artist to create tension between regular patterns and the natural contortion of the supple silicone. Examples of both techniques are present in the gallery, to great advantage.
Rock also explores material possibilities by incorporating Styrofoam, fiberboard, and canvas. This work seems, in large part, to operate on the notion that when two or more materials are combined, the resulting object is something novel—not merely the sum of parts, but a new kind of object. This lends itself well to the metaphor of the herm, an ancient Greek architectural element and sculptural form that is typically a hybrid between a stone pillar and statue. The herm is referenced in both the exhibition’s title and the title of many of the works, and the press release states:
“Rock addresses the herm as a cultural, spatial, apotropaic object that simultaneously entertains adornment, translation, and masking…. An address to the body as queered, made-up, defaced, contorted, atrophied, and decaying is conveyed—via the herm—through an idea of the prosthetic and the mask.”
Certainly, the contortion and decay described above resonates with the visceral experience of encountering this work, but the connection with the text is oblique and, much to the disservice of the artwork, never fully articulated.
The potency of the herm seems to lie in the idea of hybridity, particularly (though not explicitly in the statement quoted above) of materials and especially in the tension between painting and sculpture, both as artistic practices and traditions. Though Rock insists on situating his work within the narrative of painting, the strongly emphasized reference to the herm ties these objects inextricably to that of sculpture as well (which rings very true to the experience of encountering them physically). Interestingly, herm derives from the Greek work herma, meaning stone or rock. Herms have taken various forms, ranging from stone pillars with minimal anthropomorphic elements to full statues of Hermes, further underscoring their hybridity and constant state of transition and transformation.
There is a wealth of possibility in the evocation of such a historical artifact by a contemporary artist, including notions of queerness rendered concrete. However, the overall presentation of this work is underserved by the vague gallery text, which functions more as an obfuscation than an explanation; it only scratches the surface, while questions about the oscillating solidity and permeability of artistic medium, abstraction, and representation are left virtually untouched. The artist is certainly to be commended for evoking these connections, and the experience of encountering these objects is delightfully filled with intrigue and mystery.
Neal Rock: Herm 0714 is on view at Loudhailer Gallery in Culver City through September 6, 2014.