Joshua Abelow & Bjorn Copeland

Joshua Abelow & Bjorn Copeland
Cooper Cole Gallery
March 26 – April 25, 2015

Two acquaintances collaborated for the first time to create a scene of decidedly irreverent, self-deprecating, pop-trash transcendence this past March at Toronto’s Cooper Cole Gallery. Joshua Abelow, a young New York-based painter and curator of the cultishly popular (and recently ended) ART BLOG ART BLOG brought some of his paintings north of the border to hang along-side locally created sculptural work by Bjorn Copeland, a member of underground electronic noise band Black Dice, who currently lives and works in L.A. The respective practices of these two artists don’t seem reconcilable (at least in an immediate visual way), but careful and considered curating managed to create an object-driven meditation on the themes of consumer culture, the assignment of value and the intrusion of the autobiographical.

Copeland first came to prominence creating posters and album art focussing on the music community in which he was involved. His principal medium was collage and his brash, bright and psychedelically fragmented images pointed towards notions of media overload, appearing as hyperkinetic animations frozen in a random micro-second of stasis. They gave the sense that an infinite number of compositions exist before and after the one moment we actually got to see, challenging the nature of choice and whether one moment is more valuable or meaningful than another. More recently, Copeland has increasingly worked sculpturally, often employing found materials and objects. For his first Toronto exhibition, the artist created works exclusively using things found in the few short days he spent in the city prior to the opening. Smack dab in the middle of the gallery sits a filing cabinet, a local newspaper box, and an old trunk, well-used and beaten up. The artist has tethered them to one-another with a ratchet strap in some form of Art Brut bondage. Tilted at an intriguing rake, in an almost sublime balance, they suggest motion but are obviously going nowhere. Another floor piece, a shopping cart pointed upwards and balancing precariously on a slightly crushed garbage can, seems to relish in the disparity between the elegance of the act of balancing and the abject reality of the object itself. Using huge, second-hand commercial vinyl banners, the artist also created a couple of wall pieces for the show. The banners are crumpled, folded and fixed into individual compositions allowing fragments of the old commercial text to appear. The resolutely industrial nature of the objects makes them difficult to warm up to at first glance but, with extended viewing, they seem to fulfill the artist’s ambition of re-applying value to things that are otherwise used up and worthless. By forcing the viewer to contemplate, consider and re-assess the object, it’s given a second life, one that transcends the original.

Abelow’s humorous, light-hearted paintings balance elements of rigorous geometric abstraction and overlays of loose, expressionistic figurative doodles. Working serially, he lays down carefully constructed grounds of colour arrangements, alternating the hues of a pattern from canvas to canvas, upon which he applies a simplified symbol or sign. Typical figurative elements throughout his oeuvre have included simplified faces, short texts, stick-men with huge penises and even a series where he repeatedly painted his real cell phone number. The “figurative” overlay is brushy and loose, with drips and subtle variations from one to the next, offering a counterpoint to the relative rigidity of the geometric backgrounds (although they too have a looseness about them). Here, Abelow showed paintings using the silhouettes of a witch, a walking man with boxing gloves, and a series of crudely rendered smiley faces. The faces seem to reflect most successfully the core of the artist’s practice, particularly the balance between the familiar and the absurd, as well as the meanings and effects of repetition. The faces, both in their rendering and conceptualization, look amateurish or childlike, giving them a whiff of bad-boy edge, like acts of vandalism, as though the artist grew impatient with the stifling geometry and lashed out with crudely superimposed symbols. The disruption of the backgrounds is a shot across the bow of all those who treat pure abstraction with excessive reverence. It’s a refreshing and breezy approach, and one that seems in tune with the realities of life where the underlying systems of order we create and try to live by are inevitably subverted by the messy realities of existence.

The collaboration between these two artists, which appears casual and offhand at first, actually reveals a far more intriguing subtext, namely the pursuit of a subject matter both humble and prosaic. Rather than Wagnerian heroics or transcendent aspirations, the work borders on the pedestrian. The text-book doodle paintings of Abelow exist on the same hierarchal level as Copeland’s recycled object sculptures. Both artists utilize the mundane and the discarded and present them for re-analysis, making the viewer look harder at what they would usually ignore on a day-to-day basis. It’s a gesture of extreme diplomacy, where anything (if presented properly) is worthy of contemplation and one that raises questions regarding our accepted standards of value and taste.