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Cut Pieces Sarina Basta on Blake Rayne at Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York

One way to approach Blake Rayne’s second solo exhibition at Miguel Abreu Gallery is to unpack two concepts which have long dominated his thinking about art and culture in general: cultural abstraction and scripts. He himself offered what must be considered his most explicit description of the latter term in a press release that was available only for the first few days of the exhibition prior to being replaced by a subsequent revision.

“Select a fabric,” “Cut to size,” “Mark off the pictorial space,” “Fold. Paint. Unfold.” “Re-hang,” “Reconfigure,” “Sew. Stretch. Mark again. Crate. Ship. Place in the gallery. Unpack it or not … Hang it or not … Sell it or not …”.

Seven large-scale paintings are a result of these series of operations. On their surfaces, lightly applied shapes, tones, and loose outlines seem to somewhat repeat, reflect, and flicker like blades in slightly transparent hues of blue and complementary colors. They are all numbered “Untitled 2 through 8 (Dust of Suns)”, 2008.

The painting motifs echo each other because they are created through a similar technique; the canvas is folded at intervals before being sprayed with different hues of paint. This particular process of folding first could be traced back to techniques of Simon Hantaï or Michel Parmentier. In Rayne’s case the canvas is then sewn into three horizontal strips, mounted, stretched, and framed.

The number of paintings multiplies when considering the crates also present in the gallery. Made from mahogany stained plywood, they act as a signifier that the temporal moment of the work is not limited to the duration of its exhibition in the gallery. The dark semi-opacity of the crates contrasts with the light flurry of motifs on the canvas paintings, emulating their proportions, a blown-up version of an A4 page. Lids and containers are hung side by side, above or below the canvases, and form a free-standing wall to the right of the gallery. Behind them a canvas is effectively hidden (though the significance of this particular gesture may be slightly literal.) The gallery desk has been displaced to the center of the room – on its surface is mounted a small image of Bernard Tchumi's latest architectural addition to the neighborhood, a housing complex, colloquially referred to as "The Blue."

The building in proximity of the gallery is impossible to miss on the journey between the artist’s studio and the exhibition space. It invited a painterly reading from its inception: [1] John Kelsey, Jutta Koether, and Emily Sundblad proceeded to make mock Georges Seurat pointillist versions of “The Blue”, and it has become a signifier of the rapid changes occurring in the neighborhood. In placing the image within the exhibition Rayne announces a concern with spatiality that goes beyond the walls of the gallery and the space of the frame in the paintings.

A script, considered as a noun, is familiar enough as a stage in cultural production underlying the realization of a performative event, theatrical, or cinematic, or a set of formalized instructions in the realm of conceptual art. The idea of script in Rayne’s work carries its productive moment over from the preparatory stage, refusing to relinquish its verb form and its ossification into the static form of the noun. In this case, the script is linked to the specificity of the neighborhood – previously a retail, garment district -- and the acts of folding, shipping, cutting, and selling that might have taken place there. Creating such a homology is an attempt at connecting this particular set of paintings with a certain historic fantasy of what might have been. But it also serves in pointing out the connection between the gallery and the retail space.

Intimately linked to the notion of script is that of cultural abstraction – and in Rayne’s deployment of the concept, one clearly hears a version of Adorno’s critique of the culture industry, as well as Guy Debord’s critique of abstraction. [2] It considers the process that captures the production of any image as a series of transferences from one support to the next, or as a series of scripts. Script is also used in the parlance of software programmers – in which the relation between script and content is undone in the script-as-algorithm form. The script-as-algorithm is a structure that will process any material it is instructed to. It is indifferent to its content.

While the paintings that Rayne has produced for this exhibition are clearly the most abstract to date, the elements of representation that do figure, belong to other systemic forms of exchange and information, other forms of “cultural efficiency”: linguistic and numeric signs. One painting for example, “Untitled Painting Number 5 (Dust of Suns)” is adorned by the number “5”. The form of abstraction which is altogether more relevant for Rayne’s exhibition is that which precisely cannot be pictured. In this Rayne puts forward a definition in process – that of cultural abstraction – of extracting the stages of production of an image through transferences – and capturing these relations, of which the actual end image is only one manifestation. The second press release puts it like this: “these paintings are textualized as scripts of production: displacing material processes into the flat, graphic space of linguistic signs.”

In the work of Rayne, degrees of arbitrariness as an added layer of representation have their place in a tight visual organization. One of Rayne’s paintings in particular frame the words “This Side of Paradise” in reference to the novel of the same title by F. Scott Fitzgerald, dated in the early Twenties. To Rayne, the novel describes “a moment at which a certain class reflexively discovers the hollowness of conventions and means of self-representation upon which it is founded, just at the moment before the Depression.” [3] Rayne’s depiction of the number five in a deco typography was previously used by Charles Demuth in 1925, and later by Jasper Johns and Robert Indiana. Rayne is referring to Is 5, a book of poem by E.E. Cummings (published circa 1926), while the number fives of the Demuth and Indiana most probably refer to William Carlos William’s poem, “The Great Figure” (1921), a short poem depicting a moment in the citiscape. [4] All these dates preface the beginning of the Great Depression that occurred in the US in the late 30s.

The inclusion of the Megan Frazer piece “Tour d’ombres, Tower of Shadows” (2007) beyond the closing of the previous show suggests time as another script within the exhibition format. In the invitation card, Rayne also engages with the general run of the present exhibition, announced as a series of operations – or non-operations: Opening reception (date), Gallery close (date), Reopen (date), Closed (date). [5]

The real emblematic element of the show resides in the black and white photograph of the knife sharpener, probably taken in the 30s, that Rayne added weeks into the exhibition. The figure is riding his bicycle and sharpening a knife on a rotating plate in a relative state of insouciance; a fictional historic subject oblivious to the fact his livelihood will disappear, at the wake of a potential economic crisis. Rayne uses the idea of the knife sharpener as a metaphor for the intentions of the exhibition: refraining from an overtly articulated critical discourse, the attempt is rather to “sharpen the tools,” before actually “performing the cut.” [6]

As the exhibition unfolds, the most decisive elements of the show are the paintings themselves and the will to further an expansive practice. Blake Rayne's new series of works present multiple entranceways to understanding the ongoing shifting, and rising complexity in the current agenda of critical abstraction.

Blake Rayne, “Dust of Suns”, Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York, March 23 – May 18. 2008.


[1]Architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff in his New York Times article of September 4th, 2007 described the tonality of the building's "acqua-blue panels" as "a matrix of dark and pale blues” evoking “the shifting rhythms of Mondrian’s painted ode to New York, “Broadway Boogie Woogie.""
[2]Cultural abstraction, in that light, would be the process of turning into a script the modality in which capital, and the specific form of exchange value it promotes, instrumentalizes what was once experienced as a lived relation.
[3]As quoted in the press release.

The Great Figure Among the rain and lights I saw the figure 5 in gold on a red fire truck moving tense unheeded to gong clangs siren howls and wheels rumbling through the dark city

William Carlos Williams, Sour Grapes: A Book of Poems, Four Seas Company, Boston, 1921.

[5]The temporary closing of a gallery by an artist certainly has its origins in the Sixties onwards – and not least recently by Storm Van Helsing at American Fine Arts in 2001; or Karin Schneider’s closing of Orchard gallery, streets from Abreu’s, a few months ago.
[6]In conversation with the author prior to the exhibition, March 18th, 2008