words by Mathieu Malouf
Since the mid-20th century, painted abstraction has been associated with utopian transcendence, the emancipation of the unconscious and much more. If it has been declared dead several times, abstraction has also been restated and made to dance in limbo by subsequentgenerations searching for unexplored processes in and around the painterly form. Today, a number of new artists have taken on the mantle of abstraction, utilizing the constraints of non-figuration and the quixotic materials of paints and canvas to experiment with its breaks, fissures and unexpected entry points. The New York-based artist Ned Vena demonstrates that formal restrictions can sometimes make for the most revelatory productions.
Vena is best known for expertly constructed abstract “paintings” that occupy the gap between rigorous conceptualism and exploratory formalism—with influences as diverse as commercial signage and street art. Instead of paint and canvas, industrial materials like adhesive vinyl, polymer panels and rubber are often employed. Since 2008, he has participated in projects at Midway Art Center, Minneapolis; Artists Space, New York; Autocenter, Berlin and White Flag Projects, St. Louis, among others. And the list keeps growing.
But where to start? For a bit of background: the past few years in New York and elsewhere have witnessed a resurgence of interest in practices that remix the tropes of mechanical reproduction, large-format painting, Internet culture and industrial abstraction in a completely new mode of artistic exploration for the current age. Often taking inspiration from various sources that include venerable recent predecessors like Wade Guyton, Seth Price and Kelley Walker, and more distant ones like Frank Stella. Artists like Jacob Kassay, Lucy Dodd and Sam Falls, among many others, have re-invigorated the medium of painting with an infusion of bright wit and a balance of commercial success tempered with 21st-century conceptualism.
While his production process shares certain superficial similarities with these artists, Ned Vena’s work emerges as a singular, somewhat uncategorizable voice standing out from the lot. While artists like Yngve Holen, Hugh Scott-Douglas and Ben Schumacher brilliantly employ computer-controlled cutting and laser engraving to clearly defined, surgically precise conceptual aims, Vena, who owns the industrial-grade machines for personal use in the studio, can afford to be more playful. To the aforementioned practices, he is what gentlemen farming is to the agricultural industry
The purchase of the machine may not be an exhibition; it is however a key moment in the artist’s evolution and the mechanics of his picture production. A central component of Marxist theory is an analysis of who owns and controls the means of production, as well as the level of their technological sophistication. Vena’s work offers a zone of temporary autonomy, a pop-up utopia in which the factory worker owns the production line that formerly enslaved him. What was onceexperienced as debilitating wage labor producing cold, calculated products is now infused with a spirit of playfulness and experimentation—an artist/digital plotter concatenation full of jouissance. This is visible in works like one featuring warped tribal pattern rendered in spray rubber on canvas (all works Untitled, 2012), or a tattoo-like adhesive vinyl image on panel that appears hand-drawn but which, upon closer observation, reveals hints of its all-industrial provenance. Self-reflexivity, here, is in full effect.
One could look at certain of Ned Vena’s pieces and think that they are about art. After all, the second of these untitled piecesdoes have some characteristics in common with say, a Frank Stella (given the predominance of geometric black lines forming patterns that simultaneously negate and activate the picture plane). This analysis, however, could not be further from the truth. In fact, Vena’s work barely contains any paint (with the exception of a purple puddle of bravery ink in the background) and the black lines are achieved by way of meticulously placed adhesive vinyl strips cut by a plotter after a digital image file.
Recently, Vena was invited by critic and Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami curator Alex Gartenfeld to produce at a site-specific project at the Artissima art fair in Turin, presented by Société, Berlin, and Real Fine Arts, the New York gallery I also work with as an artist. The works spawned by this multifaceted artistic collaboration—a series of canvases in the shape of a G—were conceptually complex yet easily accessible to the broad audience. Why G, one immediately wonders. As is often the case with the work of Ned Vena, multiple interpretations emerge from behind the sexy veneer of the art fair context—some of which often prove unsettling for the casual viewer who may have too hastily mistaken the work for pure formalism. Once past the unsettling fact that a letter is not a rectangle, it is clear that the G also makes no sense on an autographical level (Ned Vena’s initials are N and V). Rather, we must think of the letter G as a reference to concrete poetry and the pure pleasure of polysemy and language. Deconstructed, of course.
One of the many layers of this work consists in a subtle hint to the name “Alex Gartenfeld,” the curator of the said section of the art fair. Another interpretation, buoyed by the artist’s former involvement with street art, is that of the word “G”—which could refer to a thousand dollars (a “grand”) or simultaneously, to a gangster—someone who behaves lawlessly to obtain monetary compensation and the recognition of his peers. But is this true? Who is in fact the gangster? The gallery? The artist himself—this con man? Or perhaps it is the collectors? Mischievously pointing a finger at the mechanisms of distribution and circulation of contemporary art and clearly suggesting psychological fatigue with the dominance of the market, the Gs leave many questions unanswered.
Yet after seeing all these Gs, an ambiguity persists—the order of concrete poetry and of a literary tension. The transplanted meaning of G from the American context to the Italian one is also something that deserves further thought, somewhere else perhaps. The Gs give a lyrical and even literary quality to the experience about to come upon those who enter, while also expressing the masculinity, precision and strength of the art and art movements which have influenced Vena and which he continues to expand and cultivate into 21st-century critical interests and thematics.
Yet this experiment with concrete poetry and dadais a departure from Ned Vena’s former and ongoing experiments with the reassessment of a so-called mid-century modernist painting and its circulation through various contexts, which find themselves systematicallysubverted by the mighty sword of critique. Who is afraid of red and blue and yellow? More than half a century later, Ned Vena’s answer—equal parts exploration and rigorous, down-to-earth formalism—is elegant, to-the-point, and in fact, one would have to look very closely to find trace amounts of red, blue or yellow (Vena’s recent work mostly comes in shades of brown, black and white).
What are we faced with when looking at this work—one that has significantly gained in popularity and critical acclaim over the course of the past few years? Some may see a resurgence of mid-century modern painting in all its glory. Further critical examination might reveal a completely different picture. In fact, one might even say that the modernist trope has found itself flipped, once more.