When the Button Is the Brush: New Photographers of the Downtown Art World

If there’s one thing a savvy New York art collector knows in 2017, it’s that painting isn’t dead—it’s being reinvented. “Photography is my mother and painting is my father,” artist John Houck said in a review in Time Out of his show Playing and Reality at On Stellar Rays, and perhaps there can be no better description of where art and the art market are heading.

With the light-speed growth of digital technology in the past few years, to say that the definitions of forms and genres in the art world are expanding would be an understatement. Artists are mixing digital technology with handmade marks to go deeper into the questions raised by painters and sculptors throughout the history of art, and the New Photographers like John Houck, Lucas Blalock, and Michele Abeles are using the digital manipulation of images in ways that conceptually challenge what, in fact, a picture is and what it means to be transformed by the act of “looking” in a world saturated with images.

Lucas Blalock likes to poke holes—figuratively and literally—through conventional notions of reality and art making. In 2016, he had a solo show at the Lower East Side’s Ramekin Crucible. Tucked behind a liquor store on Grand Street, the gallery provides a platform for work that is both innovative and collectable. Blalock’s photographs hang just as comfortably on MoMA’s walls as they do on the wall of an intimate private art collection, not least because of the way they straddle the line of high abstraction and the day-to-day mundanity and absurdity that constitutes our hyper-connected, image-laden life.

He’ll take a tablecloth and poke holes in it and insert a crudely drawn head on an already confusing arrangement of what looks to be a woman’s arms placed backwards in a puffy jacket. You can’t see this and not stop and stare. This is work that forces you to use your brain to organize and reorganize familiar images that have been made unfamiliar. At Chelsea’s sprawling, museum-like Hauser and Wirth gallery, Blalock’s Meathead, included in the show A Modest Proposal, was hanging in a room adjacent to a Philip Guston show, and it was striking to see Blalock’s photographed meat take on some of the complexities and associations—with more blatant humor—of a fleshy abstract mark made by Guston in the 1960s.

Michele Abeles’s pictures satisfy that urge in our culture to google celebrities or to ogle moments in people’s lives that were once private, but she deconstructs that impulse and turns it into pure poetry. In works she has shown internationally—at  47 Canal here in New York, as well as at the MoMA and the Whitney, body parts appear amid an often deconstructed still life or landscape-like terrain. An elegant hand or a reclining nude begins to emerge in the picture plane in a way that invokes the great paintings of Manet or Bonnard, but the contexts feel hyper-real, distorted, and even futuristic. Abeles collages the plastic and wires and garish colors of 21st-century life in a way that makes them little symphonies of the blips and blurts we see both on the screen and in the streets. Her 2016 picture 5040 is a “still life” of a drug store cash register, anchored by an arm as delicate as a Degas dancer’s reaching through the center of the picture to tear off the receipt.

Houck, Blalock, and Abeles—all of whom have been in important recent shows at MoMA—have continued to straddle the art world’s most revered institutions and most up-and-coming galleries on the Lower East Side while chasing their seemingly inexhaustible, renewable visions. You might imagine these artists are somehow privy to the knowledge of how our very brains and eyes are adapting to the new technologies. And the rewards of collecting this work will be great; artists like these capture what is both specific to and universal about a particular moment, giving us portraits of our lives right now—and a vision of what we are becoming. –