Stranger Tools

Stranger Tools

The sometimes odd devices painters use can alter both their art and their consciousness.

By Raphael Rubinstein for Art in America - March 2018

Last Fall I visited the studio of Houston painter Paul Kremer. Although it had been two or three years since I stopped by to see what he was up to, the delay wasn't from any lack of interest. On the contrary,'I've become increas­ ingly impressed by Kremer's large-scale work: bold com­ positions whose hard-edge, single-color shapes (generally red-orange, black, or white) oscillate between flat abstraction and illusionistic geometry, evoking monumental architecture as well as broken-off glacier sections. Kremer's uninflected surfaces and smooth contours mark him as an heir of Ells­ worth Kelly, while his historicism (he is well aware that his paintings recall not only Kelly but a large swath of l960s art and design) and his visual humor (using spatial illusion to gently mock formalist austerity) bear the imprint of post­ modernism. Kremer's subversive wit, along with his passion for art history, is even more evident in Great Art in Ugly Rooms, his widely viewed Tumblr blog featuring famous paintings digitally inserted into unlikely interiors.

During my visit, which I made in the company of another Houston painter, my partner, Heather Bause, I encountered several surprises. First, the motifs dominat­ ing many of the new paintings depart from the rectilinear shapes of Kremer's previous work. Featuring multiple biomorphic, automatist forms that suggest everything from jellyfish to armchairs to falling human bodies, the recent paintings favor a figureground structure rather than relying on expanses of color. How did Kremer make these forms? There are no visible traces of a paintbrush; paint flow appears to have determined the shapes, but apart from changes in orientation or color, every shape on a given canvas is nearly identical, which seems impossible unless the artist were using some kind of reproduction technique like silkscreening. But that was not the case: each shape was clearly made from paint poured directly onto white canvas.

It was only when Kremer directed our attention to a large apparatus in the middle of the studio that his new process became clear. Built from wood and standing about ten feet high and six feet wide, the elaborate easel allows Kremer to rotate his canvases a full 360 degrees while also tilting them as much as 180 degrees. Once attached to this device, a canvas becomes a plane that can swivel in nearly every direction, and this mobility makes possible the repeat­ ing automatist forms: the shapes are identical (or nearly so) because they have been created simultaneously in response to the same physical conditions. To make these works, Kremer deposits globs of acrylic paint at various spots on the canvas and then, while the paint is still fluid, rotates and tilts the canvas to direct the color where he wants it to go. He controls the paint without ever touching it.

Of course, Kremer is hardly the first artist to direct the flow of paint by tilting his canvas (think of the American expat James Bishop, for instance) or the first painter to custom design a movable easel (Willem de Kooning had one built for his Long Island studio, though it only rotates, much like that of New York painter Gary Stephan), but he may be unique in using the easel as his primary, even sole, painting tool for an entire body of work. At the end of 2017, Kremer made his new method public by curating a group exhibition at the Library Street Collective, an alternative space in Detroit. Featuring himself and three other artists (Mark Flood, Momo, and Jason Revok) who also employ self-invented tools to create their work, "Machine Show" presented numerous paintings along with the implements used to make them, sometimes side by side.

Best known, perhaps, for his "downtown line" of 2006, an eight mile long ribbon of orange paint that snaked across lower Manhattan spelling out the artist's name asing le time, Momo has recently been using a homemade winch to slowly tear away layers from largescale drawings executed on sheets of glued down paper. Flood uses a multi-brush tool to create moire-like patterns that often appear alongside more ornate patterns made by imprinting the canvas with paintsoaked pieces of lace. In a statement for "Machine Show," the artist, who often wields selfdeprecation as a means of social critique, confessed: My secret is that I use super-brushes of my own design. They're three to six feet long, and have dozens of brushes joined together, on a metal armature that 's bent like stairsteps. So every stroke I make is like 12 strokes, evenly spaced ... if I do it right. I sit my fat ass on a rolling metal cart, and my sad assistants earntheir dough by rolling me slowlyback and forth before the painting. I make little up and down movements with the super-brush, until the painting looks good. When I first tried the cart technique, I thought all I would get out of it was a funny picture for Instagram. But it works.

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