Still Life Landscape
by David Roth
02 July 2011
What does it mean to hang a landscape painting over the mantelpiece? It’s a question collaborative artists Charlie Castanada and Brody Reiman have been asking themselves for more than 20 years. Since graduating from Carnegie Mellon (where they met before earning an MFA as a duo at UC Davis in 1994), they’ve built conceptually rich sculptural works from everyday construction materials: plywood, plaster, concrete, drywall and tinted drywall “mud”. Whether piled on floors, spread across walls, or presented as wall-mounted “paintings”, their category-resistant works share one thing in common: an obsession with the aesthetics and domestic uses of thrift-store landscapes – a low-brow genre that puts them in dialog with the historic sources of such works: the Hudson River School painters and others of similar ilk.
In less-skilled hands, such explorations might devolve into kitschy parodies. Not these. Castaneda/Reiman take these certifiably déclassé source materials and, by applying abstract painting techniques and various Minimalist touches, create what they envision to be a new role for landscape in domestic environments.
Time spent studying in the T-square-flat environment of UC Davis and later, working in the construction industry, clearly influenced their art. For a spell, the pair insisted on using only construction materials – building their art “to code” as they put it. And in their landscapes, long horizon lines, reminiscent of those seen in the Sacramento Valley, have remained consistent features.
Castaneda/Reiman are, no doubt, keenly aware of how historic depictions of the American landscape once served political and business needs; however their real interest lies not in examining underlying ideologies, but in turning their store-bought derivatives into something else entirely. They have a huge collection of such works, and they deploy it in seemingly endless permutations. The exhibition begins with one of the show’s two title pieces, Still Life Landscape Document. It’s a large photo taken in the artists’ studio that shows a series of cheesy landscapes leaning against a wall. The pictures are carefully arrayed, but there’s a provisional feel to the scene, as if movers were about arrive (which they in fact do). Walk down a flight of stairs and into the gallery’s basement room, and you’ll see the same scene re-titled (Still Life Landscape Sculpture) and reenacted almost exactly as it appears in the photo — right down to small details, like sheet rock screws and a fuse box that the artists re-create in on pigment-printed drywall to look like Trompe-l’œil. Look closer and other quirky details emerge. Several of the paintings are attached to each other in a manner akin to wood joinery; each stands on a thin Plexiglas pedestal as if it was as a standalone sculpture. Landscape with Mantle (Collage) blurs the line between painting, sculpture and installation even more flamboyantly. Here, the artists install an 8-foot-long redwood mantelpiece on a wall and top it with a concave digital photo collage. Behind it flow horizontal bands of sampled color that, as a backdrop, extend the collage beyond its borders, significantly enlarging the concept of “painting as object”
If you feel, after a few minutes in this show, that you’ve entered a hall of mirrors, it’s because art-historical references keep ricocheting off one another in re-presentations of existing representations of historic works and styles. It also has to do with how notions of interior and exterior keep shifting. In all of this, the artists’ most seductive innovation is the use tinted drywall “mud”. This they apply to photographs of landscape paintings printed on drywall. Using what looks like a palette knife, the artists lay on thick slabs of it, covering some portions of the original photos while leaving others exposed. This technique, which they also apply to plaster-cast 2 x 4xs, yields Diebenkorn-inspired compositions rendered in forest and earth tones with surfaces that have the creamy consistency of cake frosting. Beyond being delectably beautiful, these works posit the slightly disturbing idea that landscapes, like pre-fab homes, can be modularly constructed. Nevertheless, the eye quickly adapts, re-assembling the component pieces.
The duo’s unpainted digital photo collages spin the idea another way. In these, the artists photograph their original paintings at an extremely high resolution, extract details and then, in the manner of Hans Hoffman, assemble them into a mélange of horizontal swatches. As result, you can, if you want, examine the weave of the original canvases and the trajectory of each brushstroke as if you were looking at an Old Master painting. Like so much of what they do, this, on the face of it, seems like an absurd proposition, but it’s one that Castaneda/Reiman pull off earnestly, without a whiff of irony. They transform banality into its opposite.
Conceptualists hooked on old-school craftsmanship, Castaneda/Reiman heed Jasper Johns’ advice: “Do something, do something to that, and then do something to that.” If that weren’t enough – and for Castaneda/Reiman it clearly isn’t – they demonstrate their dedication to the credo by enlisting eight Bay Area painters (including Linda Geary and Jennie Ottinger) to render their own interpretations of the works on view. They’re stationed in a separate nook, just off the gallery’s basement-level room. Like a stone tossed into a pond, it’s safe to expect the impact from this compact, museum-quality show to continue rippling outward.
Castaneda/Reiman: Still Life Landscape @ Baer Ridgway Exhibitions through July 16, 2011.