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Essay by R o b e r t C . M o r g a n
T H E D E T R I T U S O F T H E S I G N
The production of signs has taken a commercial turn in much recent art. The tendency in New York painting since the early Eighties has been toward a more controlled emblematic statement, one in which the form has taken a specific notice of signification. The underlying assumption in much of this rejuvenation of Pop imagery is that our civilization has caught itself in a network of signs. These signs exist as if they do not need a context in which to operate; that is, they do not need a specific context in order to project meaning. Often the visual tactile experience of the sign exists as a displaced entity, one that is without relevance to the social mode of operation where the emblems from popular culture have assumed their place.
It is precisely at this juncture that the paintings of David Geiser begin to take issue. For Geiser the effort involved in making an image function as a sign is not an effort to get at the social in terms of utilitarian reflectivity. Painting is not about a lack of tactile involvement but the direct opposite. What counts for Geiser is the sense of process that one feels in relation to the materials. This tactile involvement is where the ideational construct evolves.
What is this tactile involvement and why its emphasis in Geiser's work? Twenty years ago the issue of "process" was being talked about a great deal. Thinking of works of Eva Hesse, Barry LeVa, Robert Smithson, Robert Morris, Keith Sonnier, and others, one may recall the attention given to the literalness of space and the way space and form could be manipulated. The foundation of this thinking has to do with breaking away from the earlier Minimal aesthetic, one that had already been confounded by the presence of the prefabricated object. When Lucy Lippard introduced the "eccentric abstractionists" in 1966, it was an introduction to another possibility. The reduced aspect of sculpture was kept but the form was given a new licentiousness, an organic twist, that made it possible to think once again in terms of expression. In the late Sixties artists were heavily into process; that is, taking materials literally and using them to extend the parameters of spatial interaction and to re-awaken new possibilities of perception. At the time, gestalt perception was very much in the wind. The notion that the perceiver was a part of the visual field became significant. One could enter into the work in a different way. Also, the question of scale and materials was being reconsidered. Smithson had to reject the prefabricated materials of mass culture in favor of the "natural" materials of the earth. He wanted to elevate the idea of the earth's stratification as a medium for art, thus giving art a new context of meaning. The tactile relationship of Smithson to the earth is another important aspect of the work. He considered the permutation of these materials the way, for example, salt crystals would change and evolve over time as ingredients in the building of the Spiral Jetty.
Tactile involvement had a central place in the thinking of those artists who evolved into the Postminimalism of the Seventies. Postminimalism was a further extension of eccentric abstraction which included aspects of earth art and Site Specific sculpture. The tactile appearance of these hybrid forms suggested a decision-making process in the plasticity of the materials, though gradually this aspect of the work subsided in favor of another type of standardization.
Geiser's sense of tactile involvement is his work is neither predictable nor gratuitous. It is a real encounter with whatever is in front of him at the time. The spatial field is limited. While his paintings could be called mixed media (in that he uses pitch, tar, grit, rhoplex, and scrap wood) he is not concerned with the hybrid fusion of painting and sculpture into what Don Judd once called "specific objects." It is not the object that obsesses Geiser but the field of activity. He is interested in excavating meaningful data from the field. In this sense he performs the operation of an archaeologist. He is looking beneath the layers of paint, the encaustic, the pitch, and the grit. He incises the surface, gouging through multiple layers of pigment and other materials. It is a continuous additive and subtractive process. The sensibility is one of profound engagement, a physical awareness of every decision being made.
Geiser's paintings offer a kind of antidote to the hyperreality of much Postmodernism . Whereas the geometic configuration is at the basis of the insignias of much Neo-Geo and Neo-Conceptualist art, Geiser relishes an attachment to the surface. He is not interested in a synthetic surface or an appearance that is ineluctably flat. He is not after the programmed appearance or the superficial sign that exists only on one layer. Geiser offers another approach, one that cannot be secured so easily in terms of revivalism. There is perhaps a thin line between his process orientation and the work of the other expressionist artists; but one might consider this line is a deliberate action for Geiser. The thoughtful equivocation between process and expression is exactly where his art should be situated. His sources are multitudinous, ranging from primitive Paleolithic art to Italian Mannerist painting to recent Earth Art. He is interested in primitive art as well, drawing from Mayan architecture and Buddhist shrines, ashrams, and pagodas. Yet the most challenging source in his painting is from the most immediate past the industrial landscape, the topology of refuse and eroded artifacts, machines which lay waste in vacant lots, hunks of scrap steel in shipyards, raiIroad stations and sections of track long deserted eroding in their historical past.
These signs of industry represent, for Geiser, a way of life, an attitude toward materials and toward a physical attachment to things that is being displaced in our age of information and software systems. There are many ways of coming to terms with the material world. In the West, when we speak of "materialism" we are generally speaking about an accumulation of things, the acquiring of blind wealth, a lavish lifestyle which is contingent upon the material shortcomings hence, the suffering of others. The material West is a civilization of extreme dualities all of which fit nicely within the same package, having the same basic cause-and-effect relationship. In the East, the idea of material is quite different. Material is something that is cherished and refined, something that brings elegance to life, and which has a spiritual counterpart. Herman Hesse's Siddartha speaks of how these two concepts of material suggest differences of attitude and meaning.
Materiality is a concept that is very close to the surface of David Geiser's paintings, but it is not a Westernized sense of material that is being represented. The sense of his painterly surfaces is more physical, perhaps, than material. There is a feeling of resistance about these paintings.
Not all material is about production; the other side of the material is entropic, its inevitable decay, its detritus. Geiser's Vessels is comprised of several assembled panels with gold leaf applied on top of the oil paint. What kind of relics are we seeing half-hidden and gouged between the grid-like fissures? They have an organic appearance or they could be from an old Viking ship two objects which have been buried underwater for centuries. What is their worth? What is their lineage? Who used them and for what purposes? Cyprus resembles Vessels but in a square format.
The placement of the object's representation is to the far right. Again, the structure of the shape appears as an eroded object, something ribbed, perhaps the hull of a ship.
He/met is another example of the manifestation of material, the erosion of the elegant form, giving distance to the object as if to claim its importance an act of historical dissolution of a conqueror's ideology. In all cases there is the metaphorical possibility in seeing the work. This quality of metaphor is not something that Geiser wishes to deny. In contrast to the process affiliations of the Postminimalists, Geiser's directive is not so much entwined with literal presence; rather the occasion is to make speech in the form of a narrative encounter, a clue or pictorial device that recalls memory in the tradition of Proust's vision.