Taming the Uncontrollable

on Clayton Colvin's "Space Mountain"
Beta Pictoris Gallery, Birmingham, AL
December 9, 2011 – January 21, 2012


[Scene] Yoga Studio 
Woman 1: So, did you find out what you can't eat while pregnant?
Woman 2: Pregnant panda gives birth to biggest cub born in captivity...
Woman 1: What?... No. Like, I heard you can't eat a lot of fish...
Woman 2: ...fly fish the Adirondacks, let guide Eugene Kogan show you his favorite fishing holes...
Woman 1: ...are you okay?...
Woman 2: ...Oklahoma, abbreviated OK... [singing] Ooh-kla-homa, where the wind comes sweeping down the plains....
Woman 1: Stop it...
[Woman 2 continues singing]

[Cut to caption]
What has Search Overload done to us?

This 2011 television commercial for the search engine Bing comically, yet poignantly, speaks to our modern condition and the superabundance of information, images and various stimuli in our quotidian existence. This cultural situation is undoubtedly affecting us in ways we may not yet fully understand or appreciate. This confluence of data has even shaped our aesthetic landscape with many artists either embracing or outright rejecting this visual language of excess. Take for instance the work of Julie Mehretu, Mark Bradford or Matthew Ritchie. Their practices are defined in part by a layered framework that both obfuscates and reveals information, narrative and social conditions.

Clayton Colvin’s work is grounded in this tradition, for the lack of a better word. The work appears to be frenetic or just plain manic and at times outright absurd, yet it is meticulously organized and controlled. The spaces in his work are in a constant state of flux, shifting unpredictably between an expansive field on one end of the continuum and the flatness of notations on a scrap of graph paper on the other. His work exhibits his interest in not only culling information, but also in systematizing it as an effort to assign equal value to a disparate body of concerns. It is chock-full of patterns and marginalia; it is both aleatory and highly structured.

We all remember the famous scene from the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind where the main character John Nash is scrawling mathematical proofs on the window of the library at Princeton University that eventually come to life to haunt and inspire him. The immediacy, compulsion and free-flow of his mind, as represented in this abstraction of the creative process, though over-romanticized and for several reasons problematic, is akin to the experience one has taking in Colvin's work. His visual maps mark the terrain of ideas, showing us the way the mind thinks through problems, environments and copes with the distractions of the everyday. At times these paintings seem to have a razor focus, but at the same time they appear to chart the mind as it drifts into another thought, daydream or becomes preoccupied by the interjection of life. The focus, when present, is not unlike the clarity an athlete speaks about while in the midst of a long run. It waxes and wanes, but that is exactly what makes this work so very intriguing. 

We experience in these works the complex workings of the mind and the conflation of interior and the exterior, a striving to reach that point of clarity and an acceptance that at times you can still see through that library window, through the structural artifice of rational thought, into the beautiful chaos of daily existence. Colvin’s work is an attempt to come to terms with the multitude of experiences we deal with day to day; a way of gaining insight, a way of understanding the present as much as it is about pictorial space and issues surrounding abstraction.

Take for instance the painting Asphalt Green, the bottom half of the canvas is dominated by what appears to be an athletic field, which is receding into the middle-distance occupied by a faint grid that is undulating in and out of the background. The middle-ground, as it were, is defined by a vaguely architectural structure. The rest of this visual arena is composed of a series of rhythmic vertical marks that perhaps refer to a code of some sort, or that count the passing time like a prisoner on the wall of their cell. One feels woozy when taking in this image, yearning for solid ground but left inevitably in a constantly shifting space where the idea of “ground” itself is in question.

Parts of Magnets is a much more straightforward composition at first glance, but its complexity reveals itself over time. The lower left corner appears to reference a section of hardwood flooring that is perhaps below this Technicolor veil being pulled upward which is reiterated by wavelike loose brushstrokes combined with more hard-edged closed forms that mimic this gestural action. These decidedly more clunky shapes function to make the diagonal thrust of this composition more concrete. The upper third of the painting is a loosely drawn grid that bends and flows with the more gestural marks that lie just above it. In this painting, Colvin demonstrates his skill at torquing the painted space in unique and complex ways. It is nearly impossible to speak about this piece in regard to the traditional model of foreground, middle-ground and background.

Likewise, Perch View leaves one feeling uncertain about the concept of gravity altogether. In the bottom half of the painting we are given glimpses into a plethora of perspectival illusions. It appears that these subterranean superstructures are seen only for a brief moment as if you had just wiped off a section of a foggy window. These peaks into the spaces that lurk below the wallpaper-like surface of the painting are beginning to disappear once again under the condensation of loosely drawn arabesques and soft pastels bands animating this piece in an unexpected manner.

All the paintings in this show heavily rely on the tropes of Op Art, especially the swelling, bending and warping spaces created by intense pattern and repetition, but as I see it this is merely a facade. The enigmatic and poetic construction of pictorial space in this body of work is moreover like the glances through that library window. They act as filters allowing us to gaze beyond the veneer. This work is above all about exerting control over the uncontrollable and the quest to identify the underlying order of things.

To view samples of Clayton Colvin's studio practice visit www.claytoncolvin.com