As the story goes, James Rosenquist’s images were inspired by his experience as a sign painter in the late 1950s. Blue-collar toil transcended the quotidian and informed not only the scale but also the imagery of Rosenquist’s paintings. The work seemed the most obvious new iteration of modernist opportunism, embracing culture’s latest ready-made: advertising. It did not elevate the artist to greater marketability through grand exhibition, however, but merely led to the appropriation of popular images for display on canvas in galleries. While the paintings sought to deconstruct the PR of capitalism (recall Edward Bernays’ “add an egg”), they also served to keep the capitalist machine humming. In juxtaposing 20th-century American abstraction and 21st-century images of 19th-century landscape painting, Joani Tremblay tries to avoid this kind of regression in her solo show “Intericonicity” at Harper’s Chelsea 512.
Tremblay’s work combines Jennifer Bartlett’s didacticism with Judy Chicago’s feminist transgression and pits them against a romantic reimagining of the North American landscape as seen through Instagram posts. The next effect is pristine neutrality. The paintings are meticulously executed, incorporating iconic visual content from moonlit vistas to jig-sawed cliffs. They seem much like the visual amalgamations used to “teach” Artificial Intelligence programs to generate or read an image. In the context of the romantic landscape, the modernist framing – drawing on surrealists like Magritte as well as Chicago – could be read as a warning sign of the earth’s waning tolerance for human production. But Tremblay paints coolly, without exposing heartstrings. The landscape portions of the paintings do not depict the foreboding wilderness of unexplored space à la Turner, Constable, or Döre, nor do they limn the doom and gloom of natural disaster in the manner of Alexis Rockman. Rather, they provide with apparent indifference what we might expect landscape paintings to look like in new, admittedly disruptive circumstances. It’s as if Chicago or Magritte were feeding hashtags to a grimly understood algorithm, such that the hashtags themselves required no explanation. In that sense, the paintings are post-referential.
Remember Instagram’s initial rollout of Layout and how Mark Grotjahn flooded the platform with an infinity room of images within images? It suggested the internal mechanics of painting. His DOS predecessor Damien Hirst did something similar with his spin paintings. Tremblay, unlike Grotjahn or Hirst, is not attempting to simulate or describe the production of art or its monetization. Instead, she is holding up a postmodern mirror to the image archive of the landscape. If her approach is not entirely new, it is at least fresh in her dry execution, her refusal to indulge in overt nostalgia for source materials or aesthetic antecedents, and her use of compositional devices to circumvent irony and resist engaging in direct critique. It is as if she has made herself so much a part of the system that we can’t see beyond the system, as proposed by the Strugatsky brothers in their 1972 novel Roadside Picnic.
Tremblay, then, is not explicitly judging contemporary humans or art but rather manifesting empathy for artists undertaking the now practically unavoidable endeavor of constructing paintings through the intermediary of machines. She and the machines share an eye; they are not in competition. Deftly coordinating modernist framing with landscape palette to arrive at baroque portals and curtains, Tremblay refuses to normatively rank the two influences, such that the paintings seem like phenomena that, for better or worse, have naturally evolved. This quality, not easy to achieve, makes Tremblay’s paintings genuinely new and her show subtly provocative—Zach Seeger