Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Fairlane Marauder: John Coburn at OPEN SOURCE

There are very few things that will get me out of my cozy home on a frigid, dark winter night, especially to drive out, over and down to Brooklyn, but I have been following John Coburn's work for a couple years and wanted to be at his opening this past Saturday night.

His new solo show, Fairlane Marauder, is on view at OPEN SOURCE until February 3. The 14 works in the show have car name titles, which they loosely reference. All the pieces are made from medium-density fibreboard (MDF) and are cut, bevelled and meticulously painted so they have a very machined look and yet they are really the result of John's patient labor and detailing skills. When you find out (I had to be told by him) that all the wood grains are hand painted patterns you realize that nothing in Fairlane Marauder is simple or superficial.

Although the car references are pronounced, the works also allude to weaponry, shields and electric guitars and even conjure up camper table/school desk tops and outline things that don't yet exist. Their conclusive raison d'ĂȘtre, however, is as art. This is their strength: you approach them as functional objects and your mind spends a couple minutes trying to figure out what they could be and then you simply relax and enjoy them for what they are...really cool shapes and beautiful objects with layers of meaning. They are a post-consumer materialism and take what Arp was trying to do to another level by laying the bait of practical possibilities.

I love these pieces and I love where they came from. I saw their ancestors a couple years ago and I felt uncomfortable because I thought they wanted to be something else, like this series. I visited John's studio in Jersey City not too long after first meeting him. We spent some hours discussing art (his knowledge much deeper and broader than mine) and I looked at his work. He was definitely coming from one place and moving towards another; and by this I mean with styles, materials and ideas. This is what interested me most, that he has a strong steady current. A lot of artists I know literally throw things on the wall to see what sticks or do more of the same, but just another series. John's approach, by contrast, is much more purposeful and intelligent. He is looking for something, which is why I periodically spy over his shoulder, because it is the kind of discovery that only true, thinking artists make possible.

When I asked John the "What next?" question, he carefully did not offer an answer, not because he did not have an idea of what he is going to do, he simply needs to wait and see what evolves.

At this point in this writing, I looked to John's catalogue of the show to see what I could glean and then I realized it is best to simply post his introduction:
John Coburn

The force of habit has a heavy hand in the making of things. Vestiges of a previous practice may persist despite its obsolescence. Hence when carriage makers turned to making automobiles, carriage forms were carried over which no longer served a purpose, but which nonetheless seemed necessary symbolically. Something similar occurred after World War II when Detroit retooled for peacetime. The powerful steel shapes crafted in the production of bombers, tanks and fighter planes found their way into fenders, Dagmars (artillery shaped bumpers) and the grille work of newly designed automobiles. By the 1960s and early 1970s these forms remained a latent specter which undergirded the formal and symbolic language of car design (much like the Military Industrial Complex had become a permanent feature of the American economy). There was a conflict though between these vestigial images and the new suburban idyll the automobile had spawned; one was martial, the other domestic.

The title for this series of works refers to that hybrid of contradictory symbols using a couple of the evocative names given to cars at that time. But the origin of some of the formal content is of a more personal sort as well: that I associate my first strong aesthetic experience while growing up with my father's '67 Dodge Coronet Station Wagon. Shiny black, it had a red vinyl interior and a wide, flat hood that seemed to lock every turn in sights. The reach of its sinewy fender had a slight planar lift as it passed the backseat passenger door. And the impressive presence of this family car coincided with my earliest art-making activity.

These works also incorporate procedures from decorative and sign painting. They evoke the language of the blazon, those heraldic images which signal rank and belonging in a group or participation in great events and command positions in rooms beyond the eye-level read of conventional pictures. Others reference the shapes, finish and styling of electric guitars with their unusual pick guard forms - and hang aloft as well, to be ogled in guitar stores or themed burger joints. Finally, this work may also be seen against a backdrop of Modernist art, such a Jean Arp's evocative yet abstract wooden silhouette pieces and the cubist collage of Braque and Picasso, which employed the faux-bois techniques of the decorator, as well as some early modern American Art, specifically that of Stuart Davis with its celebration of the machine aesthetic. There is a thread connecting these diverse references which extends beyond my personal associations with them. It is my intention that the totality of these combine in a condition which only poetry allows; the ambiguous cohabitation of many in a singular resonance.

In order of appearance above: Pinto, Marquis, Falcon, Mark, Futura.