Lee Etheredge’s New York solo debut is divided between small and large pieces that at their best create a sort of typographical topography. For the last two years or so, the artist has been feeding Japanese paper into a typewriter to create fields of letters that combine with each other in different ways depending upon their alignment and pattern. Though the scale of the works change, the size of the mark necessarily remains consistent throughout. As a result, this technique seems to work best in the large format, where the letters seem more able to act both as components of their greater shapes and as individual marks, allowing but not forcing the intimacy required by the smaller pieces. Additionally, because the larger works are assembled from scroll sections (of typewriter width), certain imperfections appear if one looks carefully—a quality lacking in the perfectly typed smaller pieces. Etheredge’s obsessive aligning and counting is most interesting when it goes awry, but this rarely occurs. To the artist’s credit, he does attempt in a few small drawings to locate the typed mark within a more expressive kind of drawing, although these works ultimately feel resolved.
The role of labor and work in these pieces, and of their corollary, technology, seems of primary importance. One certainly thinks of the artist crouched at his typewriter, though only after realizing that the pieces are not laser-printed graphic design exercises. They are, of course, more than graphic design, and in part because of this they act as easily produced computer fun. In that sense, Mr. Etheredge’s work assumes a nice anachronistic aura, like hand-copied Bibles after the invention of the printing press, or painting after photography. They revel in their unnecessity. Precisely because the computer has bettered the typewriter, the typed letter is now free to act more like a human mark, a gesture—and a labor-intensive one at that: Etheredge has burned through four typewriters thus far.
His choice of papers (and their scroll format in the larger works) connects the works to an Eastern tradition, which furthers the meditative quality present in their rhythmic patterns and undoubtedly also in their making. Their labor-intensive nature also raises a very relevant topical issue: our relationship to the work we do, and how that work contributes spiritually to our lives. Is HTML coding less fulfilling than laying a brick wall? Etheredge falls clearly on the side of manual work, and these images shoulder the burden often charged to painting these days: to provide respite from a technology-driven visual culture.
The works allude, as well, to other artists. One thinks of Jan Dibbets, Rothko, and most overtly, of any number of Op-Art practitioners. Op-Artists employed their optical effects in part to enrich an otherwise decorative image, which is a strategy used here as well. Etheredge’s use of word games and puns also seems calibrated to tweak the pictures’ decorative qualities, but are a bit too obvious to help. However, a number of works unfortunately not included in this show introduce content to the patterning in oblique ways. The pieces I’m thinking of suggest fuzzy television static and seismographic charts, appearing as imprints of intangible energies.
Without these works, the show is a bit too self-contained, too controlled. The artist admires Sigmar Polke’s drawings, of which the best are stunning, wild works that seem to devour anything within their reach, and he would be well served to let his technique get away from him a bit more. Nonetheless, Etheredge is honestly engaged with a number of important ideas and the disciplined, rigorous approach he brings to his technique amounts to a promising debut.
April 21 – May 21