More From Unfinished Business

My friend Heather White, who curated Unfinished Business: An Exhibition of Paintings in Progress recently wrote a great essay about the ideas behind the exhibition.  Here’s the essay and a couple installation shots of the show. 

Unfinished Business: an exhibition of Painting in Progress

Heather White

Unfinished business is what keeps ghosts haunting; it’s what they return to avenge or redeem, relive or undo. Painting is a quintessentially messy medium and often has unfinished business to it. We even call the product a painting – as if it were still ongoing, as if it were an activity that happens over time, like waiting or growing or making music.

Amid all this dynamism, the question of when the work is finished can haunt a painter. Austin Furtak-Cole engages this problem with his recent foray into video. Apparitions documents, at intervals, changes to the single rectangle of work that eventually became the painting (Apparition) on display.  The project emphasizes the arbitrariness of endings; the video’s conclusion is the hanging composition, but any given moment of the animation might stand on its own as a work. Likewise, the three small, unfinished paintings on view already have value and force, though their evolution may not be complete.


Sarah Cale’s experimental process also challenges standard chronologies of painting; the bulk of her work begins where most painters end. What’s messy about painting is, for Cale, only a prelude: after laying down her brushstrokes in unmingled tallies, she lets them dry untouched. She leaves them to lose their capacity to blend and murk, and only later returns to peel the painted marks off their plastic. After this change of state, the brushstrokes can’t combine as they once could. But they gain new possibilities as objects; Cale moves in an afterlife of brushstrokes where marks are resurrected into three dimensions. It’s as such that they get compressed into sculpture, hung languid over objects, and collaged onto various backgrounds.
The frames of Furtak-Cole’s animation behave not unlike Cale’s initial brushstrokes. Made to be returned to, they are discrete elements of a whole that explicitly showcase a past origin. For Apparitions, Furtak-Cole actively preserved the stages of a painting as he made it. It’s a prologue to the work it became. It’s a story. Moreover, it’s an allegory. The animation is about animation and the spirit of making and how painting has something living in it; Furtak-Cole embellished Apparition’s formal development into a narrative about formal development. Using characters to describe a painting’s genesis, the narrative arc links figuration to abstraction: we watch discernable forms fountain into an ambiguous ribbed mass. If Cale’s process turns marks into tangible things, Furtak-Cole’s story starts with the figurative and devolves it.

The animation winds two major insights together: that painting is an accumulation of decisions and history, and that figures lurk even in abstraction. The video is a myth of origin that serves as a legend for the rest of Furtak-Cole’s oevre — and for other painting besides.Offering a pastiche rather than a linear trajectory, the arranged brushstrokes of Cale’s installation are details of future compositions that invoke hides, intestines, scabs, and growths. Both visceral and prototypical, the experiment recalls the canonical link between a painting’s innards and its early, revised versions. But while traditional paintings are sometimes x-rayed to identify the older, inner versions of works, Cale’s plasticky beginnings are already exposed across the wall of the space, and won’t change by receding under further skins of paint.

The elements will, though, be revised; this project interrupts Cale’s process at a moment after the gestures have been made but before they’ve come to rest. A testing ground for new directions, the installation is an index of possible ways to proceed. It’s fitting that the fragments on view weave their way across the wall between Cale’s utilitarian garbage-bag pallete and a shelf that presents sinews of paint in jewellery boxes: the value of the possibilities has not yet been fixed. The ghost in Cale’s Chair 2 is still contemplating.

It’s risky business to show one’s process, and an exercise in both humility and confidence. Cale and Furtak-Cole were both willing to proclaim – rather than confess – that paintings don’t transpire in single instants, and that painters aren’t magicians whose illusions are ruined by exposure. That’s a blow to the romance of the divinely inspired artist, but not to the notion of spirited work; we’re invited to consider something essentially human in this art -– however obscured, fragmented, monstrous, or ghostly.

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