Art: Wednesday, March 6, 2003
Minimal Thought

All that glitters is not quite gold in Jesse Meraz’ latest exhibit.


Four Walls Exhibition Space’s Bling: AutoChromatic Paintings by Fort Worth-based artist Jesse Meraz is worth seeing — especially if you go with a couple of long-talkers who know a thing or two about art. Good, strong, healthy conversation, with a lot of hand gesturing and cussing, will likely ensue.

Here’s what’s there — a square-ish canvas painted black with glitter on it; an equally shaped and sized red canvas, also covered in glitter; a similar one painted purple, one painted blue, a green one, and a white one. The majority of the rather smallish room is burdened by bareness. The whole shebang reeks of (gasp!) minimalism.

Yeah, it’s 2003, and young artists like Meraz are still fascinated by that ol’ Age of Aquarius standby. The difference is that when Rothko was hanging small maroon squares surrounded by orange, the rest of the art world, including Rothko, was enthralled with the subjectivity rampant in abstract-expressionism. Minimalism, cool and impersonal, functioned as an antidote. It wasn’t quite a movement; rather, a fashion. The danger with dabbling in minimalism today is that the context of art is sexy trendiness (and, tangentially, media pervasiveness and its father, technology). What some artists don’t realize is that they don’t have to compete with the internet and tv for viewers; art is not a contact sport. The very reason people go to galleries is to escape sound-byte culture. They’re going to places like Four Walls to be engaged, not distracted.

Or at least that’s why they should be going there. If there’s anyone or anything to blame for Meraz’ desire to compete for viewers, it’s that cast of curators and tastemakers the world over that throws together those damn biennials. There, ideas matter more than emotions. The truth is that ideas only matter more than emotions in courts of law, not in museums or galleries. The backlash against academic art has been under way for a few years, but it’ll be a while before artists who actually make things with their hands and sweat for their art will be taken seriously again. Fashion is simply too overpowering and easy to sing along to.

So let’s get nuts for a second and defend the minimalist. There is a certain genius in being able to cook up something original with only a couple of ingredients at hand. No art reference book I skimmed through while researching this story said anything about monochromatic paintings covered in glitter. So, from an academic standpoint, what Meraz has done here is kind of novel and could have some appeal (maybe to one of those snobby curators or a doctoral candidate in visual arts). Also, anyone who’s ever been snowed in and without cable and who then turned his thoughts to minimalism for a few minutes knows that really “good” minimalist paintings are imbued with strong optical qualities. (Rothko’s small maroon squares were seen as doorways; Kelly’s iconic alphabet “letters” as burning lights.) Meraz’ glitter paintings are walks through starlit passageways. The contrast between the bright and dim specks of glitter creates a depth of field that’s almost real enough for you to stick your hand through. It all makes for a very cordial viewing environment.

So the big question: Do we like looking at these paintings? Well, I’d have to say, with some equivocation, yes. Experiencing Bling is mostly pleasurable, like taking in one of those plastic white Christmas trees strung with solid blue ornaments. The image, no matter how simplistic, is entrancing and stays with you. And, to me, speaking as a guy who likes being visually stimulated and not as a visual arts critic, that’s a good thing. Now, the next big and perhaps bigger question: Would we spend a couple hundred bucks to own one or more of these works? Absolutely not. With a little paint and a lot of glitter, we could just as easily make our own Merazes. (A la Sol LeWitt — when you buy a LeWitt, you don’t buy a painted canvas; instead, you buy instructions on how to create your own “LeWitt.”) Which conveniently brings us back to all the hubbub about today’s art market, driven by zany curators and “avant garde” dealers who are so zealous in their support of non-commercial art that they’re failing to realize that if everything’s art, nothing is. To keep the discussion relative to Fort Worth-Dallas, I’ll say that very few artists in this area can get away with brutal minimalism; Jesse Meraz is not one of them. The art market, like every other micro-economy, revolves around brand names and commodities, and young Jesse just isn’t that well known. The reason he’s merely blip on the radar probably resides in the fact that the artist hasn’t proven himself at traditional forms. Some folks would say he doesn’t know the rules he’s breaking. (Artists’ not playing by the rules, of course, is a sin, especially in ultra-conservative Dubya-land.) The art market, I hasten to add, is a senseless, emotionless boulder of cash and speculation whose only purpose is momentum. It’s not the place for a young, sincere artist on the verge.

Those who take the show’s title literally may find themselves a bit confused, considering that nothing in Bling comes close to the mixed-up, decadent urban world that spawned “bling-bling” (a slang word for jewelry). Meraz’ is merely a rash attempt at defining “fashion” through “fashion,” when the trick is to explain the subject without depending on viewers to make slick associations. But I guess that’s what they do up in New York.

The simple fact remains: The inanition throughout the art world is due to the reality that art has been mediatized and largely reduced to signs, mere shorthand descriptions of actual experiences. Reflective, contemplative introspection is not required. A willingness to “interact” is. As if a painting were a video game. Monochromatic paintings, other than the very first few, have never been art. They’ve been statements about art, nothing more; decorations like so many Christmas ornaments. So pretty, so ephemeral. Always so ... bling.

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