21.11.2013 – 1.02.2014
CLAYTON BROTHERS – I’m Ok
curated by Ivan Quaroni
Antonio Colombo Arte Contemporanea is proud to present I’m OK, the first solo (actually duo) show in Italy by the Clayton Brothers, who are among the most important exponents of Pop Surrealism, an art movement that began in the United States in the 1990s, in a return to the original American pop imaginary, mixing art, underground comics, music, psychedelia, punk, surf and skate culture, cartoons and folk art in a lively and variegated concentrate.
The art of the Clayton Brothers represents one of the most original and eccentric contributions to the Lowbrow galaxy today, giving rise to a unique visual universe in which neo-expressionist overtones, narrative and abstract drifts and pop attitudes all converge.
I’m OK includes about 30 new works of painting, drawing and sculpture, specifically made for this show, all focusing on analysis of the relationship between the work and the observer, which is one of the central themes of their research, defined as a sort of “abstract narrative” constructed by reworking characters, situations and circumstances gleaned from everyday experiences.
“With this new set of works,” the artists say, “we want to present a vast group of fragmented images that are abstract and narrative at the same time.” The goal is to encourage the viewer to reflect on a universal question – how are you? – to trigger thoughts about the mental and physical state of everyone. Nevertheless, Rob and Chris also warn us that no method exists for deciphering their works. It is up to viewers to reconstruct a story, starting with their own emotional state.
For Rob and Christian Clayton, collaboration is something more than a mere process. It is more like the result of a creative symbiosis that consists of constructing intuitive narratives, without any predetermined plot.
The Clayton Brothers, in fact, paint simultaneously, taking turns with interventions on works through a method that leaves plenty of room for the improvisation and imagination of both. “The process of production of our works is never the same,” the brothers explain, “because we allow our characters to construct themselves, day by day, which is exactly what happens in relationships that are constructed over time.”
The results are visual representations of pure energy, where the impressions of everyday life are translated in an explosive vortex of bright, psychedelic colors. Their aim is to transfer, through their art, individual experiences into a collective, global dimension, thus conveying an accurate image of contemporary America.
“We see these images as a reflection of ourselves,” Rob and Chris say, “but also of our neighbors, our friends and families. In short, they are a reflection of the world around us.”
The exhibition catalogue, with an essay by Ivan Quaroni, will be available at the gallery.
Rob (1963, Dayton, Ohio) and Christian (1967, Denver, Colorado) Clayton studied at the Art Center College of Design of Pasadena (California), graduating with honors. They have had important solo shows at the Musee de la Halle Saint Pierre in Paris (2013), the Pasadena Museum of Art (2011) and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (2010), and in many galleries in Los Angeles, New York, Houston, Santa Monica and Beijing (China). Their works have also be featured in group shows at the Santa Monica Museum of Art (Incognito, 2010), the Laguna Art Museum of Laguna Beach (In the Land of Retinal Delights, 2008) and the Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art in Manhattan, Kansas (BLAB! A Retrospective, 2008), as well as major international art fairs like Art Basel, in Switzerland, in 2009 and 2010, and the Armory Show in New York in 2006 and 2007.
From the Cadavre exquis to Expanded Painting.
by Ivan Quaroni
At the start there is always a game, a complicit sharing of rules that lead to a special relationship whose result is always greater than the sum of the parts. The Surrealists adopted a particular one, that of the excellent cadavers, a/k/a cadavres exquis, a creative pastime played with words or images. It works like this: one person creates the first image and passes it to the next participant, but hiding one part of it. The next makes additions, again partially concealing the results, and passes the image on to the next player. A group can play, but also just two people. At the end of the game, an unexpected, surprising image appears, the result of a process of creation and interpretation, which amplifies the contribution of the individuals, incorporating them in a collective graphic plot.
It sounds interesting, but we are prone to wondering what is the purpose of such a game.
For the Surrealists, with their focus on Freudian psychoanalytical research, the idea was to visually demonstrate the importance of the unconscious imaginary and the automatic processes of human thought. But there is more. Much more prosaically, the game of the cadavre exquis is – like all games – an experience of sharing applied to the field of creativity. Its legacy has been picked up by many conceptual art duos, like Gilbert & George, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Marina Abramovic and Ulay, Jake & Dinos Chapman, but much less often by duos of painters. The Claytons, then, represent a rarity on the contemporary art scene. Not just because they are two painters, but also because unlike the above-mentioned artistic couples, they are brothers who have demonstrated their ability to extend their natural link of shared parentage in the creative sphere as well.
For Rob and Christian – born respectively in Dayton, Ohio in 1963 and Denver, Colorado in 1967, both with degrees from the Art Center College of Design of Pasadena (California) – collaboration is something more than just a process. It is more like the result of a creative symbiosis that consists in constructing intuitive narratives, often without a pre-set plot. The Clayton Bros paint at the same time, in fact, taking turns intervening on the works through a method that leaves plenty of room for improvisation and the imagination of both.
“The process of the making of our works is never the same,” the Claytons say, “because we let our characters construct themselves day by day, exactly as happens in relationships that are built over time.” In their works they transfer individual experiences into the collective and global dimension, thus offering a faithful image of contemporary society. “We see these images as a reflection of ourselves,” Rob and Chris explain, “but also of our neighbors, our friends and families; in short, they are a reflection of the world around us.”
Curiously enough, the Claytons represent a missing link between the Surrealist experiments of the 20th century and the fresh, immediate approach of Pop Surrealism, one of the most interesting American movements to emerge in the delicate passage between the old and the new millennium. A movement, to be honest, that is so large, varied and in continuous evolution as to even become contradictory, in which Rob and Chris have found themselves immersed, almost against their will. The two do not like definitions, in fact, and they hate being boxed into a specific stylistic or disciplinary niche, even if it is that of Pop Surrealism, to which they owe some portion of their success.
Instead, were we to set out to map their artistic influences, we would have to operate at a hypothetical crossroads between Post-Expressionism, Folk Art and Pop Art, with input ranging from the left wing of the Neue Sachlichkeit (Otto Dix in primis) to the plastic experimentation of Ed Kienholz, passing through the simultaneous, multicentric visions of Robert Williams, the true founding father of the Pop Surrealist galaxy. Yet defining the pictorial style of the Clayton Bros in these terms would be a reductive operation, because it would not sufficiently underline the most original aspect of their research, which lies instead in the ability to integrate the experiences of everyday life, the true motor of their process of sharing, into art.
Of course, Rob and Christian are the first to admit the importance, for their visual culture, of punk rock, surf and skate culture, street art, tattoos and illustration, but this could be said more or less for all the artists of the Lowbrow area. The most original feature of their work, instead, is the ability to transfer into the language of art the impressions of day-to-day existence. The starting point for a work can be a word, a phrase, a circumstance or an impression gleaned during a trip abroad or a walk in their neighborhood. Life, with its infinite facets, is a much more powerful immersive reality, for them, than any environment of graphic or digital simulation. This is why the Claytons have invented such an exuberant, overwhelming chromatic and narrative language. In practice, they try to surpass or at least equal the complexity of human experience, with a kind of painting capable of stimulating the observer to reconsider doubts, to reformulate the questions to which every human being must respond.
We can safely say that the art of the Clayton Bros – which they define with the term “Abstract Narrative” – represents a reformulation of the existentialist positions of Post-Expressionism, bent on wedding the individual and authorial viewpoint with the universal, polycentric viewpoint of collective experience.
Like Robert Williams, the Claytons also raise the issue of the representation of reality as a synthesis of a multiplicity of experiences and interpretations, but they do it “intuitively,” so to speak, i.e. without calling into play subatomic physics, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity or Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.
With respect to the revered founder of Lowbrow Art, the Claytons have a less theoretical, more practical approach. In the end, their very modus operandi, which consists in a progressive layering of pictorial levels, made of continuous revisions, changes of perspective and overlapping of styles, represents an empirical demonstration of that multiplicity of gazes mentioned above. Furthermore, the importance the Claytons attribute to the role of the observer demonstrates that their work is truly the offspring of its time. A time in which author and viewer increasingly interact through forms of digital co-creation, such as forums and social networks. So the work of the Clayton Brothers calls for “participation” not just because the two authors make it in the form of a “duet,” but also because they see its viewing as a sort of final “fulfillment” and “completion.”
It is no coincidence that the works of the show focuse on analysis of the work-viewer relationship. “With this new body of works,” they say, “we want to present a vast group of fragmented images, simultaneously abstract and narrative.” Their objective is to trigger reflection in the viewer on the meaning of a rather common question – “How are you?” – to which we usually respond with an automatic “I’m OK”, shifting the observer’s focus from external to internal images. The paintings, drawings and sculptures of the Claytons set out to stimulate this mechanism of identification because it represents a preliminary condition for the formulation of possible responses.
If it is true that contemporary art – as we often hear it said – raises questions without offering solutions, the act of observing becomes a cognitive process in which the observer is stimulated to find his or her own answers. In fact, Rob and Chris warn us that no one certain method exists to decipher their works, no one interpretation, because each observer is expected to reconstruct a meaning, starting with their own emotional state.
“I’m OK” presents an array of characters and situations that offer not only a myriad of narrative impulses, but also countless optical, retinal suggestions. They are images of pure energy, where the impressions of everyday life explode in a dizzying vortex of bright and psychedelic colors, where the space seems to splay open in all directions, breaking the rules of perspective and solid geometry, even fragmenting the psychological dimension of the individual, through the repetition of hypertrophic physiognomies with wild expressions.
Like the painters of the Neue Leipziger Schule, from Tilo Baumgärtel to Matthias Weischer, David Schnell to Christoph Ruckhäberle, the Clayton Brothers are the standard bearers of a neurotic, disjointed art that sacrifices the formal values of balance and harmony to become the eyewitness of a socially fragmented, culturally polycentric epoch. This is why they make use of an “expanded painting” far from traditional canons, open to contaminations with photography, sculpture and installation. Good examples include works like Over the Moon, Pull and Pick and Wallop and Clobber, where the painting flirts with the plastic dimension of the object and the fetish, or like Can you Spare a Duck? and I Understand, which constitute an interesting mixture of sculpture and photography, and finally paintings like Greeter Hello, Greeter Goodbye and Orange Crutch, which extend the boundaries of the painting with long vertical offshoots.
The quality not found in many recent entries to the Pop Surrealist sphere, but which is clearly visible in the research of Rob and Chris, is a vivid interest in formal and linguistic issues, leading to experimentation with new solutions in a multidisciplinary outlook, making them an exception in a movement that seems to be increasingly losing its grip on its own cultural specificity, retreating into the solutions of a “school” it would be euphemistic to define as “academic.” Unlike many purveyors of fantastic and surreal imagery, the Claytons never lose touch with reality. Their art is firmly rooted in the present, springing from the apparently conventional folds of everyday life, and striving for the universal dimension of art thanks to the alchemical collaboration of two special individuals capable of shifting experiences lived in a familiar and relational microcosm into a wider context that coincides with a clear and at the same time dynamic fresco of contemporary America.
The Beauty is in the Detail
by Marco Cingolani
Statements by painters about their own poetics are often enlightening because although they hang on to an evocative, non-didactic quality, they also manage to be precise, immediately making the particular characteristics of their art visible. The Clayton Brothers define their art as “abstract narrative,” which is a clear interpretation of their painting in which color and lines form the space where, unlike the modernist grid, facts and events – and therefore narratives – can happen.
Stories have long been banished from avant-garde art, in favor of analysis of the language and praxis of painting, eliminating details and particulars, as if painting, in order to be accepted, had to be two-dimensional, like a logo, a message. Instead, an art linked to “perspective vision” in the Renaissance sense has been taken forward by comics, resisting the modernist demolition to embrace the Michelangelism of the Marvel superheroes. The connection between the Clayton Brothers and comics is clear, yet I also think back on the American tradition of painting, and especially the works of Joseph Stella in which colors and lines evoke stories, while making them geometric and abstract. Or Stuart Davis, who breaks up the Cubist matrix to introduce the timbric overlays of the American cityscape in the two-dimensional field. The other reference is Francis Picabia in the period of the period of the overlapping faces, and to complete the range I also think about Paul Cadmus, for the grotesque impact of the characters and the surreal, monstrifying interweaving of reality. Certainly the painting of the Claytons sums up all the “junkie” qualities, and this is the right way to revitalize art, subjecting the high model to the dissonant encounter with low, provocative contemporary impact. Another American painter who has successful put this “lowering” into practice is Larry Pittman, the great builder of cuts and cutouts of imagery. It has long been thought that painting should proceed by subtraction, but instead, and luckily, the painting of the Clayton Brothers practices the erotic seduction of accumulation. Just as reality is a party for the eyes, so their paintings are a party for the history of painting.