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In the Details 

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Like many younger artists, Frank Magnotta treats television as a given--but unlike most, his approach is neither reverential nor cutely ironic. Instead his eight pencil drawings at Standard, his first one-person show, subject the pervasive power of the medium to imaginative scrutiny.

Magnotta's method in five of the drawings is to convert some fragment of printed broadcast schedules into fantasy architecture usually having something to do with the "mood" of the programming. "Staring hopefully at a TV Guide," he writes in a statement, "I began to wonder what that structure would look like three-dimensionally....I began to create floor plans for buildings." Based on these plans, Magnotta drew the buildings' exteriors. "I am interested in the idea of individuals building something as they watch, building complicated structures that are both our dreams and our fears."

The most powerful pieces are four large drawings, each 50 by 60 inches, two of which consist primarily of text while the other two show buildings. Monday Morning Complex, based on the listings for morning news and talk shows, looks like a rather hideous amalgam of industrial building and bank; mostly windowless, it might also be an oversize TV studio. The main part has 12 sides--it's a square with indented corners--while the upper portion is an octagon topped with a squat tower that Magnotta says is based on prison observation posts. Isolated against a black background, the structure has a mostly blank, featureless surface, though the lowest level has logos for The View and Good Morning America and a higher level, for Jerry Springer and Maury.

Magnotta says he borrows aspects of his buildings from existing structures--in this case not only prisons but banks and schools--photographing some himself. Indeed, part of what's so effective about the large drawings, which can take months to execute, is their strangely assertive obsessive detail, which creates an almost frightening presence.

Wednesday Afternoon Arena is a bit more benign than Monday Morning Complex. A sports arena with a convex roof, it has turnstiles at street level and the names of some TV sports shows on the side. But Magnotta's view from above emphasizes the way the human-scale turnstiles are dwarfed by the building's height and bulk. And like the structure in Monday Morning Complex, this one has a somewhat skewed perspective, growing wider at the rear; this combined with the buildings' isolation underlines their fantasy nature--the fact that they're mental constructs.

Magnotta, who was born in Grand Rapids in 1970, mentions as an early influence Philip Guston, who was famous--or notorious--for turning his back on his own early ventures into abstract expressionism by painting bizarre, cartoonlike fragments. Magnotta attended graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I came across his 1997 MFA show, a wonderfully sensual series of drawings of whole pages of personals ads from various newspapers. What set his work apart then too was its carefully crafted fidelity to its source, down to the 1:1 scale--its affectionate attention to detail.

Magnotta is unfamiliar with such earlier masterpieces of fantasy architecture as Piranesi's mid-18th-century prison etchings and has only recently encountered the work of California artist Mark Bennett, who draws floor plans of the houses in sitcoms. Magnotta does, however, consciously draw on the perspectival awkwardness of pre-Renaissance painting.

TV played a big role in Magnotta's childhood. "My parents regulated it, but the absence made you want it more. I would tape-record shows and play them back at night to hear the dialogue." His present-day attitude toward TV is "neutral. It's something that's so omnipresent, I'm just trying to understand it." That comes through in his work, which represents TV as a huge, monolithic cultural presence resembling a monumental building; the architectural metaphor seems especially appropriate since these mental landscapes are communal.

But the oddities and imperfections of these drawings remove them from the realm of the commanding religious icon. Another of the four large drawings, Broadcast: 24-7, is all text--a giant, overgrown page of TV listings, with line after line of shows but no days or times. The white texts are imperfectly lettered, and the black of the background is uneven. It isn't that Magnotta couldn't have created a more solid black or more precise lettering--he does that in other drawings. But here the drawing's power comes not from its precision but from its massive array of text, depicting a whole week's programming.

Born in 1955, Gary Gissler is almost a generation older than Magnotta, and some of his aims are different. But both use pencil, both are former Illinoisans, both now live in New York, and both mention as an important influence former Chicagoan Tom Friedman, whose famously obsessive sculptures and installations often use materials repetitively. ("I want to be him when I grow up," Gissler says.) A Chicago native, Gissler moved back here in 1982--and left again after he lost all his things, and nearly his life, in a 1987 suspected arson fire.

The concept behind Magnotta's drawings is at least as important as their craft, and this is also true of Gissler's works, which straddle painting and drawing. His dense, luminous white gesso ground on wood panel gives the pencil lines a subtle depth: they seem to float delicately in space. At first the works appear abstract, quiet and poetic, suggesting a combination of Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman with a touch of Cy Twombly (whom Gissler names as an early inspiration). Three of the five works at Arena have allover patterns of tiny irregular lines, while two show just a few lines and smudges against the white background. Then one notices the titles--Fuck Lust, for example--and realizes that the elegant lines are actually very tiny script; in the three allover pieces, they're repetitions of the title.

This process of understanding is key to the meaning. At first the works recall Wes Mills, whose restrained pencil abstractions transport the viewer into a wordless spiritual realm. But Gissler's subtle designs are a kind of Trojan horse loaded with phrases that are not necessarily pleasant, implying that even artists ostensibly engaged in spiritual pursuits aren't necessarily free of life's messiness. Indeed, even a "pure" high artist like Ad Reinhardt--famous for his all-black paintings--drew satiric cartoons about artists and their influences.

The dense latticework of horizontal lines in Fuck Lust blends regularity and irregularity, creating the effect of a handwoven tapestry. Since the lowercase f is the longest letter in the phrase, groups of them form little jagged columns. A similar effect is produced by the fs and gs of Ass Fucking Pain in the Ass, but here the columns are more irregular, diagonals that swoop across the panel. Running the phrases together creates verbal ambiguities. "Fuck lust," Gissler told me, can be read as a rejection of lust: "It means sex is rare and magical." "Lust fuck," on the other hand, suggests a sex act engaged in for lust alone. Similarly, the phrases in The Love Fuck can also be read as "fuck the love." These potential contradictory meanings also immerse the viewer in the imperfections of daily life.

Gissler's father was a journalist who encouraged him to read, but he had little exposure to art. In high school he practiced transcendental meditation for two years--and took "mind-altering drugs" for another two, "engaging in the inquiry about what it is to be human," he says, "which is still the premise of why I make work." Eventually, with his parents' encouragement, he began working as a jeweler's apprentice, which led to art studies at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, "where it all popped open," he says.

When Gissler moved to New York in the late 80s, he became fascinated with hip-hop: "I liked the emphasis on language--we've got something to say and fuck you all if you don't like it." That's when he started making text-based work. Applying the gesso background "probably takes as long as writing the text"--and the hours of writing can sometimes produce "an extraordinary catharsis, almost like chanting a mantra."

One needs a magnifying glass, available at the gallery desk, to read Gissler's tiny writing. Earlier this year, in an Art News survey of work so densely packed it's "almost impossible to decipher," Gissler said that his art is a response to "a culture that can no longer discern digital from actual." He mentioned to me that viewers often ask, "So you do this on the computer and reduce it?" He believes that this conjecture "reflects a mechanical expectation in our culture, as if you could get by by hitting the repeat button."

But while many artists seek to debunk the myth of art's purity by reproducing appropriated materials--for example, by making a video composed of reedited images from broadcast TV--Magnotta and Gissler use low-tech pencil and labor-intensive processes. Essentially they ask that we not accept our media-made world as a given but pay attention to every carefully crafted detail, every moment.


Frank Magnotta: Showtime
at Standard, through October 20
Gary Gissler
at Arena, through October 14

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Ass Fucking Pain in the Ass" by Gary Gissler; "Monday Morning Complex" by Frank Magnotta.

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