It’s rare, when looking at a painting hung flush to the wall, to have the uncanny feeling that you’re looking down and getting an aerial view of an object: but that’s exactly the feeling that Patterson’s BretonHouse paintings leave you with. The BretonHouse works are, in fact, paintings––concentric rectangles hung in clusters that hang mostly parallel to the wall––but Patterson’s choice of material changes everything about how a viewer might interpret the work. These aren’t clusters of panels or canvas; they’re cardboard boxes. The lack of uniformity in the boxes produces a sense of unsettlement, one that draws you in because while it’s obvious from a distance that the work is geometric abstraction, the disturbance that the BretonHouse LightBoxes works produce is one of confusion because geometric abstraction is rarely framed in this way.
There are exceptions, like some of the work of Sophie Tauber-Arp or artists working with textile materials from the 1960s onward, but what we think we know about geometric abstraction is that flatness is key not just to how the painting is situated in the broader context of 20th century painting but that’s it’s a condition of geometric abstraction itself. What I means is that while ab-ex artists used impasto and other “paint-sculpting” techniques, one of the ways that abstraction is viewed against the onward march of figuration is that while figuration still demands that the borders of the painting constitute the edges of a window, we’re supposed to understand that abstraction emphatically announces both the flatness of the picture plane and the materiality of the canvas on which it’s painted. Part of the brilliance of the BretonHouse LightBoxes lies in how they simultaneously fulfill and disrupt those terms.
The paintings do, in fact, present you with flat surfaces on which rectangular paintings that frequently follow the contours of the boxes are presented, and if all of the boxes were of uniform size we might still be able to get comfortable with the depth with which the work extends from the wall, but the fact that there is no seeming pattern to the size and shape of boxes Patterson has chosen to cluster disrupts a viewer’s ability to simply read the picture plane as an unbroken whole. With the BretonHouse LightBoxes Patterson has created order on each box, and then collided that order with the disorder of clusters that lack an easy idea to unify the cluster, such as (like I mentioned) boxes that were the same size and shape or else an application of color that gradually shifted from top to bottom, or even a complete uniformity of color––if the works were a little more polite, they might fit nicely in a newly-built Merzbau. The paintings, though, are not polite, precisely because while the entire cluster pushes the viewer toward considering it as the lone painting (or painted sculpture), Patterson juxtaposes bright colors in a way that makes it somewhat tricky to maneuver from box to box, which leads to the opposite request the clusters make––namely, that each box must be considered as a painting on its own, related to and independent of its neighbors. The flickering between unity and multiplicity is amazing, and leads to the feeling I opened the article with, the impulse that if only I could see this ambiguous object at an angle that felt more “natural” I could be more comfortable with it.
The other part of the brilliance in these works, though, is cardboard as the choice of material. In her artist statement about the work, Patterson mentions the boxes being the right choice as a response to the view of and from the studio she works from, so it’s not entirely incorrect to think of them as models, it’s just that cardboard refuses to behave the way we’re taught that pristinely flat (and expensive) painting surfaces are supposed to behave. This can be seen in the installation shot as well as in the Mistaken Identity works; while these paints are made on a more conventional art material––arches paper––they’re still treated is if the three-dimensionality of paper carries as much visual and intellectual heft as the overall “canvas,” which, together with the BretonHouse LightBoxes, brings to mind something else energizing the work, which is that rather than seeming as if the finished object is the only possible object you see, with both series you’re left with the sense that the stacking and boxing may in fact be obscuring something more––that the structure of Duchamp’s Etant Donnes has collided with Tauber-Arp and with the seriality of first-wave minimalism so that you have a painting made of paintings that may in fact be hiding or containing other paintings made on similar or different materials, and in the Mistaken Identity works in particular this feeling of possibility is reinforced by the size of the stacks and number of smallish squares, because the exponential math of all possible “paintings” that could be made of both present and suggested paintings is beyond anything I could begin to calculate and approaches limitlessness, though unlike an early Judd piece the limitlessness is not meant to intellectualize the construction of the object––to fetishize the math––but instead to suggest that much of what consists of “looking at a painting” consists of not knowing––that painting isn’t just an epistemological fast-food cashier job, that it contains complexity beyond that of either creator or viewer. Part of what I look for in the work I like, and the work I write about, is generosity, and although you can dig deep enough and “find” generosity just about anywhere, it’s readily apparent in spades in Patterson’s work, and while generosity is not my only metric for exploring any work––I haven’t even had the space to touch on Patterson’s “artificial” color palette or the odd stained/painted ambiguity of the paper in Mistaken Identity works––it’s an important one, and as with another artist I wrote about recently, Stanley Whitney, some of Patterson’s brilliance lies in using an economy of means to offer a great deal to the viewer not just to see but to inspect and imagine and think about.