RH Quaytman’s work, in short, has been comprised of paintings since 2001. Silkscreened photographs and optical abstractions on plywood panels poetically interweave formal narrative, art history, the artist’s history and the history of each painting. These elements are organized then as whole “chapters” where individual works are considered within the context of their serial grouping. In doing this, these chapters seek to negate the objectness of the individual painting. Each chapter is structured around a specific event or image, expanding to explore the multitude of ways in which painting is understood. Throughout her practice, Quaytman asks us to consider the entire lifespan of a painting: from inception to a gallery to an apartment wall and then laid to rest in some dejected storage space. This consideration goes beyond institutional critique and questions the complex rules and history of medium and objectness.
These conceptual paintings are self-referential and critical, addressing the symbolic grammar of their own language. By installing paintings in a network of references, Quaytman gestures to the meta-critical status of her own practice. After co-directing the New York gallery Orchard from 2004-2008, which aimed to analyze and critique the art world, why does Quaytman still care about painting? For her part, painting represents only one possibility among many. Questioning one particular medium over another is not a concern, it’s the conceptual and intellectual meaning of the project that matters. This is the red thread of concern that ties Quaytman’s collective work at Orchard into her individual practice today.
Nearly a decade after Orchard, gallerist and publishing pundit Miguel Abreu runs a gallery only a few doors down from Orchard’s grave on the Lower East Side– a neighborhood now recognized for the colonization of market driven galleries and vintage clothing shops. Sequence Press, the newest outlet for Abreu has co-published along with Sternberg Press the first full monograph of RH Quaytman, Spine. And the book is stunning. Spine is 400 pages filled with cohesive catalogues of each “chapter”, images of every painting exhibited, and introductions written by Quaytman herself. The monograph is published in tandem with the exhibition Spine, Chapter 20 currently on view at Kunsthalle Basel, and which takes the monograph itself as a point of departure. It is interesting then that the work Spine, Chapter 20 (Orchard) is an image of the pre-renovated Orchard Gallery. Spine concludes with Quaytman’s praise, “Miguel Abreu Gallery is the only gallery in New York City that seems in any way to embody the ideals that Orchard represented.”
The 1980s saw a return to painting which allowed the art market to really expand, especially in New York. The current advancing financial crisis has affected the art market (or industry) just like other industries, but the art world seems to have hurt much less. And so the art that was shown a few years ago on the Lower East side may be different than the art there today. Perhaps Quaytman’s praise is warranted but at the end of the day, Abreu is still a dealer.