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ART FORUM, PRINT EDITION, JULY 2015
For his first solo show in Los Angeles, “A Guide to Benefits,” Martin Basher hewed to the patterned paintings for which he is best known and also to the critical frame—the visual culture of consumption—that motivates them. The artist’s now-trademark panels, their vertical stripes standardized at uniform intervals, circled the walls of the two rooms, effecting an environment of superfluity—albeit an excess undercut by the differences between the compositions. Some stripes were painted in oil and enamel on canvas and some on tape layered on cardboard; whether a ground of corrugated paper or textile, the regulated palette comprised blacks, whites, grays, and oranges. All but one small image of a handshake isolated in a tightly cropped frame (Untitled [shaky hands], 2010–15) featured a gradation from lower left to upper right playing across the vertical poles. While the grounds of the paintings were uniformly abstract, some compositions flashed legs or ice cubes suspended in brown-liquor-filled barware, alternately behind and in front of the bands of expertly rendered gradient. In the case of the two adjacent untitled paintings of legs, one pinup with feet up and the other flipped down, the shimmery lotion-flecked limbs interwove: knees above stripe, calves below, and so on.
Four floor-bound sculptures extended Basher’s thematics of desire, typically frustrated, into three dimensions. Here, intimacy was understood—at best—as a function of relationships among objects engaged in a presentational logic. Indeed, “A Guide to Benefits” made patent the connection between the images and objects on display, another recurring theme within Basher’s evolving practice. One painting, Untitled (no soap), 2015, introduces the possibility of a painting becoming the vertical support for other items, in this instance a diminutive painting tacked to the larger one, as well as a glass shelf holding a bottle of mouthwash (citrus, so as to be colorcoordinated with the orange hue of its mount), a candle, and an empty towel bar with hook. Nordstrom Baller, 2015, one of the rectangular armatures positioned in the middle of the gallery, sets a hollow aluminum scaffold, lace panties ever so delicately dangling off the corner, atop a furry black bath mat that further serves as the base for a football, two baseballs, and a shopping bag filled with empty Gatorade bottles. For the Release of Unbearable Urges, 2015, an upright Plexiglas cube backed with fluorescent tubes, positions bottles of Hennessy, Jack Daniel’s, and Jameson atop a plastic crate, an assembled vignette worthy of Jeff Koons. As the checklist advises, this work and others were filled with “various consumer goods,” sometimes specified (as with the Drakkar Noir and the Giorgio Armani lacquered calfskin loafers of After Work, 2015) and sometimes not.
These assemblages of vitrines and products of various extractions suggest a competition between desires instilled by corporate interests and those of private fantasy, or maybe they insist that the latter is merely a surprisingly literal domestication of the former. As the press release states: “A triumph of disposable income is hanging on the living room wall. Those rich, deep hues are a damn good thing to look at while getting in her pants.” Writing in these pages in 2007, Bruce Hainley discussed Haim Steinbach’s displays in relation to the “unconscious of objects,” and Basher would seem to be carrying forth this brand of critical postmodernism. In so doing, he raises the same question that Steinbach’s incisive work of selection and arrangement still prompts, namely whether an art predicated upon mimeticism of object and context produces critique or instead merely extends the reach of its purported enemy. The tone is assured, and so is the work. Yet if Basher’s show quite literally traded on the conceit of benefits (customerloyalty programs and credit-card protections no less than those of a more explicitly sexual variety are flagged by the title), one was left to wonder about the relationships Basher himself poses. “Blank and mirrored” was how the artist described the affect of the Public Art Fund project he completed for the MetroTech Plaza in Brooklyn in 2010, a trio of mirrored cubes in which during daylight the viewer’s reflection obscured the enclosed assemblages, which were visible only at night, when they were illuminated by the lights within. In the works that were on display here, we had only blankness.