Art Exhibit: Walead Beshty, 'Legibility on Color Backgrounds,' Hirshhorn Museum

Left, an installation view at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art of Walead Beshty,
Left, an installation view at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art of Walead Beshty, "Fedex® Kraft Box©2005 FEDEX 157872 REV 10/05 CC, Fedex 2-Day"; below, "Six Color Curl." (Right: Courtesy Of The Artist And Wallspace, New York; Below: By Lee Stalsworth -- Hirshhorn Museum)
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By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 23, 2009

There's only one thing worse than art that tries too hard to look lousy.

Art that tries too hard to look good.

The art of Walead Beshty attempts to find a way between the anti-aesthetic and the emptily aesthetic -- without simply filling a mediocre middle. A new show at the Hirshhorn features 36 works by the British-born, Yale-trained, Los Angeles-based 32-year-old.

On first encounter, Beshty's 11 photograms -- images made by exposing photographic paper directly to light -- look like easy-on-the-eyes abstraction. Stripes and wedges of color, in shades of blue, green, red, yellow, cyan and magenta, work their way up large sheets of paper.

In other Beshty photograms, irregular polygons in white, gray and black waltz across the surface of the image, their crisp borders defined by creases in the photographic paper.

Those creases hint that there's some kind of back story to Beshty's attractive surfaces -- that there's more to them than just looking good.

A handout tells how Beshty first bent his large sheets of photographic paper into abstract sculptural constructions, then exposed them to light coming from various directions, and finally flattened them again into the finished pictures he calls "Folds."

There's a similar story behind Beshty's color photograms, which he calls "Curls." Beshty pinned up color photo paper so its bottom rolled and flopped; his stripes depend on how the paper happened to be hanging as it was exposed to variously colored lights.

The handout cites precedents for this work in the abstract photos and photograms of the 1920s and '30s. But looking at some of those -- a few are in the new Jaromír Funke show at the National Gallery -- a friend of mine pointed out that photography rarely manages to get to pure abstraction, since there's always some space or thing the camera's pointed at, or some object casting a photogram's shadows. Beshty has pushed toward making photos without any contact at all with other objects in the world, and that must be part of his point: To attempt the ultimate in purely abstract photography.

Yet Beshty's also keen to let us know about the real contexts his art came out of: We're shown the folds in his black-and-whites, we're told about the curling of the paper in his color pieces and the dumb luck that positioned their stripes. Not exactly signs of his abstraction's otherworldly purity.

In fact, Beshty's photograms all look so much the same that it's almost as though they're making fun of the idea of the discerning connoisseur of purified abstractions. If there's no choosing between the chance look of one photogram or another, doesn't that undermine the whole idea that an artwork's appearance should matter? Beshty's abstractions may look nice, but they come closer, in their interchangeability, to the world of assembly-line commodities than to the careful choices abstract art was once supposed to be about.

That kind of slyly contrarian stance is at the heart of 12 sculptures that Beshty is also showing at the Hirshhorn. Each one started life as an elegant glass box, either clear or mirrored, with close ties to the great 1960s sculptures of minimalists such as Larry Bell. (There's a glass cube by Bell on view now in another room at the Hirshhorn.) And then, once again, there's a back story: Beshty's pieces are fabricated to fit perfectly inside an unpadded FedEx box, which is what they're shipped in when they leave the studio for an exhibition, or move from venue to venue. After days of handling by FedEx, the cardboard boxes themselves, which function as the sculptures' pedestals, are beaten and torn. The objects they held, though made of tempered glass, are a mess of cracks and chips and fracture lines.

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