I'm gonna say this right off, and then we can move on. Chris Ashley has created the grooviest advent calendar. Ever.
At some point that idea will hit you as you are wander through I Made This For You, Ashley's current online show at Marjorie Wood Gallery. I'm sure there is some element of intent at work here; Ashley's daily drawings are laid out in pop-up windows that represent the days of December.
When the calendar realization first hit me I lost interest in the work for a bit. It all seemed so hokey, and kinda hoary, but only for a brief while. Soon the serious joy that is the exhibition quickly lit back up.
And serious joy it is, in a hard edge sort of way.
Ashley's current abstract work could easy be found at the end of an imaginary continuum that begins with the color experiments of Josef Albers, weaves through the Op-artistry of Richard Anuszkiewicz, touching a bit on the vibrating striped delights of Gene Davis, and eventually cycling to the network-influenced digital era paintings of Peter Halley.
Unlike the works of his predecessors, Chris Ashley's current pieces don't really exist in the physical world. His drawings are done in html using Dreamweaver, a WYSIWYG editor. After creating dense lines of code, the piece is inserted into the blog editing window and the image flickers to life.
Ashley's html drawings lack all the low tech randomness (you know those grubby pixilated pieces that look like mash ups of Missile Command and Frogger) that is usually associated with computer art. By creating work that is hard-edge abstract and hitching his wagon to the long past sensibilities of Op Art (visually perceived kinetic movement, after image flash and noisy color assaults), Ashley has revived and merged two art movements into one great package.
Ashley's previous abstract paintings, the ones that were done in oil and exist in the real world, are quite different from the digital ones. They have a watery elegance, done in somber color schemes with occasional vibrant outbursts that mirror local land- and cityscapes. Brushed with a palette that could easily have been swiped from the Bay Area figurative painters, the compositions themselves are staid but interesting.
With the html drawings, it's as if the skins of his oil paintings were pulled away and behind the canvas lurked a glowing pile of nuclear waste. In a good way. The colors cause a retinal pop. They have the emotional resonance of a great video game, one that keeps you coming back and emptying your pockets.
I'm not sure what it is that has caused Ashley's html drawings to feel so different from his paintings. Maybe it has something to do with a fear of waste. When failure lurks in an html drawing, only time is wasted, whereas failure in an oil painting can waste huge amounts of materials in addition to time. This could be the key to the experimentation that goes on in the digital works. Or maybe it's that Ashley has complete control over his code and can see the result of each decision immediately, a luxury that slow-drying oil paint does not afford. Whatever the reason, the results are wonderfully alluring.
Paintings in the real world present the same colors to every viewer (yes, we could have sophomoric discussions about that, but we could also waste our time wondering if our world is just a bit of dander on a galactic dog's back). The downside to all this digital hooey is that monitors are all tweaked with different grades of colors, glowing with varying levels of brightness. We cannot be quite sure of the artist's original color intent -- a skin sizzling orange on my PC could be a murky tangerine on yours. That said, the two stand out drawings to me (as of this post) are December 13 and December 4.
12/13 sports a half-baked somberness made of hunter green and jet black. The drawing's composition reminds one of those cocktail party conversations where you lose the thread while everyone around you continues chattering. The wacky anamorphous-ness of 12/04 carries a slight menace, an almost "Uncle Wiggly is Satan personified." The ability to stretch the limits of the html genre, while creating drawings that end up being miles apart in texture and emotion, show Ashley at the top of his game.
BTW, feel free to skip the accompanying essay by George Lawson. It comes off as distracting drivel. I Made This For You needs little editorial buttressing.
Chris Ashley's I Made This For You runs through January 31, 2008 at Marjorie Wood Gallery.