In using art to critique the dominant culture, one has to be careful not to replicate that which one means to criticize. Marc Handelman’s recent exhibition at Sikkema Jenkins was commanded by 10 large oil paintings on canvas, each approximately 7 by 5 feet, that are trompe-l’oeil representations of various stone finishes for building. This cut and prepared stone is known in the trade as dimension stone, and the term serves as the title for the paintings (all 2010–11). In colors ranging from predominantly white to honeyed caramel to deep red, the canvases lined the gallery like oversize samples in a showroom, each one representing a different color and texture of natural stone.
The painting technique displayed in these works is nothing short of breathtaking, the rendering more elegant and masterful than one would expect even from a professional faux-finisher. Dimension Stone II, for example, has an ultra-smooth black surface that seems exquisitely to crack open and admit white veins, which form a fractured grid.
Presented in frames of teak-colored wood, the canvases are reminiscent of mid- to late 20th-century office furnishings. If the artist’s purpose was a commentary on the bland environments of corporate power, the works seem unwittingly to repeat their target’s message. Here was the same avoidance of too expressive beauty, the same retreat into corporate reticence. It is not hard to imagine the paintings fitting in, even disappearing into, one of the marble-clad International Style lobbies of Midtown Manhattan.
For another work in the exhibition, a piece of glass identical in size to the large canvases had a short film loop projected onto it by a 16mm film projector, at a tiny size of about 6 by 8 inches. As suggested by a photographic print displayed nearby, the largely black glass had previously been painted with a mountain landscape, which was filmed. The resulting film was then projected onto the glass at about eye level.
The key to Handelman’s intentions can perhaps be found in his 740-page soft-cover artist’s book left for perusal among the paintings on a glass-topped pedestal. Archive For A Mountain is a genuinely engrossing collection of images, advertisements and text fragments, many of them taken from the Internet. Landscape paintings of mountains are juxtaposed with the title screens of mountain videos from YouTube. Photographs of the view from the Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s alpine aerie, are followed by pictures of quarries, where dimension stone originates.
Handelman’s compendium makes an oblique statement on the notion of “landscape and power” (which is the title of a W.J.T. Mitchell book that the artist briefly excerpts in facsimile, complete with underlinings). The elevated viewpoints that are typical of the mountain landscapes Handelman presents in his volume seem to equate vision with a domination over nature, as well as with power over other humans. But why does Handelman deny us the teeming complexity and wide-ranging curiosity of his mind, as clearly evidenced in Archive for a Mountain, by the reserve of the paintings he presents? The visual and imaginative vistas of Handelman’s book are suppressed, and what we get instead is the mute stone represented on the canvases. When contrasted with the paintings, Handelman’s book illustrates Robert Venturi’s famous riposte to Mies van der Rohe: “Less is a bore.”
Marc Handelman, Dimension Stone IV, 2010–11, oil on canvas, 87 by 62 inches. Courtesy Sikkema Jenkins.