It all depends is an apt name for Aaron Koehn’s latest solo exhibition at William Busta Gallery: everything seems to be leaning, resting, or balanced. This ‘depending’ connects to a sort of deeper ambivalence, as in, it all depends how you look at things, or, what you want to see, or, maybe even just what you want.
Koehn’s previous work focused on architecture and environment: paintings of familiar corporate and domestic settings in dream-like palettes with a smoothed, feature-poor style. These empty spaces called up missing bodies, but they also repelled said bodies from their surfaces. A similar pull and push exists in it all depends, particularly in the sculptures on view, which incorporate objects designed for bodies to use, touch, walk on, or look through. They can be divided into two categories: those that act as platforms for images, and those that are more object-centric. While all of Koehn’s work is concerned with physicality as much as appearances, this distinction bears mentioning because the latter group is far more compelling.
The strongest works in the exhibition have a minimal sensibility. Weighted canvas # 1 (all works 2013, unless otherwise noted), sits on the ground in the middle of the gallery, and consists of a black kettle bell resting on a white, block-shaped canvas. Koehn so smoothly sanded the canvas that at first glance it appears to be a MDF plinth, but the gentle dip below the weight shows it to be pliant. There is something very appealing about this reveal, the tautness of the surface and the tension of one object bearing down on another. Paintings often emphasize the physicality of their canvases by exposing texture or construction. Weighted canvas # 1 conceals everything in the service of showing tension and strength.
Two similar works on view incorporate found textiles as well: Striped packaging linens from Target Corp., with gold plated machine calibration weight, and Salmon colored packaging linens from Target Corp., with black chromed machine calibration weight. Wrapped tightly around boxy wooden frames, the packaging linens are ever so slightly depressed by the calibration weights. These works, domestic in their reference, are more playful than Weighted canvas #1; a tenderness comes out through their spontaneity and attention to the everyday. Another altered found object on view, Sanded and buffed Powerbook G4 17inch, smartly transforms a familiar Mac laptop into a shiny, mirror like slab. Displayed low to the ground, leaning against the wall, it seems at once more precious and less valuable; a recognizable object made strange.
Each of these aforementioned works integrates concerns of sculpture and painting with slightness and clarity. The second category, which involves direct substrate printing onto object surfaces, seems undetermined by comparison. All of these works use images generated by the same Google search for the phrase “sad rainy day water on window.” Turf Girl (sad rainy day water on window) and Girl on olive green yoga mat (sad rainy day water on window) both display nude young women printed, life size and illusionistic, on Astroturf and a green yoga mat. While these works can be readily interpreted through problematic gender tropes (these bodies are passive, to be walked over and folded up) they are so kitschy, so flat, that they come across as genuinely funny—maybe even wicked, in a Richard Prince sort of way. Their inversed relation to the Googled phrase (they appear to be basking in the sun, joyously) proves the arbitrary nature of the exercise; do the figures embody a meaningful, virtual-emotive moment, or do they merely lounge about as vacant ciphers? Less ambiguous in its thematic content, the series Sad rainy day water on window #1-4 features images of condensation and dripping water printed directly onto standing panes of glass or widow blocks, shifting them from frames to dramatic filters. The series Smoke and Mirrors #1-3, consisting of morphing shapes of dark smoke printed on translucent fabric over stretchers, is moody but also non-explicit in terms of its digital referent. All of these have a thinness, which might simply come down to the fact that they are too mechanical; missing the plushness that Koehn so often plies so well. These works lack enough consideration to carry their randomness, or enough force to bear their reproducibility.
The exhibition also includes straight up paintings on canvas, which evidence Koehn’s skill for handling paint in a way that is both careful and casual. Dirty Rainbow, the largest canvas on view, shows a chromatic blur arching between the bottom corners and just kissing the top edge. Made with a repeated squeegee motion that blurred the pure colors, the results are muted and syrupy, like worn out light. Two canvas hearths hover just off the floor: People gather around a fire even if there isn’t one (2012) recalls the typical white washed, cemented over feature found in many a Cleveland apartment, while Gradient Fireplace has medium-grey stones surrounding a double midnight blue-to-violet fade. Through a particularly effective structural use of paint, Gradient Fireplace reads like it was built up, brick by brick. Crisp, raised interior lines meet with thick, rough mortar-like edges. The fireplace works are at once painterly and architectural, candid and faux.
Koehn, a versatile artist not afraid of experimenting with new materials and different forms, covers a vast array of concept and content in it all depends. In addition to all of the above, there are many other works on view; they could easily be divided up into three shows or more, allowing the time and space to fully consider each body of work. The exhibition reveals that Koehn’s works are strongest when the forms and materials appear to take the lead themselves, indicating their own possibilities.
Rose Bouthillier is Associate Curator and Publications Manager at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland. Her writing has been published in C magazine, frieze, esse, and Art Criticism & Other Short Stories. View more articles by Rose Bouthillier.