Abstracting Daily Experience
by Patrick Neal on November 4, 2013

Shortly after President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage in May 2012, the online version of the Guardian came out with an interactive graph depicting gay rights in the US on a state by state basis. Visually striking, the circular chart sprung to life as you orbited about regions of the country determined to be gay-friendly or not.

The layered color chart, an abstraction of real life and shifting with meaning, immediately brought to mind the work of the artist Richard Garrison. In a similar manner, Garrison employs charts and diagrams uncovering the abstract possibilities that lie dormant in the stuff of everyday life. Residing in suburban upstate NY, his source material includes recycled consumer packages, sales flyers, items from grocery stores and strip malls, and visual data culled from running mundane errands. He works around sets of organizational parameters that map day-to-day existence: periods of time-hours, weeks, months; square footage and mileage; designs and architectural plans gleaned from consumer institutions.

Garrison creates both round and square analytical charts using flat cordoned off areas of line and color blocks. From a distance the work can look coolly conceptual but up close, you can see the hand of the artist in light pencil renderings, gouache and watercolor passages offering an entry point and revealing the humanity in the work. Just like the illusionism in a flat drawing or painting that allows both the artist and viewer a spatial dimension, Garrison’s charts give way to the phenomenological experience of place and time. Transcending the strict data, the viewer is transported to live vicariously through the artist — his works give the term “responsive design” a whole new meaning.

Garrison’s current exhibition at Robert Henry Contemporary is comprised entirely of works on paper that are grouped into four working categories: Circular Color Schemes, Destination Color Schemes, Product Packaging, and Shopping Cart Inertia. The work is attractive and accessible at face value, but it’s fun to peruse additional artifacts and information at the gallery desk that illuminate the artist’s processes. The show’s title, Repackaged, could be read as “reinvented,” suggesting the extraordinary in the ordinary or what lies beyond muzak and bland urban design.

The three large collages that comprise “Product Packaging” utilize recycled cartons collected from the artist’s household over a period of several months. There is a faint underlying pencil grid to help situate assembled bits of square and rectangle paper that fall in and out of the ruled lines. Using everything from dessert to pharmaceutical wrappings, Garrison looks for areas of packaging uninterrupted by type where he can crop out a clean section. He identifies rhymes and rhythms common to the different paper veneers like a diagonal stripe or hue. He joins paper pieces by color and shape commonalities and, like a game of dominoes, the composition moves outward determining its own course. The works in this group are probably the most open-ended and autobiographical, literally making something out of nothing. The flat reconstruction of a box or carton, that was once dimensional and held in the hand, has a disorienting, déjà vu quality — like the way dreams heighten and dramatize the ordinary, sublimated occurrences of everyday existence.

One work in this series, “Product Packaging/Square Color Schemes (Garrison Household, December 2012-August 2013),” is arranged around a multitude of carton colors each comprising a spoke in a wheel that emanates from a center point. Featuring a lot of cereals and crackers, the packaging papers have a built-in beauty; some are scored, varnished or gradated, others have textures and imagery. The abstract design is generated by a loose formula with self imposed rules, not unlike the distracted, autistic categorizing most of us do when we are concentrating. Or, seen another way, a bit like the poet Charles Olson’s “projective verse” — an open field approach to the construction of poetry.

The four ink drawings from the “Shopping Cart Inertia” series are the result of Garrison pushing a shopping cart through the aisles of strip mall stores. He places a drawing device in his cart that rolls and records, inking out a plan of the shopping expedition. Over a period of a few hours, Garrison seeks out items on the shelves that are listed at the bottom of the drawing: tampons, insecticide, diabetes testing supplies, inflatable pools, shower caddies, citronella candles. The resulting ink drawing is a spindly web that resemble the calligraphic works from Brice Marden’s Cold Mountain series. As Garrison stops to ponder a product, the ink pools in place — the longer the pause the larger the pooled stain. It looks like the drawing device skitters here and there, maybe at the onset of a journey. The web is contained to a rectangular format within the drawing paper that echoes the journey through the aisles of a boxed-in mall store. The viewer has a kinesthetic as well as visual experience — one of hovering overhead while looking directly at the skein. The inertia inherent in how the device responds to Garrison’s movements within the parameters of the store mimics the locus geometry important to lyrical abstraction, i.e. the viscosity of a medium, a mark’s relation to other marks and the page itself. Just as a drawing has varying weights and measures, the device maps out areas of the store that are passed over quickly as well as places of high congestion.

The ten watercolor and gouache drawings that comprise the Circular Color Scheme series make witty reference to the “circulars” or store sale flyers used here as source material. The works in this group are structured around an underlying set of concentric rings that bear a superficial resemblance to the Orphism of Sonia and Robert Delauney. The names of products Garrison identifies while flipping through Sears, Walmart, Target and various other flyers are labeled and represented as distinct spokes on a wheel. The drawings are simple or complex depending on the number of products involved — Garrison spans one to several pages of a flyer. The arc size of a spoke is determined by product placement on a page (the actual flyers are archived at the gallery desk). The process replicates how marketers estimate revenue; worthier products get a bigger piece of the pie. From there, Garrison distills the colors of a given product — a page devoted to hunting season yields a lot of earth tones, polo shirts and miss jeans unleash a palette of pastels.

“Circular Color Scheme: Christmas Tree Shops, May 16-27, 2013 Pages 1-16. ‘Memorial Day’,” lists products covered within 16 pages of a sales flyer (dog calming coats, instant cooling towels) distilling their appearance down to distinct inks on a page. Products aren’t classified around particular departments, so one wonders if Garrison arrived at this arrangement by flipping through pages at random. With no start or end point, an open circle serves as an appropriate format leaving us to ponder the relativity of distance and color.

The simplest, most direct works in the show are the Destination Color Schemes. With these, Garrison uses swatching to pick up the local color of a particular venue he is visiting. Using a camera or his own eyes, he records the physical characteristics of an actual building’s facade or parking lot. His travel destinations range from Disneyland in Florida to outlet stores closer to home. The compositions are oriented top to bottom and left to right, taking into consideration chronological order and height. Building parts such as spires, shingles, and banners occupy the top tiers of a drawing’s grid, stained glass windows and stand pipes are in the middle, while faux stones, trash cans and door frames are oriented at bottom. The grid format, filled with descriptive parts, works as synecdoche — we experience a whole building or drive across town through the bits and pieces that cross our path. The drawings are confounded by levels of mediation — remembered versus recorded information, the obfuscation of simulated materials, the tar and asphalt that covers the earth, or the faux woods and plastics that substitute for marble and gold.

“Parking Space Color Scheme (April 15-August 20, 2013),” covers a four month period of Garrison running errands, stopping at hair salons, banks, libraries, etc. around town. Beginning in the upper left, he notes the date, time and pavement color beneath him. Overall, the drawing resembles a paint chip chart from a hardware store but up-close it has the sensitivity of an Agnes Martin — delicately ruled pencil lines and closely observed watercolor or gouache shades that differ slightly from one another.

In Robert Smithson’s seminal presentation “Hotel Palenque,” the sculptor clicks through slides, wryly lecturing students on the riches and ruin of a forlorn Mexican hotel he visited during the late sixties, a generic “non-site” in the middle of a no man’s land. Blinking from one swatch to the next and moving inch by inch through Garrison’s driveways, I experienced a similar feeling of ennui crossed with hope. Garrison’s work is a reminder that we are products of our experiences; the physical things in our midst infiltrate our dreams and memory banks and leave our subconscious to do its own editing. But as fully conscious human beings we can also push back, imposing our own hierarchies.

Repackaged by Richard Garrison continues at Robert Henry Contemporary (56 Bogart Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through November 10.

Abstracting Daily Experience