"What initially drew me towards art was the fact that it was engaged with language and that this language and these structures seem to always be in a state of fortification and dismantling. Growing up I was never good at art classes, and when I was younger I was often bored with the purely visual or the impulse to render images through drawing or painting." Wade Guyton
"Guyton’s work represents the real America in reduced form. Imagine: Malcolm X, Andy Warhol and Donald Judd; mega-church pastors, Jerry Springer and mainstream politics; urban decay and the security industry all sliced and diced down to their lowest common denominator and blended together, and that may very well be what Wade Guyton has captured in his stark and haunting work." Eric C. Shiner
Untitled is the record of an epic conflict between artist, canvas and medium. Wade Guyton, arch alchemist of 21st century life, subjects the grand promises of modernism and technology to magnificent failure. Choking his Epson Stylus Pro 9600 inkjet printer with primed linen, he creates a bipartite black monolith: the sharp central fissure is an artefact of his need to fold his desired width of material in two in order to run it through the printer, the machine’s physical limitations fracturing the art object with tectonic force. In his radical dethronement of traditional painting, Guyton allows the imperfections of mechanical process to inflect the work’s surface with almost human painterly touches: drips, smears, cracks and creases are born of the overtaxed printer’s juddering application of ink. “This is a recording process as much as a production process,” Guyton has said. “And I have to live with it, smears and all” (W. Guyton, quoted in C. Vogel, “Painting, Rebooted, ” New York Times, 27 September 2012). These battle-scarred black fields are further engulfed with the overlay of ethereal, monochrome flames, a visual hallmark taken from the cover of Stephen King’s 1980 novel Firestarter. A voracious reader, Guyton brings the eighties prerogatives of the Pictures Generation and appropriation art into conversation with stark minimalist archetype and pulpy, printed illustration. Blurring the frontier between control and accident, Guyton’s tenets of glitch and immolation bring his artistic decision-making and the automatic will of technology into the same creative space. The ghost in the machine and the spirit of the artist both bring life to a phenomenal object that resonates with all the abjection, aspiration and beauty of modern existence.
As he often attests, Guyton has never liked to draw or paint. “What initially drew me towards art was the fact that it was engaged with language and that this language and these structures seem to always be in a state of fortification and dismantling. Growing up I was never good at art classes, and when I was younger I was often bored with the purely visual or the impulse to render images through drawing or painting” (W. Guyton, quoted in S. Simoncelli, “Wade Guyton in conversation with Silvia Simoncelli,” ONCURATING, Issue 20, October 2013, p. 35). He first began to develop his signature vocabulary with the inkjet printer in 2003, printing black Xs over torn-out pages from books and magazines: he noticed that despite the simplicity of the shapes and letters that he could print using a mere tap on his keyboard, the result was never a slick digital production but instead bore the marks of error and breakage. Here was a stark register of the uneasy, uneven interface between the digital and manual, the virtual and literal. “There is evidence of this struggle in the work, in its surface. I’ve been putting different kinds of material through my inkjet printer and there are lots of fuck ups in the printing, the inkjet heads get snagged, ink drips, the registration slides. I’m also just making dumb marks – lines, Xs, Us, squares, monochromatic shapes that don’t require the complexity of the photo printer technology – and it’s interesting how the printer can’t handle such simple gestures” (W. Guyton, quoted in “A Conversation about Yves Klein, Mid-Century Design Nostalgia, Branding, and Flatbed Scanning” in Guyton\Walker: The Failever of Judgement, exh. cat., Midway Contemporary Art, St. Paul, MN, 2004, p. 49). Much as Warhol before him explored the power of mass image iteration through his slipping, fading screenprints, in inkjet printing Guyton has found a distilled graphic mode for laying bare the technological and ideological superstructures of today.
For all these works’ apparent asceticism or even bleakness, their essential elements reveal a bricoleur’s joy in appropriation and recombination. Abstracted from their original context, the flames in particular are an incandescent rejection of the austere tone of much slick conceptual art, both deepening the formal implications of Guyton’s process and injecting pyrotechnic pictorial appeal. As the artist recalls, the suggestion of heat has a primal, bodily analogue that enhances the works’ man/machine hybridity. “Fire is always captivating. I thought of it as romantic, but camp. Destructive, but also generative. And of course hot. There’s a great interaction between the image and the material in the fire paintings, which I didn’t predict, in the way the ink drips and runs. The first time I printed the fire on linen was one of those brutally humid New York summer nights. No AC in the studio. I was sweating and the paintings were melting” (W. Guyton, quoted in interview with D. De Salvo, in Wade Guyton OS, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2012, p. 204). Underlining this very modern physio-technological encounter, Guyton’s recent Whitney Museum retrospective was titled Wade Guyton OS: a knowing conflation of artist and computer operating system.
Though he may seem to strike a tone of studied irreverence, Guyton’s practice is indebted to a profound understanding of art history. He first moved to New York in 1996, having grown up, like his friend and frequent collaborator Kelley Walker, in Tennessee; while studying at Hunter College, he worked for seven years as a guard at the Dia Art Foundation in Chelsea. The echoes of the Minimalist work that he saw there by Donald Judd and Dan Flavin abound in his oeuvre, while the Modernist aesthetics of Frank Stella further advance his revolutionary destabilising of the line between painting and object. In his tackling of reproduction and erasure Guyton treads the same ground as contemporary master Christopher Wool: Wool’s haunting palimpsests also conjure the gestural from the mechanical, and both artists make use of oblique textual elements as a way of conveying the semiotic barrage of the urban environment. Today, Guyton’s own work stands alongside his preeminent forebears in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris.
The word “technology” has its origins in the Ancient Greek tekhne, meaning “art,” “craft” or “skill”: its contemporary implications of inhumanity and cold, robotic intelligence are inescapably rooted in acts of human creation. In turn, the anthropomorphic, almost affectionate terms in which Guyton discusses the tug-of-war with his Epson make manifest the humanising of machines. “Fabric is tricky because it bunches, so you have to trick the printer into thinking that it’s printing on something else. Because it has a sensor, it actually can figure out what it’s not supposed to be printing on. …It does have problems, but I’ve figured out how to trick the machine. It normally only takes 44 inches, but I’m able to get it to do more with a little folding and tape. I pretty much have to coax it into printing” (W. Guyton, quoted in D. Armstrong, “Wade Guyton,” Interview Magazine, June-July 2009, p. 81). Guyton out-manoeuvres the printer, transcending its programmed purposes even as he exposes its abject inadequacies. If Untitled seems a funereal presence in its gestures toward destruction, failure and disorder, it is also a celebration: a haphazard, majestic spectacle of human will and the chimeric new life of the modern image.