Red-hot flames dance enticingly beneath two strikingly-imposed Us in Wade Guyton's Untitled. Bold and alluring, this work is a mesmerizing example of the fire paintings that signaled an important turning point in the artist's radical engagement with computer printing technology. Having experimented throughout the early 2000s with printing computer-generated graphic motifs onto ready-made images torn from books, it was not until 2005, the year of the present work, that Guyton began to explore the potential of the inkjet medium as a tool for painting. Reveling in the unpredictable glitches, smudges, smears and rivulets that resulted from feeding primed canvas through an Epson printer, Guyton's fire paintings were among the first products of this revolutionary method. Combining the seductive invocations of fire with Guyton's signature use of abstract lettering, these works played a critical role in the development of an oeuvre that has come to represent one of the twenty-first century's most searing enquiries into the relationship between art and technology. In their ability to highlight the imperfections--and creative potential --latent in mechanical production, the fire paintings speak directly to issues surrounding image-making in the digital age.
Guyton's earliest engagement with the printer in 2002 comprised a series of so-called "drawings," in which simple patterns created in Microsoft Word were overprinted onto pages ripped out of books from his library. In 2005, however, these works gave way to a new phase of inkjet "paintings" that would dramatically change the course of his oeuvre. Rather than feeding the paper page directly into the printer, Guyton scanned the image into his computer, printing the digital file onto a newly-acquired kind of high-quality primed linen he had chanced upon in New York Central. Made in Provence, this new canvas material was ideally suited to registering ink, and allowed Guyton to explore the painterly possibilities of the printer. Indeed, as the machine attempted to digest the canvas, blurring, bleeding and skidding abounded, creating a new vocabulary of artistic nuances. Guyton was to become expert in prompting these effects, pulling and tugging the canvas to incite ruptures and errors in the printing process. As Roberta Smith has written, these works "record the process of their own making, stress the almost human fallibility of machines and provide a semblance of pictorial incident and life," (R. Smith, "Dots, Stripes, Scans: Wade Guyton at Whitney Museum of American Art," in The New York Times, October 4, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/05/arts/design/wade-guyton-at-whitney-mu seum-of-american-art.html [accessed March 10 2014]).
Guyton had originally acquired the flame image from an old book cover found in his library during his earlier "drawing" phrase. In 2005, disenchanted with the increasingly abstract appearance of his works, he revived the vivid book cover as part of his new painterly explorations, hoping to reintroduce a sense of pictorial content to his practice. Yet combined with the remarkable effects achieved through the marriage of canvas and printer, the resulting fire paintings brought the flame motif to life in ways that the artist could not have imagined. "Fire is always captivating," he claimed, "... 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).
The fire paintings reveal the power of the printer not just to reproduce, but to paint--and, indeed, to re-conceptualize. The original book cover, with its torn edges visible along the top edge of the present work, is transformed from a physical object to an image. The flames, in turn, are no longer an image of flames but a new representation of that very image. Guyton's use of the letter 'U' in the fire paintings, added via a second phase of printing on top of the flames, also participates in this sense of double-remove. It was originally deployed as a reaction to the letter 'X' that dominated much of the artist's earlier output, and which had been variously interpreted as holding some kind of symbolic meaning--as a canceling or nullifying gesture. The 'U,' on the other hand, "seemed sufficiently abstract," claims Guyton. "It felt like it could slip out of being a letter," (W. Guyton, ibid.). In the present work, the red 'U' almost becomes an extension of the flames, its lower curve and upper edges appearing to dissolve into melted striations. Conversely, its blue counterpart, printed in the characteristic inkjet tone of cyan, is almost metallic in appearance, echoing the stainless steel 'U' sculptures that Guyton began producing during the same period. Both imprints of the letter contribute to the work's dialogue between pictorial representation and abstraction, in which the primal element of fire is depicted alongside visions of rudimentary alphabetic symbols.
Guyton's harnessing of a medium that ostensibly dispensed with the artist's hand was, in part, a product of his own anxieties regarding image-making in the contemporary world. Faced with both the internet's continual proliferation of digital images, as well as the vast art-historical legacy that preceded him, Guyton was attracted to a method in which artistic effect was partially determined through the click of a mouse. Yet, in the unforeseen potential of the printer to reinvent one of the most time-honored artistic mediums--namely, painting--Guyton's works have come to occupy an important position within the artistic canon that daunted him in his early years. This canon includes the great exponents of contemporary printing techniques--from Andy Warhol to Christopher Wool--as well as proponents of the ready-made image, including the "Pictures Generation" artists such as Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler and Richard Prince. As Scott Rothkopf has written, "[Guyton] improbably endows these mechanical pictures with a lived sense of his struggle to bring an image from the screen onto the canvas or simply to bring an image into being at all...[T]he interaction between the digital and the manual, the pictorial and the literal, have always been at the heart of Guyton's practice and its deeply rooted connection to the ways in which we haltingly navigate the visual and technological barrage of our time," (S. Rothkopf, "Operating System. I. From Image to Object," in Wade Guyton OS, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2012, p. 25).