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Derek Paul Jack Boyle’s paintings in Den, his latest exhibition at SMART OBJECTS, are not so much surreal as disordered. Boyle takes as his theme familiar objects that multiply, often in odd arrangements, and are sometimes subtly anthropomorphized. Stairs, ladders, and doorways all find themselves compromised, or at a loss to explain how, or why, they have ended up in their various predicaments. This feeling of slightly-off familiarity extends to the cheap, black, bumpy carpeting installed throughout the gallery for the show.
On canvas, Boyle tends toward repetition of a chattering, rather than precise, sort, with a dreamy, twilight color palette of pinks, purples, blues, and muted blacks. The clocks in Times (all works 2019) pock and bedazzle a loosely conceived interior scene, in which an ordinary desk occupies the foreground of a long, rectangular, four-walled room, a window to either side. The compositional perspective focuses on a door opposite the desk, leading abruptly into an obliquely angled corridor. Covering the entire scene— walls, floor, and desk—are round, analogue clocks.
Does time fly or does it crawl? There’s a fantastical, early-MTV music video feel to the scene, accented by Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” playing in my head as I observe it. Eva Hesse once said, “If something is absurd, it’s much more exaggerated, more absurd if it’s repeated.”1 Boyle chooses, instead, the curious— his analogue clocks are generic, though increasingly unfamiliar in our digital era. It is his repetition of this mundane object, rather than the object itself, that approaches the absurd. This curiosity, sometimes self-consciously fantastical, sometimes wonderfully mysterious, extends throughout his exhibition.
Each object Boyle depicts reminds the viewer equally of both its own banality and its own exception. In Dens, monolithic staircases interrupt a grassy forest, projecting downward into rectangular openings in the earth, as if meant to be climbed by able-bodied ghosts. In Ladder, a stepladder is partially buried, upside down, in a moodily lit wooden floor; Chasm ruins an already cheerless room with a jagged sinkhole gobbling up most of the floor. The spooky absence of human beings in any of Boyle’s works suggests some tacit animism of everyday objects—as if, in the face of purposelessness, or no one left to use them, a stool or a handful of Master locks simply misapply their use. Assuming this theme was on Boyle’s mind at all, its range across the show is uneven, from the alluringly subtle Chains—in which faintly painted chains traipse out of an apartment window—to the near-inertia of Doors, which depicts a lifeless, haphazard pile of wooden doorways in a carpeted room. To deal in the substance of objects can be a dryly philosophical endeavor, and Boyle’s paintings similarly range from compellingly nuanced (and strange) to a kind of forced, or willful, oddity.
Chasm recalls a terrifying story I read, on my phone one night in bed, about a sinkhole opening directly beneath a Floridian man’s bedroom, plunging him (and his bed) 30 feet down into the earth in the time it took him to wake up. The painting shows a natural cavity opening in what appears to be some mid-level story in some mid-century tenement. It’s a jarring and sudden painting in contrast to others in the show, and more potent in its relationship to nature than Dens, where the arrangement of ghostly stair-ways and tall, straight trees feels compositionally stiff. Nature, in Chasm, undermines banality, while the drab steps in Dens undermine the strange-ness of a natural environment in which thick grass is shown growing, against odds, in a densely-wooded forest.
Elsewhere, Chains features handsome linework and an obscure premise that deftly undermines a perfectly ordinary scene. Chains offers a cropped view of the outside of what might be an apartment building. Four windows on two stories are depicted, and the upper left and lower right are open. Between these two open windows, moving at an angle from one story to another, multiple bicycle chains wave in the breeze, moving with the sensuality of a curtain. The chains simply disappear into the darkness of each room beyond the window. The paint-ing lacks the direct objecthood of some of the other works, like Times (clocks at least belong in rooms and on walls); perhaps this gives it its power, or at least presence.
Maybe Boyle dreamt these scenes, free of conscious intention, but sometimes richly evocative. The press release has other concerns, framing Boyle’s work in terms of privacy, in which case we, the viewer, perform its invasion. Boyle’s tiny Fences might address both readings—in this piece, Boyle depicts a small farmhouse positioned behind rows and rows of dense white pickets, the house both cordoned off, as if it were in some way remarkable, and desperately commonplace. Overall, the askew familiarity of Boyle’s work suggests the early, eerie, and quiet stages of a domesticity reverting. The air of the after-the-fact to most of his scenes suggests transformational moments from which we might reverse-engineer narrative, or launch into surrealistic free association. Though these potential narratives are alluring, Boyle’s absurdity can be too subtle, as if not quite pushing far enough.
Aaron Horst is a writer based in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in Carla, Flash Art, and ArtReview.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 18.