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Robert Russell’s Book Paintings at Anat Ebgi depict meticulously rendered artist monographs, which appear to weightlessly hover in empty, milky voids. In each painting, a hazy sliver of shadow along the book’s prostrate belly provides the only material reference to gravity or ground. Russell paints each tome in a similar manner and from the same vantage point: firmly closed and at an oblique angle (as if placed atop a table), with the corner protruding sharply toward the viewer. At first, the closely-hung paintings (all works 2019) read as chromatic yet solemn plaques, perhaps even freshly laid tombstones—either odes or monuments to the precedential weight of art history. While a focus on the monograph suggests a critical inquiry into the burden of the canon, the paintings slightly miss this mark, instead becoming unmoored by their attempts at replicating the artists in question.
Russell’s book titles span a wide swath of historical movements, from Baroque portraiture to Geometric Abstraction, and cover an array of seminal art historical figures, including Rembrandt, Andy Warhol, Philip Guston, and Bridget Riley. Each monograph depicted, however, is fictitious—a laboriously painted approximation of a nonexistent book that nonetheless bears a simulacra of a very real work of art on its cover (for example, Philip Guston’s 1973 painting Pittore), alongside a forgery of the artist’s signature. By depicting these hypothetical books within contextless, ahistorical voids, the paintings essentially deploy a roster of art historical names as their only subject.
Here, the symbol of the monograph actually functions as a red herring. While an artist may invoke the book as a means of interrogating its status as both a vessel of history and a purveyor of information (the control of which wields actionable power over the canon), these paintings instead seem to truly focus on the skilled reproduction of other paintings. Each attempts a draftsman’s muscular, and often convincing, stylistic falsification (John Currin, for example), which ultimately reads as flourish. This affectation is then buttressed by the symbol of a book—an object that bestows a reverential proximity to language, history, and academia. The skillfully rendered monograph thus shifts from a tombstone of art history to a billboard advertising mimesis. This signals its proximity to artifice while avoiding a full dissection of it, a strategy that ultimately withholds more information than it disseminates. While artifice (and mimicry) need not be without criticality, these paintings translate more as symptoms of artifice, rather than full-throttled interrogations of it.
Robert Russell: Book Paintings runs from April 27–June 1, 2019 at Anat Ebgi (2660 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90034).