By Kevin Blake 

Most visitors ride the oversized elevator up to the fourth floor and work their way down at The Whitney Museum of American Art. Most people prefer this method of viewing because most people, including myself, are too lazy to climb the stairs. Descent is much less daunting, however, there are benches for resting if this task becomes overwhelming. Most people don’t want to work to experience visual art.

When the elevator dings and the doors spread open on the fourth floor, visitors to the 2014 Whitney Biennial are faced with Gaylen Gerber’s contribution. Mr. Gerber is perpetually risking having his work go unnoticed. He concedes the center stage to other artist’s work as a means of activating his Backdrops. Often a delicate grey monochrome, his canvases mimic the architecture of the institutional spaces within which the work is shown, and can easily be mistaken for a painted wall. It is in this potentiality that Mr. Gerber’s work shines. His conceptual framework is rooted in potential and critique. He seems to be interested in the conversation between works of art that occur in the wake of their physical juxtapositions to each other and how those normative relationships are grounded in institutional critique. Understanding his aims requires a bit of work on the part of the viewer.

Installation View Gaylen Gerber with Trevor Shimizu 2014 Whitney Biennial

For over two decades, Gaylen Gerber has been working with a set of self-imposed restrictions that convey a minimalist trajectory but operate in an entirely different arena. By employing the work of other artists in front of or on top of his Backdrops, Gerber seems to ask himself the same questions that may be evoked within his audience. Our response to his work is predicated on the fact that Gerber understands how to be the audience and artist. He is aware of the possibility that his work could be unseen–that the audience will see the work that hangs on top his work and move on. He is also aware that one may round the corner as if to pass by his piece and notice the side of his canvas and stretcher bars–only by chance–that they had earlier mistaken for a wall. That viewer may, in turn, come back to the work and consider it anew. That is the potential that exists for every viewer–the possibility of dialogue spurred from intervention.

Installation View Gaylen Gerber with Trevor Shimizu 2014 Whitney Biennial

The potential for critical consideration and the ability of conversation to amplify meaning within physical objects are paramount in Gerber’s schematics, but the work feels genuinely concerned with the content of those prospective dialogues. The artists whom Gerber chooses to work with are a carefully selected bunch that act as the conduit that links his conceptual rigor with his sincerity and curiosity. In this iteration of his ever-evolving project at the 2014 Whitney Biennial, Gerber chose Trevor Shimizu, David Hammons, and Sherrie Levine to hang their work on top of his Backdrop. The first half of the exhibition opened with two paintings by Trevor Shimizu, and the second half saw work by David Hammons and Sherrie Levine–both later artists Gerber had worked with in years past.

It is through these works that one might distill meaning in his object, which is the backdrop and the pieces on top of it. The work by Trevor Shimizu is figurative, gestural, and two-dimensional and refers to a specific type of art historical conversation that alludes to the figure/ground relationship. Gerber understands the figure/ground relationship in Trevor Shimizu’s work as a way of activating the same dialogue with regards to the same relationship between Trevor’s work as “figure” and his own Backdrop as the “ground.”

Installation View gaylen Gerber with David Hammons and Sherrie Levine

In using Sherrie Levine and David Hammons’ work, which appears to represent two different art historical methodologies for dealing with abstraction, Gerber alludes to another interest of his own and spurs another new dialogue.  Among other possibilities, this specific pairing suggests that the idea of what an expression may be is multiplicitous. Expression may manifest as a material investigation through intuition and impulse, it may assert itself in a minimalist projection of time through a labor intensive application of paint, or it may be found in a grey monochrome painting that serves as the springboard for opportunity.

Gaylen Gerber has developed an artistic practice that manages to concern itself with his immediate interests while maintaining a strong relationship to the audience. His work blends an overtly skeptical view of how things work while accepting those parameters and making work to reflect his discomfort with normative boundaries. With this strategy Gaylen Gerber achieves new opportunities on old grey grounds that beg you to do a little work.

Kevin Blake

Kevin Blake is an artist and writer living and working in Chicago.