There's been quite a bit of ruminating on various artblogs about "the role of criticism" recently, but the topic remains frustratingly vague since specific examples are avoided. As a case study--surprise, surprise--let's look at the critical reasoning behind the "Infinite Fill Show" (which we've been discussing here lately), as articulated in the exhibition materials and the New York Times review of the show.

Press release/call for entries theory: "The only rule is that [work submitted] has to somehow use black and white repeating patterns" (from the call for entries). "The curatorial concept was inspired by [MacPaint], the 1984 software application with varied 16-bit monochrome patterning that could be picked and dropped into areas of the screen to denote color and depth. For Cory and Jamie Arcangel, this rudimentary precursor to Photoshop's draw and paint functions provides a creative tool to explore multiple perspectives within a unifying aesthetic." (from the press release)

The "nostalgia factor" associated with old programs I addressed in an earlier post. Still worth considering are (a) how did pattern substitute for color and depth in MacPaint, exactly? are "bricks" a color? who came up with those patterns? how well did/do they work in actual practice? to what extent were artistic prerogatives usurped by engineering prerogatives? (b) MacPaint is a precursor to Photoshop, which is pixel-based, but how does it relate to vector programs such as Illustrator, which use defined curves rather than rectangular blocks? If the show is a form of ancestor-worship, whose family is being feted? are pixel-based programs more "important" because they've been subsumed into html and web design? (c) to what extent was MacPaint old news, incorporating pre-1984 print conventions such as Ben Day dot patterns (also frequently alluded to in "Infinite Fill"), zipatone, or letratone?

New York Times theory (i.e., everything but the purely descriptive parts of the review): (1) "How many different ways can a work of art combine black, white and repetition? An answer is essayed by 'The Infinite Fill Group Show...'" (2) "The show is intended as a homage to [MacPaint], an early computer application (released in 1984) that enabled the user to click and drag a range of black-and-white patterns into images of any kind." (3) "[T]he show resembles a photo-negative of the floor-to-ceiling, color-saturated conventions of the so-called 'bedroom shows,' those showcases for collaboratively minded young artists that reached an apotheosis of sorts in Dearraindrop's extravaganza at Deitch Projects in SoHo..."

The "youth culture" and "psychedelia/color saturation" issues were raised here earlier. Perhaps "Infinite Fill" was also a "photo-negative" (inversion) of the teenager's bedroom shows because if included artists of all ages? What was the kid-to-geezer ratio? Does it matter? Item (1) slightly restates the show's premise (as a way of saying how diverse it is): but did each work in the show in fact use B&W and repetition? (No.) Black & white schemes are sometimes used by curators (not naming any names) to unify group shows of quite disparate work but disguise the lack of a thesis. Is that the case here? (No!--but why?) Does the fact that MacPaint was monochrome and used fill patterns justify the inclusion of works such as needlepoints, enlarged newsprint images, and zebra rugs? How is the political work in the show justified by a formal premise? Is the premise "merely formal"? The Times doesn't answer these questions with specitic examples (and neither have I in this short post); unless or until someone does so, a gap between theory and description remains unfilled.

Returning to the point raised in my first sentence, I submit that the "role of the critic" is to answer questions and plug gaps such as the above. (Not holding my breath, though.) As long as there is work to be done you don't sit around bemoaning what you're supposed to do.

UPDATE: This post has been reworked a bit to take into account the wording of the Arcangels' call for entries. I also added the links about historic fill patterns (zipatone, letratone).

- tom moody 8-07-2004 8:15 pm

"Infinite" is a loaded word. If I was a computer, creating a endlessly repeating pattern would be A: easy, and B: uninteresting. As a human, the attempt is A: challenging, and B: requires motivation. My take, based solely on the documentation on this blog, is this: The curation of this show is a head-to-head competition between the Arcangels and the non-coporeal robot called MacPaint. The room equates to a bounded shape. The art works equate to elements (bricks, say) of a repeated pattern. The repeated elements of the artists' own works could equate to pixels. The software fills the shape and fills any other at any time on someone else's desktop, and also fills any size of shape with infinite ease. The curators fill just one shape (the room), in one instance of time and place, but fill it with infinite depth of content. Each "pixel" in the computer is a finite dot, either on or off. Each "pixel" in the artworks is a referent, a node that serves as a conduit to infinite potential content. Without seeing the show, I cannot declare a winner in the infinity face-off (but my guess is that it's a tie).
- sally mckay 8-07-2004 9:48 pm

I hadn't thought about the punning relationship of the title to filling up a tiny room (and neither did the Times!) When the press release first went out there were 50 artists in the show but the final tally was about 94. One nice touch was the curators left one wall unfilled, or tapering off into unfilled white space--you can see it in James Wagner's top photo. Even with that breathing space, they surpassed the limit of data (sensory, sound, verbal, historical) anyone could take in and make sense of--unless you had infinite time. Or at least more time.

- tom moody 8-07-2004 10:38 pm