American artist Ken Okiishi’s second solo show at Mathew, “Eggleston und Andere, ‘reality bites,’” made numerous art historical references while at the same time attempting to free itself from them. The main body of work consisted of 12 small color photographs, all titled William Eggleston on Pallasstrasse (2007/2014), which depict various scenes devoid of people along a single street in the former West Berlin, passing through a bustling commercial area that has ossified since unification.
“FYI,” Okiishi remarked in the press release, “these photographs were taken in the summer of 2007; sat on various hard drives since then; and were printed, as a group, for the first time last month.” He spells out this procedure because most of the images might otherwise be impossible to place in time: for example, an advertisement for patterned women’s stockings so retro they could almost be fashionable again, or a hair salon’s sandwich-board plaque bearing a crinkled photograph of an ’80s-style shag.
The photographs’ identical titles point to their connection with the work of William Eggleston, the photographer who, along with Stephen Shore und andere (and others), pioneered American color photography in the 1970s, wryly focusing on mundane aspects of everyday life. But Okiishi’s recognizable (and explicitly identified) Berlin setting also places his images in the company of Eggleston’s German counterparts: the Düsseldorf School of photographers, including Candida Höfer and Jörg Sasse.
Wedged rather tightly among these photographs on the main gallery walls were two new pieces from Okiishi’s ongoing “gesture/data” series, comprising abstract oil paintings smeared directly on the screens of flat, vertically hung video monitors. Earlier works from this group, like those shown in New York at the 2014 Whitney Biennial, offer complex interplays between their colorful brushstrokes and the figures flickering across the screen beneath. But the two pieces displayed at Mathew—involving only sparse, scattered marks and glitchy monochrome video fields, one white and one blue—are the least visually complex of these works to date.
As the series title promises, Okiishi has here reduced the pictorial content and signification potential of both painting and video to only the gesture and the data. This minimalism foregrounds the physical nature of painting as well as the size, brightness and aspect ratio of screens in comparison to traditional canvases or photographs, shifting attention to the various apparatuses by which images are created and exhibited. The artist has said that these overlaid compositions were inspired by the work of the Abstract Expressionist painter Joan Mitchell, which he once photographed with his cell phone during a visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Clearly, the 36-year-old Okiishi is aware that the technical means artists employ and the art historical lineage within which they place themselves greatly influence how viewers experience and interpret the artworks. But the final piece in the exhibition resists any easy categorization.
Alone in the gallery’s basement lay the floor piece robot-bitcoin-discotheque-pet (2014), a pair of disco balls stuck together to form a revolving contraption with an image of a bitcoin taped to one end and a QR code to the other. It’s hard to tell whether the artist is protesting this new digital aesthetic, making fun of it or capitulating to it. In any case, the humor poked a hole in the overall logic of the show and its net of historical references. Yet given the deftness with which Okiishi operates, we can assume that rupture was calculated.