Usually, where contemporary U.S. painting is still in thrall to its great flowering of the 1950s and ’60s, its allusions are ironic or critical qualifications of an earlier ideal of direct, painterly expression. Ned Vena belongs to a current group of New York-based painters—including, for example, Wade Guyton and Cheyney Thompson—who emphasize the means of production of the kind of hard-edge abstract painting that was one end point of Greenbergian formalist aesthetics. This is nothing new, of, course: Frank Stella’s early “Black Paintings” took a similarly reductive, materialistic stance in relation to the metaphysical pretensions of the painting of Barnett Newman or Mark Rothko. This revisionist tradition cultivates a paradox by outing the process behind painting originally conceived to conceal such matters in the name of “opticality.”
Vena’s series of seven tondo-shaped target paintings (all 2014) at Société—each 64 inches in diameter—extends the axis between opticality and objecthood to a rhetorical extreme. Although their black-and-white concentric circles evoke the post-painterly abstraction of Kenneth Noland’s concentric circle paintings (1958-63), or the Op-art shimmer of Bridget Riley’s early 1960s work, Vena does everything he can to puncture an aura of modernist optical purity. His series is closer, in spirit and purpose, to Jasper Johns’s Target paintings of the late 1950s, which reduced geometric abstraction to functional design while investing it with the lumpen materiality of an encaustic technique. Vena’s paintings are also abstractions that have come down in the world and to the world; literally, in fact, all the way to the shop floor. Vena had Société carpeted in a rubber mesh used in industry to cushion the soles of manual workers during long shifts. It emitted a powerful reek of rubber, which the gallery had unsuccessfully attempted to neutralize with ventilation boxes distributed across the floors.
Vena’s background is in street art and commercial printing, and he has always created paintings through stencils produced on the kind of digital plotting machine used for such purposes. The technology was developed to efficiently repeat images, symbols or text onto posters or walls, but Vena subverts this expectation by using it to print non-signifying geometric patterns onto canvas. But, as in the work of Andy Warhol, Christopher Wool or Guyton, how painting exceeds its stenciled parameters becomes the point. The glitch that the technology was developed to avoid constitutes the art’s content. Each circle was printed in four quarters. White polyurethane paint was brushed on, the stencil realigned, and black rubber sprayed into the spaces between the white lines. Materials are rhetorically industrial: the black rubber is normally used to cast the underside of cars. Its thinned deposits bleed over the dried white paint, amplifying the optical buzz of contrasting tones with traces of static.
Vena appropriates the scale and conceits of the geometric abstraction of Stella, Morris Louis and Noland—the serialism, the fetishizing of reiterated process—and brutally functionalizes it with his industrial conceits. Stella’s disillusioning of modernist idealism is given a theatrical twist. Slowly turning, affixed to a motor on the wall, Target Painting GGG (Plug), 2014, satirizes the nerdy specificities of formalist painting by riffing on the fact that the composition is not changed by rotation. Its fairgroundish spin renders its neighbors comparatively static. In his notebooks, Samuel Taylor Coleridge writes of the “agency” of form as distinct from the stasis of shape. The spinning painting might be a demonstration of that axiom. Its spin blurs out the signs of materiality that define the series, and substitutes for them an illusion of a dematerialized, geometric composition: the kind of purist formalism that Vena is so intent on submitting to his self-exposing process.