Body Electric

Up close, looking at one of Deborah Doerings' paintings, one perceives a grid of colored rectangles, some thinly brushed, others buckling with the fat of paint. The grid of color calls to mind the history of modernist painting, drawing a line from Seurat to Mondrian and beyond to Agnes Martin and early Brice Marden. Step back, and the grid coalesces into an image that looks like a jpeg blown up so that the pixels are plainly visible. What the subject matter consists in, what the painted pixels together compose, is of little importance. They might picture anything: a church interior, a window display, winged maple seeds, or a flag of truce. From this second perspective, another history comes into focus: dada photomontage, Lichtenstein and Richter, on to Richard Prince – artists who opened their practices up to the vast image world of our media-saturated culture, and whose names sketch the other history we call post-modernism. Deborah Doering, importantly, doesn't choose between the two perspectives. Her paintings affirm both, tracing a fine line between the two. Choosing sides would topple her precarious balance, plunging her into either a remote, out-dated notion of painting or a more recent critique that increasingly seems too cynical to be of much use.

Our material world is evaporating into the digital ether. It seems that anything can be converted into its digital double, abstracted into the ones and zeroes of code. Not one to cast judgment, Doering uses this fact about how we live today as an opportunity to paint. She perceives a connection to that older practice of abstraction – in painting – as if Mondrian, in reducing the landscape to plus and minus signs were somehow anticipating the advent and eventual dominance of electronic imaging.

Then again, as if collapsing Mondrian's life's work into a single moment – his slow and gradual process of abstracting a landscape into a grid of primary colors – one needs only to step back from one of

Doering's canvases to glean an Armani gown on a dress form, for instance. Step forward, and we're examining the grain of the picture plane subdivided into a vast checkerboard of retina-blasting color. Step back and ... You get the idea.

What Doering's work makes plain is how digital imaging has made possible a new way to hold abstraction and representation in tension without losing one for the other.

Doering can paint whatever she pleases as long as she can capture the image in electronic form. This has the weird effect of leveling the importance of all her subject matter. The spiritual light of sun shining through stained glass and the gray flicker of fluorescent bulbs, despite being virtually opposite in emotional effect and social context, are simply recombined arrangements of the same pixels, pixels made over in paint, of course. Doering subtly bucks against this dematerialization of the world into digital code by fattening up her paint, encrusting her surfaces, as if she were quixotically trying to tether the images back to material reality. In her otherwise whole-hearted embrace of the digital, this seems to be her only misgiving. Her quiet doubt scabs the surface of the pictures: a kernel of melancholy in an otherwise radiant field of color. Her work counters the weightlessness of electronic imaging by insisting on the stubborn materiality of the world. Doering's subject, in the end, is the material and immaterial, the visible and the invisible, as these old metaphysical problems take on new forms and meanings in the contemporary world.

Elijah Burgher
Elijah Burgher is an artist and writer living in Chicago. He received his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2004. He co-founded and serves an editor for the quarterly art publication, BAT.