Oliver Lutz’s Artpace installation, Paint It Black, is the most ambitious iteration of Lutz’s work to date, bringing together several facets explored previously alone. Commissioned and produced by Artpace, all of the work in the Hudson (Show)Room was conceived and executed for this occasion. Resituating the subject of art in relation to the world of sports, the exhibition takes on contemporary mass spectacle as a breeding ground for culturally conditioned rituals, myths, and social interaction.
The two-room presentation features in the primary space six paintings that have been covered in a black pigment, which, among other uses, has been known to be adapted for military applications. In the adjacent gallery, video monitors connected to eleven surveillance cameras show the compositions that lie below the paintings’ blacked-out surfaces, their imagery culled from photographs taken by the artist at a National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) event at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth earlier this year.
Each painting portrays a different moment in time and a different aspect of the event, and each exemplifies some correlation between spectators and spectacle that reflects broader social and cultural typologies. NASCAR races are loud affairs. The roar of car engines drowns out any ambient sound, and most spectators wear headphones and earplugs to dampen the noise. Still, sound remains a dominating stimulus at these events, for the headphones are typically tuned into race scanners that track communications between drivers and pit crews, and also pick up the audio from radio and television broadcasts of the race. Some fans additionally tune into live video feeds on handheld devices offering a driver’s-eye view of the action. While NASCAR enthusiasts are often united by loyalty to a particular driver or team, the combination of deafening noise and personal electronic devices promotes an atmosphere of individual contemplation. Thus, NASCAR races are the antithesis of the usual twentieth-first-century sporting event, where spectators are often united by collective emotion. Typically seated around oval or serpentine tracks lined by grandstands at their straightest point, the spectators are segregated into different areas, breaking up the contiguous mass of people found in conventional arenas. Saturated by corporate logos, product endorsements, and patriotic symbols, these race venues harbor an infestation of consumerism, nationalism, and devotion bordering on religious fervor unseen in any other professional sport.
Lutz’s blacked-out paintings and the corresponding video views of them emulate this atmosphere of combined diversion and contemplation. The digital audio recordings from the race that are played back within the exhibition do little to bring the austere monochrome canvases into relationship with their environment. Instead, viewers are left to contemplate these voids in a highly distracting atmosphere—an anti-modernist experience of abstract painting. However, as one listens to the different sounds of the event, an oddly hypnotic state sets in as the roar of engines fades into a hum once the cars disappear to the far side of the track. In addition to revealing the compositions beneath the black surfaces, the monitors in the “surveillance gallery” show viewers in the exhibition, in effect situating them within the space of the paintings. This absorption of the viewer into the object conflates the traditional separation of spectator and spectacle, problematizing the hierarchy of seeing and what is being seen.
Also included in the show, playing on the monitor in Artpace’s lobby, is a selection of the artist’s earlier performance videos in which he assumes the guise of characters who are engaged in different rituals or fantasies of control, power, destruction, and the production of art. This is Lutz’s first solo museum exhibition.