Information Excavation: On Will Fowler’s Turnip Series

February 2010

Will Fowler: Runny Bird
Los Angeles: David Kordansky Gallery



It might be helpful to know that Will Fowler titled his graduate thesis “What the Fuck are these Red Squares?” That provocative question — one that pointedly refers to a bit of art history from the Utopian Period — resurfaced upon viewing the first few paintings from his recent Turnip series. So, what the fuck are these brown turnips? The first time I confronted Fowler’s work, in his 2004 debut show at David Kordansky Gallery, I described his paintings as “a delirious hybrid of Alfred Jensen, Stuart Davis, and kids’ board games.” And three years later, upon seeing a show at the same gallery, I noted a “willful confusion of structure and decoration ” — pun intended— and invoked the field of paleontology: “Despite a deeply encoded connection to (modernist) history, Fowler’s paintings look surprisingly urgent, as if the paleontologist had discovered a startling, mythical creature by manically rearranging the bones of a familiar, domesticated animal.” Fowler’s paintings are hardly tamed by such verbal analogues. So, I refer to myself here because the act of writing about Fowler, much like the painting in the Turnip series, is a process of accumulation, building on the foundation of what came before it.


Fowler borrows from himself endlessly, often returning to the same shapes and patterns and strategies again and again. Individual paintings “overlap” or, to use another metaphor, seem to share some of same genetic makeup. Still, the Turnip paintings are the first by Fowler explicitly defined as a series. “Serial order is a method, not a style,” writes artist Mel Bochner, at the outset of his influential essay “The Serial Attitude” (Artforum, December 1967). Fowler’s Turnip paintings evoke a serial attitude and employ many of its characteristics. But unlike the serial work of Bochner or his peer Sol Lewitt, one gets the sense that Fowler’s series has no fixed number of permutations, and is predicated on something more than on its inevitable, mathematical exhaustion: namely, the possibility that something new, even transformational, might emerge in the process.


Each Turnip painting is a 24” x 32” horizontal rectangle containing a more-or-less-complete kit of parts that includes: six discs representing each of the primary and secondary colors, with these discs connected much like molecular models from Chemistry class; a row of upright green “spikes,” thin triangles that line up across the middle of the canvas, somewhat resembling cartoonish blades of grass in close-up or Italian Cypress trees on the distant horizon — often interacting with additional bands of upright and inverted spikes; and the titular “turnip” — a sort of rounded brown shape that lurks behind many of the other layered elements but not exactly in the background. “Of course, actual turnips are whitish and not potato brown,” Fowler reminds me. “But the reason for that apparent mistake gets lost over time, with each new painting. It is the nature of the series. Turnips are bland and the paintings are trying to be anything but. Still, there is an appropriate inappropriateness to the name.”


The background — if that’s the right word — of each Turnip painting is, in fact an existing painting by Fowler dating as far back as 1993, re-stretched for the occasion. Such underpainting is mostly buried underneath new layers of paint, but is still visible here and there, and evidences a much different approach than Fowler has employed in recent years: For example, a scalloped band of thinly-applied watery blue runs along the bottom of Turnip #8, 1993/2010, and Turnip #10, 1994/2010, features blushy blocks of pink and lavender — pastel colors Fowler typically sidesteps these days in favor of unmixed solids. The earthy, inevitably-abject brown of the socalled turnip shape represents the mix of all colors and similarly marks a contrast with the vibrant primary and secondary colors, as well as the abundant passages of black and white.


This isn’t the first time Fowler has re-purposed existing canvases. Coins of No Realm, for example, dated 2000-2007, is constructed upon the foundation of a 10-foot-wide painting that first appeared in his thesis exhibition. And even a small painting such as Tigers, 2006, suggests the accumulative nature of Fowler’s approach: What first registers as a white monochrome with a black border is, upon closer inspection, a dense palimpsest of painterly gestures and mostly-hidden collage elements (including the striped animals of the work’s title). Fowler suggests that “scratching, scraping or blotting — with different papers or cloth; everything does something different — affects the color of each patch of white, so the different whites break up the space and also hold the painting together. Areas that seem to be ‘erased’ are also quite active.”


An aside that is hardly beside the point: The archaeological layers of Fowler’s paintings have always reminded me of Willem de Kooning’s Excavation, 1950, an extraordinary all-over painting I remember seeing in person at the Art Institute of Chicago at the age of 19. It shouldn’t have surprised me that Fowler knew the painting well and visited it as an undergraduate at the School of the Art Institute. Excavation is remarkable because it hides more than it reveals. (In this sense, Rauschenberg’s infamous Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953, is more of an extension than a repudiation of the “violated” subject.) But the information “unearthed” — passages of gorgeous color, but also body parts and a toothy grin — suddenly flips from the underpainting to become the main event.


In Fowler’s Turnip series, accumulation is usually, but not always additive; numerous areas of abrasion and scratching represent removals as well. Sometimes, when the addition of paint obliterates an image or “information,” the notions of construction and demolition appear to be two sides of the same coin.


The layers of Fowler’s paintings suggest time passed. The left side of each Turnip painting is a literal margin, and typically (though not always) the sparest part of the painting. At least at first glance. The landscape where I grew up appears spare too, yet the gently undulating topography was formed long ago by the repeated freezing and unfreezing of a glacier’s southern edge, suggesting a complex but mostly invisible history. Fowler’s paintings don’t look like glaciers, but they work much like them — gathering elements in order to organize and disorganize them, swallow and spit them out, over time. Runny Bird, an artist’s book accompanying the Turnip Series, renders the relationship between layering and time physical. Images and text pile up as one turns the pages. Here, a cartoon of a woolly mammoth in a barren, rolling landscape is casually situated atop a newspaper article about telescopes; a few pages later it nestles in the hollow “belly” of a biomorphic ceramic sculpture by Noguchi.


Fowler has admitted his interest in the non sequitur. One suspects the turnip shape that gives this series its name works much like a non sequitur — a MacGuffin, a red herring — motivating the swirl of surrounding activity, propelling the layered narrative forward, but ultimately representing a means rather than an end. The turnip — a root — plays a supporting role, rather than a starring one. “You can’t really erase the figure from painting,” Fowler notes. “A vestige is always there (the very idea of negation is itself a trace), but you can try to undo the idea of figure/ground by uncovering multiple distinct, yet open, forms that cannot be focused on simultaneously. Working in series only intensifies this problem.”