What Do Ryan Trecartin and James Elkins Have In Common?

by Paddy Johnson on December 13, 2010 · 5 comments Opinion

Ryan Trecartin for W Magazine

Currently making the Internet rounds is artist Ryan Trecartin’s IMG MGMT-like essay for DIS Magazine — a detailed set of instructions and images that went into the creation of his fashion spread at W Magazine. Perhaps not surprisingly, the inside look at Trecartin’s process has received far more facebook views and tweets than the spread itself.

The piece reminds me of James Elkin’s “How To Look at a Mondrian“, published this October in The Huffington Post, which similarly brought in a boatload of tweets and facebook shares. According to Elkin’s, his article aims to reveal “how we see the world”, through examining the process of reproducing paint application. The text is purely mechanical in nature, like that of Trecartin, with the unwritten assumption that a reader would come to understand Mondrain paintings better by reading about how to reproduce them.

While Elkins does a pretty good job of explaining why the paint application of Mondrian is skillful — it’s careful and achieves luminosity — the trouble with his essay is that not many other conclusions are drawn. Elkins tells us only that Mondrian’s paintings are “painterly” and meant to be seen from a distance. The first conclusion is a stretch, the second we already knew.

There’s probably more to take home from Trecartin’s instruction set, if for no other reason than it comes from the artist himself. No reflection occurs within the text, just images and objectives. It’s basically an answer key to his work. A few examples:

BODY MAKE UP: I want Ashland’s Body to very extreme contour makeup work. So that his muscles look Customized…(his skin and muscles are on the same level of hyper maintenance as his hair).

In post remove the Ring and Finger on Both Hands. To look like Choice Single Culture. &fuck the album.

Each brace will be attached to a 3D Icon/App Object. The brace holds this object/button in suspension between teeth, never touching any material.

Theres a Tradition in New Orleans where people pin money to the shoulder of a birthday. I want to Pin Ashland with 3 credit Card substitutions.

To read the full piece click here.


hypothete December 13, 2010 at 5:34 pm

This article has been making the rounds for about two months now… Trecartin is good at drenching his imagery in symbols, you should see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UM7SrDJPH38 as well (fits into his current aesthetic.) The spread is an illustrated view of the present, like each person has all of these interactions with brands and media everyday, and Trecartin is literally attaching them all over their bodies to show how complex it all is. He’s addressing cultural signifiers, which is pretty gutsy.

As for the breakdown, pretty tl;dr imho for content supposed to be zero attention-span media saturation. Interested to know whether Trecartin released it intentionally or Dis just went for it since the people/brands are connected. Seems to me like the difference in audience (Dis readers are all artsy, disaffected Gen-Y net surfers as far as I can tell) matters quite a bit. Reminds me of how manga/anime companies release extreme limited edition collectors’ edition dvds/toys, priced for their 1000 hardcore fans that keep the brand promoted.

As problematic as it might be, the Elkins piece seemed to me like a good intro for people who don’t know a damn thing about how to look at a painting, because at the very least it emphasizes how paint and technique can mean a lot. Trecartin’s instructions, on the other hand, are more like a game than instructions in retrospective; spot the bluetooth makeup and Blingee text memes. You win if you ‘get it.’

Anonymous December 13, 2010 at 5:48 pm

You’re right – it is a little long, though if it’s just a set of studio instructions so I guess that’s why. The question of whether he released it intentionally is a good one.

I see the problem you cite with Trecartin’s instruction set, but it bothered me less. I didn’t mention it in the piece because I thought the comparison had a few problems, but it reminded me of Michael Kimmelman’s breakdown of Matthew Barney’s work. He described the work as intentionally vague, but then went into the work in great detail:

At one point, Barney showed me rough cuts of a scene of a man and woman in cowboy hats dancing a two-step. He explained it this way: The thin-waisted woman in the Victorian costume plays Faye Gilmore, Gary’s grandmother, who once claimed to have had an illegitimate son by Houdini. The story isn’t true, probably, but if it were (which is good enough for Barney), Gary would be Houdini’s grandson. Gilmore was the son of a Mormon, and when he elected to be shot by a firing squad, he may, at least subconsciously, have hoped to achieve immortality according to the Mormon doctrine of blood atonement. In Barney’s mind, this would be the ultimate escape, an escape from fate, although Barney prefers the word that Houdini used, “metamorphosis,” which suggests a defiance or contradiction of one’s normal condition (like the weight-lifter’s bench made of Vaseline or the artist in a cocktail dress).

In the film, Gilmore’s execution is turned, mythically, into a bull-riding scene at an arena made out of salt in the middle of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. From there, the film shifts to the Columbia ice field in Canada, where Barney is reimaging the World’s Columbian Exposition. (The Brooklyn armory was used to stage the interior shots.) The switch between execution and exposition is therefore twofold: in terms of time, two generations backward, from Gary to the scene with Faye, his grandmother, and in terms of geology, from the flats, once a prehistoric lake, to its source, the Canadian ice field.

Not quite the Trecartin treasure hunt, but still — it’s useful to know, and nobody’s going to catch all that without a key.

Jesse P. Martin December 13, 2010 at 7:29 pm

The key is helpful like some of Barry X Ball’s titles: http://bit.ly/fFlnqC

˚∆˚ December 13, 2010 at 5:49 pm


hypothete December 13, 2010 at 6:06 pm


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