Nathan Hylden’s paintings are at once austere and magnetic.
His solo exhibition at Midway Contemporary Art in Minneapolis juxtaposes two main elements: 32 monochrome canvases painted in a gradient of blue-gray, and eight aluminum panels that portray a magnifying glass on top of what looks like cement painted with swaths of purplish-blue. The latter suggest a search for something else, but the satisfaction of “Nearing on to Do” (which ends July 1) is less about the work and more about the seemingly endless series of vantage points it offers to the viewer.
Lined up along the perimeter of the gallery, the canvases encircle the aluminum panels, mounted on temporary walls. Your view of the show depends on your position within the room, causing one to think about spatial dynamics. Half of the magnifying glass paintings appear faded, like a photographic negative of the others — think of the difference on Instagram between a Clarendon filter and a Nashville filter, with light brightened. Washed-out-looking pieces face others with starker contrast, creating another series of gradients.
The banal nature of the magnifying glass is a play on the object’s actual purpose, which is to give people a “closer look.” Here, there is no magnification at all, making the glass akin to the pipe in Rene Magritte’s “Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe.”
The work reminds me of New York artist Cory Arcangel’s “Photoshop Gradient” series for their seemingly ready-made quality and ability to take the mundane and recontextualize it within an art context.
Originally from Fergus Falls, Minn., and now living in Los Angeles, Hylden has had his work shown internationally. The meta-conceptual quality of this show is somewhat dry, and at times most concerned with its referential quality — a magnification of what is already happening, or what is already there.
In an essay for the artist, Jason E. Smith writes of the aluminum panels: “They are, in a sense, not there.” He muses on the ephemeral nature of Hylden’s paintings: “If the paintings that we came to see greet us only as ghosts, their time offstage lingers in the room, coming off the wall and off the stage to be with us, around us, and maybe even looking back at the surfaces where painting went missing.”
Perhaps it is the cinematic place where the paintings were created, or maybe it is the interplay of space that suggests a mysterious quality to these works.
I think of the shootout finale of Orson Welles’ 1947 film “The Lady From Shanghai,” which takes place in an amusement park funhouse.
Welles plays a man who has been framed for murder. He confronts the femme fatale (Rita Hayworth) and her jealous husband in a hall of mirrors. The couple fire their guns repeatedly into the mirrors until both are mortally wounded.
In the multiplicity of mirrors and reflections of images, it’s impossible to see the “real,” so it’s necessary just to keep shooting at one — at what it might be — and leave the rest to chance.
In Hylden’s exhibition, that same sense of chance is in operation, with the goal being not to understand what the paintings are of, or about, but to examine them from as many vantage points as possible. Because therein lies a way to “look closer” — by continuously looking again and again until you get the shot you like.