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Abstraction Meets Atari: Jeff Elrod at the Modern


by Jerome Weeks 18 Feb 2009

Jeff Elrod, Pong, 2002, acrylic on canvas Cindy Schwartz’ review in Art&Seek KERA radio story: Expanded online story: [crowd noises, amplified speaker:] CURATOR ANDREA KARNES: “Jeff is here with us tonight and he’s going to say a few words about the exhibition …” applause] The Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth has just opened a […]

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Jeff Elrod, Pong, 2002, acrylic on canvas

  • KERA radio story:
  • Expanded online story:

[crowd noises, amplified speaker:]

CURATOR ANDREA KARNES: “Jeff is here with us tonight and he’s going to say a few words about the exhibition …” applause]
The Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth has just opened a new show in its Focus series. These shows are reserved for smaller exhibitions of works by an up-and-coming artist.

The Focus series also helps winnow the art works — for possible purchase. At the end of the season, members of the Modern Art Museum’s “director’s council” vote on buying a single work from the series.

This Focus exhibition showcases Jeff Elrod, a 43-year-old painter who grew up in North Texas and lives in Marfa. His work has been seen at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York, the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston and a dozen galleries in America, Italy and Amsterdam.

It’s only nine paintings, but this is Elrod’s first solo exhibition in a major art museum.
ELROD: “It’s really cool to do this here, which is, like, coincidence, maybe? I dunno. But it just makes it extra special because I studied around here.”

Elrod studied painting at the University of North Texas. He was fortunate, he says, to be taught by the celebrated art critic Dave Hickey and noted painter Vernon Fisher, who continues to teach there.

ELROD: “Vernon was a great teacher. You know, he teaches you how to think and see. He did not teach us how to paint. A lot of people, I think, were thrown by that. A lot of art schools do teach you how to paint. But our school we had a group of people there, and they were all teaching us how to see and how to think about art. At the time I wasn’t aware of what they were doing, but in hindsight, I think it was sort of genius. ‘Cause if you’re an artist, you’ll figure out what you want to make. You’ll figure it out intuitively.”

Elrod always drew, he says, but he became fascinated by art history, particularly the postwar heyday of American abstract painters, artists like Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. Elrod’s paintings take the geometric building blocks of minimalism or abstract expressionism — the flat squares and stripes — but he adds elements that normally aren’t found in abstraction. They’re much more common in pop art.
Elements like irony or playfulness. It’s hard to imagine a yellow rectangle being ironic. But Elrod sees abstraction through a computer screen. He fell in love with using a computer mouse to draw — he calls it “frictionless drawing.” But he wasn’t interested in producing the glossy, 3D images one associates with computer graphics — because his other teenage love was the joystick. He played computer games.

Some of his paintings are literally playful – full of game play. There’s a great visual similarity between minimalist art and the earliest computer layout programs and video games. Think of Pong.

We’re standing in front of a 1994 acrylic painting by Elrod called Endgame (above). It features solid blue blocks that seem to be shoving a row of ant-like critters off the canvas. You might recognize these as the aliens from the old Atari game Space Invaders.
ELROD: “It’s got like a Barnet Newman image, it looks like, and then I have a Space Invaders image butting up next to it, where the Newman is eating the Space Invaders. I don’t know, my interest in art was overtaking my interests that preoccupied me for the previous 15 years.”

Elrod has even taken Jackson Pollock’s famous splashes and squiggles and reduced them, ironically updated them, turning them into clean, sharp lines.

He first draws an image on a computer and projects it bigger, which he then paints by hand, even leaving in scrawled commands like “delete” or “save.”

Elrod finds the process and the results beautiful – almost childlike but crisp and smooth.

ELROD: “I think it’s a subconscious influence. Because I can remember thinking it was beautiful to sit in front of a black screen and watch those Pong paddles and the perfect squares. There was something that at the time that I thought was cool. I was absolutely seduced by it.
WEEKS: “So we can blame your art on video games?”
ELROD: “Definitely. [Laughing.] I hope I can transcend the lowbrow state of that, but — whatever.”

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