Will Boone’s newest painting, Zed (2020), is a powerful, sharply graphic composition with layers of material and meaning that speak to the full range of his multi-disciplinary project. An artist whose paintings exist alongside sculpture, installation, and video, Boone observes the vernacular languages of numerous American subcultures even as he hones his own brand of renegade abstraction. Over the last decade, he has produced several interwoven bodies of work that bring together cues from an unlikely assortment of sources: hardcore and punk music (and the iconographies they engender), the architecture and ambience of bar culture, the unique material craftwork and brand allegiances of DIY hot rod and pickup truck enthusiasts, and the complex psycho-spatial terrain of his native Texas, to name but a few. At the same time, his work suggests new readings of modernist and contemporary art-historical trajectories, connecting formal and conceptual strategies to social realities in which aesthetics are not necessarily of primary concern.
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Zed is as striking for its intense color as it is for its layered construction. Combining acrylic paint, enamel, and bar top resin—along with the addition of a nylon flag—Boone moves in and out of each section of the composition, which slowly begins to emerge in both two- and three-dimensional terms. While he begins with the traditional painter’s support of stretched canvas, he quickly departs from standard painterly procedure, relying on a sculptural feel for his materials to develop both the black central form and the red field that surrounds it.
Adhering the flag to the canvas, for example, disrupts the standard rectangular flatness of the picture plane, creating a slightly irregular silhouette and introducing textural “noise” that will continue to inform the painting as it evolves. Each layer responds to the previous ones, and each material interacts with the others in particular ways. The acrylic red tends to stay closer to the physical foreground and operates in a more purely optical fashion than the other mediums. Meanwhile the black enamel and resin, which are usually used in non-art settings to cover functional objects, physically pull marks further into the depths of the accumulating surface, creating voids that can subsequently be loaded with more material.
It is worth noting that Boone employs resin not as an overall sealant, but as he would any other type of paint. He adapts to the behavior of its inherent properties throughout his process, which means that an element of chance is often at play: after applying it to portions of the painting, he vacates his studio for at least 24 hours, a period during which the composition might undergo changes that he cannot account for in advance. Like many of the materials he uses, the resin also retains its role from another context—namely its use in coating bar tops—which amplifies its impact and resonance. Bars and roadhouses have been a regular presence in Boone’s work, with their textures and logos suggestive of the bravado and renegade freedom that are fundamental parts of Texas mythology.
Zed is in many ways the culmination of a series of paintings Boone calls “Arterials,” referring both to their lurid, blood-red hue and their evocation of the blacktop linearity of highways. As curator Patricia Restrepo notes in an essay accompanying Boone’s 2019 solo exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH), “The legibility of these paintings at various distances is gripping, as upon inspection you seemingly witness the undoing, opening, or skinning of an object….The artist has a longstanding investment in color messaging, particularly the story of this decadent and stylized red, which he has called ‘the color of driving at night.’” Arterial blood is the most oxygenated in the body, meaning that it is also the reddest and most charged with vital life. Paradoxically, this red is so intense it borders on the unrealistic, calling to mind the fake blood that splatters throughout the scenes of slasher films.
“I think my relationship with color comes from my early days making concert posters and shirts. When you add a color to a silkscreen print, it complicates things. There is an urgency or a frenetic energy that is lost when a process is expanded….If it takes too long and the energy gets lost, it can end up feeling dead. It’s like recording music live in one take versus going track by track and doing each instrument. I’ve carried this into my painting without thinking about it.”
The Arterial paintings function on numerous semantic levels, taking their place in the constellation of typologies and different working methodologies that characterize Boone’s overall practice. Their association with blood and highways links them to Sweet Perfume (2019), a major long-form video that was also part of the CAMH exhibition and that offers a revisionist take on the life of Leatherface, the ferocious, deranged, masked protagonist in the 1974 cult-classic slasher film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Extrapolating from a few fleeting glimpses of Leatherface’s peaceable side in the original movie, Boone depicts the character undergoing a kind of invented homecoming, returning to Texas from California. Based in Los Angeles himself since 2015, Boone allows the narrative to echo his own experiences of traveling back and forth between these two immense territories in the American landscape and imagination. (A 48-hour online screening of Sweet Perfume will occur May 2 – 3, 2020. Please see below or click here for more information).
If the bare-bones aesthetic that informs Sweet Perfume relates most directly to the movie that inspired it, an emphasis on rough-hewn display and the raw force of materials have been important for Boone since the beginning of his oeuvre. In paintings that set the stage for Zed, he arrived at monumental letter-like forms by pursuing various mark-making routes. The orange lines that bisect and zigzag across Go It Alone (2014), for instance, were inscribed using acrylic spray paint, relaying a sense of speed that offsets its otherwise poised visual structure. This urgency has its roots, in part, in the ad hoc markings made by FEMA agents designating disaster-stricken buildings for demolition, a phenomenon Boone documented in photographs while spending time in post-Katrina New Orleans, and one that would also appear in his hometown of Houston in 2017 in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
The semantic economy of the lines—as well as the painting’s matter-of-fact presentation overall—share an affinity with tendencies prevalent in the work of artists aligned with Arte Povera. One relevant predecessor is Jannis Kounellis (1936–2017), who in the early 1960s made paintings and drawings with an expressive abstraction clearly evocative of numbers and letters. Austere, playful, and operating like signs, hieroglyphs, or mathematical formulas that increase mystery rather than explicate it, these works become interesting keys to Kounellis’s work as a whole. Kounellis worked in many different formats, refusing to settle into one predictable mode, expanding his vocabulary and his critical range as his career progressed.
A similar oscillation between concision and expansion—and between non-objective mark making and attention to conditions in the world—similarly fuels Boone’s movement between and within typologies and mediums, so that videos and installations provide context for paintings and sculptures, and vice versa. This fusion of minimalist syntax with a conceptual feeling for language and an immersive vision of art’s mutability calls to mind an artist like Bruce Nauman, whose text-based lithographs from the 1970s and 80s are filled with worked, overlapping letters and words that bristle with intensity.
While a painting like Go It Alone stands on the one hand as an independent formal gesture without identifiable reference, on the other it emerges organically from the artist’s experiences and interests. It thereby collects otherwise disparate observations, synthesizing them into a kind of symbol or shorthand that prompts instinctual responses from the viewer. Boone has related this aspect of his work to the use of sigils, talismanic runes utilized by practitioners of magic to access unconscious powers and revelatory insights. A group of paintings Boone produced between 2013 and 2017, in which he stenciled large, bold letters atop one another against monochromatic grounds, became known as the Sigil series and represents a condensation of this tendency. He traces their evolution to several formative influences involving typography and design, all of which shed light on Zed.
“I spent my formative years in Texas but I was always looking outward with a bit of yearning. Once I finally managed to leave for good, I questioned the imprint that the state left on me. My Texan-ness began to feel like a tattoo—something that might be admired in some situations, but maybe I should conceal it if I was going to a job interview. I was always wondering: What was the place I had come from? What is real about it and what was projected?”
Perhaps chief among these influences are the cattle brands that are a de facto feature of the Texas landscape. Used to determine the ownership of herds, these marks constitute an open-ended alphabet that is written on animal flesh with metal and fire.
Ranching looms large in Texas life and in Boone’s—his grandmother grew up on a cattle ranch that he visited frequently throughout his youth—and it has appeared in his work in various guises. This environment, with its rugged, even dangerous beauty, finds expression in both his overall aesthetic (including his preference for simple, bold mark making) and his subject matter. The artist's recent series of mask paintings, for instance, are surreal transpositions of icons from popular culture, and include forms based on the Texas state flag and a longhorn steer skull.
Produced using silkscreens derived from photocopies, these paintings reflect Boone's years spent making album artwork and flyers for punk and hardcore bands. He channels the bootleg aesthetic prevalent in such scenes, combining images from miscellaneous sources into mashups that immediately sear themselves into the mind’s eye. He has also mined the ingenious approach to design that gave rise to the logos for these bands. Raymond Pettibon’s four-bar emblem for Black Flag is perhaps the best known example, but others abound. The interlocking “V” and “A” used by the Houston-based hardcore group Verbal Abuse proves relevant when considering the trajectory that culminates in Zed.
As if to underscore the association, the 1983 LP on which the Verbal Abuse logo appears is wryly called Just An American Band; Boone also leans into tropes of American identity, paying homage to certain of its representative forms by deconstructing them, isolating their visual expressions and calling attention to the strangeness of their sheer presence. This thrust in his work is particularly evident in Boone's sculptures. In a group of objects based on the Chevrolet logo, automotive paints and finish are applied to three-dimensional renderings of the cruciform shape, lending them an otherworldly aura that the artist has described in relation to UFOs, but that also reverberates with geometric, minimalist sculptures by artists like Tony Smith.
Boone creates other sculptures by making enlarged bronze casts of plastic figurines he finds in hobby shops or at flea markets. Superheroes, monsters, and animals are among the characters he has monumentalized; so are the psychologically torqued, anxiety-producing environs in which these beings might be found, like jail cells or graves. Here too he remains cognizant of a sense of place, whether literally or in terms of an archetypal form's resonance in the culture.
An outdoor bronze sculpture like the recent P-22 (2020), which depicts a large wild cat with its fangs bared, poised to pounce, is a case in point. Its title refers to the tracking number given to the most infamous of the mountain lions who stalk their way through Los Angeles. The sculpture could be any wild cat; or the particular one who has inspired fan clubs and the kind of attention usually reserved for celebrities; or a paean to the model maker’s impulse to recreate the world by substituting one material—and one scale—for another.
Works like P-22 and Zed maintain vital connections to social spaces where their constituent forms and mediums hold special relevance. For Zed, this connection transcends questions of paint, support, and color. As its title makes plain, the “image” that snakes across its surface unmistakably evokes the letter “Z,” carrying with it echoes of finality and the end of the line. One can imagine moments of extremity that take place in bars, or result from the violent acts in horror movies—indeed, the “Z” almost feels like a slash, recalling Arte Povera again, now in the figure of Lucio Fontana. In Boone’s hands, the elements of written language are more than just components of an overarching semiotic structure. They are carriers of lived experience with discernible physical impact and startling immediacy, and their abstraction is felt in the body in addition to the mind and eye.
Will Boone (b. 1982, Houston, Texas) has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (2019); Galerie Patrick Seguin Paris (with David Kordansky gallery as the 2018 featured gallery of the annual Carte Blanche series); David Kordansky Gallery (2018); Karma, New York (2017); and the Rubell Family Collection, Miami (2014). A major installation was featured in Desert X 2017, Coachella Valley, California (2017). Other group shows include Zombies: Pay Attention!, Aspen Art Museum, Colorado (2019); White Trash, Luhring Augustine Bushwick, Brooklyn, New York (2017); Prototypology, Gagosian Gallery, Rome (2016); Andrea Rosen Gallery (with William Pope.L, 2016); Fétiche, Venus Over Manhattan, New York (2016); and Love For Three Oranges, Gladstone Gallery, Brussels (2015). Boone lives and works in Los Angeles.
To learn more about Will Boone, please view these articles from Artforum.com, Mousse, Texas Monthly, and Modern Painters, or purchase a copy of his Contemporary Arts Museum Houston exhibition catalogue, The Highway Hex, by clicking here.
Coinciding with One-on-One: Will Boone, Zed, the gallery will host a 48-hour online screening of Boone's first long-form video, Sweet Perfume (2019), which debuted in his CAMH installation. The video will be available to stream on-demand on the gallery's Vimeo channel Saturday May 2, 12:00 am PT through Sunday, May 3, 11:59 pm PT. Please click here to access.
Portrait and photography of Will Boone works, studio, and exhibitions by Lee Thompson, unless otherwise noted
Central banner image: Will Boone: Garage, June 2 – July 7, 2018, David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Installation view, Photo by Jeff McLane
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