On Proceed to the Nearest Exit

By Max Fields

Paint rests on the surface of Barry Elkanick’s canvases like motor oil on parking lot puddles after showers. Monochromatic shades of whites and grays swirl around pastel hues of pinks and reds with contrasting blues and blacks. Each paint is sourced from cheap cans of home interior quality acrylics – think, the Martha Stewart Collection at your local Home Depot. His earliest works are comprised of this minimalist abstract aesthetic, but instead of appearing on freshly stretched canvas as the work does in Proceed to the Nearest Exit, Elkanick repurposed thrift store paintings, dipping them in white primer, masking the Sunday painter’s composition underneath. His cover up is not an art criticism. The reused or up-cycled art project begins when urgency and income don’t meet eye to eye. And when this reality is especially oppressive, the artist finds the means to work in any way possible. The thrift store paintings find a new home with Elkanick, they become his prime working materials; and one-by-one, treated to layers of paint, they are reborn. Elkanick’s cover up paintings make the claim: your trash is my treasure, and it is absolutely owned by me. They are the earliest examples of the DIY aesthetic found throughout much of his work. In Proceed to the Nearest Exit, the confrontation between economic hierarchy and creative labor (DIY) is given form as a large-scale installation, where his newest paintings rest high on jerry-built wood staircases. 

Proceed to the Nearest Exit began as a conversation that described an idealized solo-exhibition utopia: an exhibition where physical and financial constraints cease to exist and the artist is able to create with momentous ambition. The question “If you proposed to construct a solo-exhibition without physical or financial limitations, what form would that exhibition take?” prompted Elkanick to initiate a process of reverse engineering a utopian vision where-in the idealistic threads are unraveled to expose only the essential concepts critical to creating a solo-exhibition. These concepts would become the fuel for Elkanick to create the Proceed to the Nearest Exit installation. By the end of our conversations, Elkanick identified three utopian constraints:   

The work would exist in a white cube.

The work would fill space completely, be expansive, and would exist as an installation. 

The exhibition would respond to the imitation of reality.

As an artist without gallery representation, Elkanick’s interest in exploring white cube spaces arose organically through his experiences mounting his work in recent exhibitions; in his case bad. How many times can a painting be knocked onto the ground by an inebriated art opening audience before the allure of the house show becomes less charming? After producing numerous works that were shown in open-call, group exhibitions and finding his works off the walls and under foot, Elkanick wanted Proceed to the Nearest Exit to operate without the possibility of that incident. A white cube gallery space demands that its audience follow a vernacular of social decorum put in place by histories of institutional presentation and display. The white cube gallery space would become the dividing line that Brian O’Doherty famously described in his text Inside the White Cube: 

Unshadowed, white, clean, artificial—the [white cube] space is devoted to the technology of aesthetics. Works of art are mounted, hung, scattered for study. Their ungrubby surfaces are untouched by time and its vicissitudes. Art exists in a kind of eternity of display, though there is lots of ‘period’ (late modern), there is no time. This eternity gives the gallery a limbo-like status.[1] 

The white cube gallery provides context to view art separate from the grey concrete and pothole ridden landscape of Houston. The white cube allows the artwork to artificially disconnect from its locale and by doing so the work is freed from social issues, politics, and historical time, filtered by the pristine “neutrality” of unfettered white walls, silence, dustless, empty space. The white cube creates its own contained reality, one where the voices of the works within it do the majority of the talking. 

While Elkanick presents his work within the architecture of She Works Flexible’s “Flex Space” white wall gallery, it is important to recognize that “Flex Space” is not a traditional white cube. It is instead a space created with the white cube aesthetic in mind. And although Elkanick insisted on showing his work in the context of the white cube, his circumstance for presenting this exhibition wouldn’t allow for that luxury. In the same fashion Elkanick used to create his DIY cover up paintings, so too did Flex Space build a DIY white cube. The threads that link Elkanick’s DIY aesthetic to the Flex Space gallery’s architecture are examples of creative responses that allow for art to operate outside of the hierarchies that exist within the institutional art world. Following the institutional aesthetic sensibility, Elkanick’s paintings have been mounted with the same delicate care that would be given to artwork at blue chip galleries, but here the elegant display is quickly exposed by the architectural limitations of the space. “Flex Space” is an annex, a used-to-be retail store, and now a project room for She Works Flexible. Here, Elkanick presents his work within the illusion of white cube gallery space; but one white wall is actually painted brick, the floors are mismatched in the space’s three rooms, and a mirror remains installed, a previous tenant’s effort to create an illusion of larger space. Proceed to the Nearest Exit is presented in Flex Space as a stand-in for the unspoiled version of reality that institutions flawlessly create. But, by mimicking this reality without the ability to be precise, the space becomes an alternate reality, unable to completely mirror the experiential standards that keep these aesthetic hierarchies in place. To further illustrate the boundaries created by cultural and economic hierarchies–beyond the white cube gallery context– Elkanick has raised his artwork high, resting his swirling paintings on top of wooden staircases that lean against the gallery walls. These stairs extend the work into horizontal space, blurring the line between the physical and metaphysical dimensions, and divide vertical space, representing a socio-economic hierarchy–the work is positioned above the viewer–the audience will never stand at eye level with the paintings. Any attempt to climb the stairs would likely result in a collapse of the artwork and viewer.

Proceed to the Nearest Exit is densely layered in conceptual narratives and social commentary through its presentation and Elkanick’s desire to engage directly with his audience in the installation format, something he’s never done before. Unlike his previous exhibitions, he has created a large-scale installation that requires viewers to slow down, walk through the show, around the works, and take time to reflect on the work’s subject matter. Perhaps the title of the exhibition conjures up images of a long tunnel from entrance to exit, but Elkanick has instead organized his installation to influence the viewer to spend time in the gallery. If this isn’t the white cube experience you were looking for, the exhibition title gives instruction to the viewing audience: the entrance and exit are one and the same.

[1] O'Doherty, Brian. 1999. Inside the white cube: the ideology of the gallery space. Berkeley: University of California Press.