What Tony Tasset’s Spill Paintings lack in their pictorial realization they make up for in engaging other senses. It is impossible to talk about these paintings solely through optics, since they depend so much on their synaesthetic effects. Viewing the works elicits a phantom experience—you see their scent, visualize their sticky texture, picture the taste of their innumerous drips and pools, all the while imagining the faint echo of the catastrophic incident that could have brought the compositions into existence. Though they feign mishap, these paintings are not household accidents. The series of five works currently on view in the main gallery of Kavi Gupta’s Washington location are meticulously crafted—pours of resin and pigment, paired with their apparent packaging assemblaged onto the surface of the canvas—yet posture as domestic casualties. Swathes of sanitary cleaning-product-blue are met with deep magenta expanses of wine, sickly sweet pools of lemon-scented residue, thickly spread passages of chocolate sauce, and spurts of creamy, medicinal baby pink. Phantoms manifest in many ways—and Tasset’s paintings do not haunt so much as help fulfill their own purpose through the more phenomenological implications of their illusion. Like a patient who does not recognize a portion of his physical body as missing, absence is present in these works, perhaps more palpably than the thing itself.
There is something baited, even slapstick about the humor in Tasset’s subject matter. The relationship to painting is referenced in glib fashion; the associative pun to taste—both in its sensory and cultural definitions—is too facile, too direct. Yet, while Tasset appears to set up an innocuous and even featureless commentary on taste itself, which blandly addresses the broader qualities of looking at painting, and not the potential qualities of the painting itself, he manages to strike an odd chord with a relationship to still life. Tasset takes the dead and makes it deader. The spills vibrantly float above the surface of the paintings, never quite permeating the crisp white ground of their surface. Despite their attempt at rendering motion, the tableau is rendered more stagnant, more immobile and un-breathing by the very nature of their transparent attempt at illusion. Tasset’s canvases secure a type of unmovable permanence and tenacity that mocks the viewer as equally as it undercuts its own status as a theatrical object. The viciousness of the gestures is at once solemnly contrived and hysterically direct.
But why fake an accident? On the one hand, the paintings firmly refuse to admit their materiality—the pours are never from the source they claim, but remade and falsely staged to appear unaffected—and on the other, they openly state their dishonest standards—after all, why else recreate these spills on a painting if not to point to the falsity, the lie of their creation? The compositions fall somewhere between pre-modern artifice and a Pop attempt at the readymade, or appropriation through objets trouvés from the supermarket aisles. At the press preview, Tasset remarked, “it’s hard to look at these paintings without feeling it in your gut.” Indeed, the revulsion one may feel from the work is still linked to a kitsch sensibility; it is a codified and digestible reaction—a very tolerable and familiar sense of distaste. As for feeling, the paintings hardly cater to a romantic sensibility, but the seductive qualities of the material exist as a series of latent ghost reactions, just beyond the painting and forever half out of reach.