"I so desperately want these things to be visual," says Lauri Chambers, warning that she doesn't like to talk about her paintings, doesn't want to answer why she's been driven to make black-and-white abstractions for as long as she can remember, at least since grade school when a teacher had to tell her to put away the black and pick up any other color, or why the paintings, six decades later, are always squares—or why they're here at all. Like abstractionists before her, Chambers wouldn't use paint if she intended words. She attached only one word to her 10 new paintings and smattering of drawings at Francine Seders Gallery: Selah, the exhibition title, a word that appears 74 times in the Hebrew Bible but whose exact meaning and history are unknown. A word that creates a gap where multiple theories can rush in but none will be a precise exchange for the lost thing itself. Given all this, it's generous and interesting that she agrees to talk with me.
"Even when I started, I guess I would have to say it was something like a terrible act of faith," she says. "There just wasn't really anything else to do. And there have been times when I have been unable to work. Or it just didn't seem to be enough. But I would hate seeing that written down."
"I just feel so vulnerable," she says, vulnerably. "It just sounds too like I'm a good person or a sensitive person or a mad person to say those things about oneself and why you do it. I mean, I really don't know what else I would do. Coming to painting probably saved my life, and that just sounds so melodramatic. I think I'd rather sound like a biologist."
The paintings at Francine Seders, where she had her first solo show in 1994 and her most recent one in 2008, are not quite on the wall, not against it anyway. They stand about an inch and a half out from it, each labored-over square—each one a field of black and white built up and scraped and scrubbed away—made on a terribly thin panel, almost as thin as a cracker. The depth of that unseen hollow cavity between a stretched canvas and the wall turns out to be so reassuring, but Chambers doesn't allow the reassurance. Frank Stella circa 1959, great modernist believer in flatness over illusion, would be pleased. But it does not feel like 1959 looking at Chambers's paintings. For a few years now, I've wondered how she does this, how she keeps my attention right here and now using so few tools: black, white, square. They are not untitled. They are just not titled.
There are more literal tools that litter her studio: rulers, straightedges, pencils, paint, sheetrocking knives, rubber mallets for spreading, razor blades, rags, green scrubby kitchen pads. There's the occasional art paintbrush, but more often, she buys tools at Napa Auto Parts. Each painting is extremely refined, even rarefied—its own world completely separate from ordinary concerns. But each one is also a messy construction site. What's being built?
Unlike when I visit a more narrative exhibition, I write copious notes when I'm in front of Chambers's paintings. I want to remind myself before I forget the tiny flickers of pure white that spring up like surprise flames in fields of dirty, dusty, scraped-over whites. I momentarily indulge the idea that a scratchy black area looks like the aftermath of someone trying to escape a prison cell. "But it isn't. Nobody desperate is meant here," I also write down. There are thickly frosted sections, corners where paint has been pushed and piled up against a hard edge. Why? I see architectures, black areas signifying hallways with the lights out. Why is there a glob there? Partly erased lines and smears turn the surfaces into halted stop-motion animations with all the frames layered on top of each other at once.
An unrelated idea pops into my mind: "Is the zebra a white animal with black stripes or a black animal with white stripes?" Stephen Jay Gould wrote, in an essay about the human drive to categorize things, which in the case of the zebra apparently turned out to be very difficult for science. Are Chambers's multilayered paintings black first or white first? Their backgrounds and foregrounds shift and shuffle like cards as I look; it would be impossible to decide, yet it's impossible to stop wondering.
Sometimes the stripes look out of alignment, like one half of the painting has been shifted upward or downward from the other half, but the perfect alignment of certain areas always reveals this to be illusory. If each painting is a sovereign territory, one wonders about the governing intelligences. Whatever they are, it's clear to me that I won't be receiving their instructions on stone tablets. Or from an interview with the artist. The only questions she can really answer are ones like "Do you ever use your fingernails?" No.
"I remember years ago reading an anthropologist talking about a language versus a sign system, and they said that with a language you could say 'no' to reality," she says. "I just don't think you can do that with purely visual art. I think that if you can strip out the words, you kind of have to tell the truth. I think the responsibility of a painter—well, it's our responsibility, but I don't know exactly how to do it. We're kind of responsible for where your eye goes."
It is impossible, she says, to misunderstand something visual.