Isaac Layman Still Refuses to Leave the House
And His Art Has Gotten Sadder, Lonelier, and Even Better in There
COURTESY OF THE FRYE ART MUSEUM
"The guy who made these was alone, in his house, 3 am, everybody else asleep," Isaac Layman says, standing in a gallery of his images at the Frye Art Museum. On the wall behind him, there's a giant close-up of a piece of adhesive tread that tore loose from a stair and caused him to slip one night. He righted himself, picked up the tread, and started photographing. Among the universe of photographable subjects, from sunsets to family, a stair tread falls in the most-boring category. He took its picture dozens of times, imported the pictures onto the computer, and pieced them together to create a composite that's an ultra-detailed portrait of every diamond of machined warp-weft in a small section of the rubbery material, printed the size of a grand landscape painting.
This is one possible response to the experience of being tripped on the stairs—turning an unplanned and unimportant unpleasantness into the vehicle for a majestic object of fine art, a monument that has traveled the greatest possible distance from the dumbest, dimmest beginnings to absurd blowout. It's a monument to the desire for a monument—ultimately a sad and alienated thing. "This work is a refusal to be disappointed," Layman says. But you have to see disappointment coming to refuse it. What was it you wanted that you didn't get? What was it you thought you were promised? Layman is a successful artist getting his first museum solo show, and it's a big production, with all new work and a hardcover catalog. Most artists never get this much support and attention, and at the press preview, he told the crowd sheepishly, "I guess it's glaringly obvious that I'm extremely fortunate."
He calls the show Paradise. It includes two dozen new works—one strains not to use the word "photographs," because while they look like photographs (and it wouldn't exactly be wrong to call them that), they are rather photographic constructions (like flat sculptures or collages with hundreds of hidden seams) outputted as inkjet prints on paper. All of them were made inside his house. There is also an installation of a series of windows removed directly from his house, framed, and hung on the gallery walls at the same relation to each other as they appear in their original location: his family's living room. A modernist point is made: Look at the surface, not through it. Yet you think of the family huddling this winter, the wind blowing in the holes where the windows were, everyone suffering for this non-art art. The windows are still dirty, streaked with children's fingerprints and bird shit.
For a handful of years already, Layman has explicitly stayed in the house rather than going out anywhere to hunt for inspiration. Having once referred to himself as an anti–National Geographic photographer, he implicitly rejects the colonialist implications of certain types of picture taking, and colonialism, in its broadest definition, is Paradise's backdrop. Layman says the alternative title of Paradise is Land Grab—they're two ends on a spectrum of human thinking.
Land Grab is the name of the only titled work in the show (the rest are not only untitled but unmarked by labels). It is a simple line drawing of a rectangle, done in black Sharpie, that forms a frame around nothing on a piece of white paper. Layman photographed the drawing multiple times, blew it up, framed it for the wall. It's a hungry spot in the middle of the exhibition, and it was given a title because its title is about titling: Land Grab refers to the act of naming and framing. "I'm terrified of frames," Layman says. He tells the story of the birth of one of his kids. He held it just after it was born. The moment he remembered he didn't know its sex yet, he suddenly needed to know, and he felt a frame descend on what until that point had been unbounded. He calls this moment the "land grab," for better and for worse. Another centerpiece of Paradise is a large image that looks, from afar, like folds of white fabric (or a nuzzling into the downy feathers of the Frye's most beloved object, Alexander Max Koester's 1900 oil painting of soft, fluffy, molting white ducks). Layman's source material is actually a disgusting pile of snotty tissues laid in water, the products of a round of sickness that hit the whole house. It's a hard image to get close to, makes you aware of a desire to remain separate from it, makes you grateful for the frame, while you still want to keep looking. It feels like an exercise in understanding the distance between looking and touching.
In a written statement at the beginning of the exhibition, Layman is quoted as saying, "I am not lacking, and my surroundings are not lacking." During the press preview, explaining why there are no labels, he also said, "The viewer is not lacking anything." These sound like mantras for convincing oneself, like "I refuse to be disappointed." But pointing to the lack of lack is a way of opposing romantic ideas, and not just about art. It suggests a model in which there is already enough, and that model might go far in thinking beyond the paranoid illusion of scarcity in a world of plenty—the kind of thinking that fuels forces like supercapitalism, the Tea Party, and histories of all-too-real land grabbing on this very land where Layman hunkers down to study the urge to grab, or, if you can't, to escape.
The final image in the show is like a great coffin for paranoia. Its edges glow red: It is a red tool case, opened and photographed from above so you look down on the gray foam molding where the missing tool would go. The molding is photographed so closely, it's like a sky full of stars. The case is made for a caliper, a device that can be used to measure distance without actually traversing it, by grabbing the opposite sides of an object. (Among other uses, a caliper is used to measure fat on bodies.) This device, writ so large, strikes fear because it reflects back an awful perfectionism—the molded shape is so perfect that it's horrible. If we are so good at measuring, why are our resources so misdivided? The two halves of the case are printed separately, each framed. You want nothing more than to slam them shut.