The conceptual artist’s show “construction season” runs through Aug. 5 at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.
A chunk of Madison’s busiest streets undergo substantial enough development to frustrate residents every summer. As soon as locals and students considering becoming locals could enjoy an emptied-out college town, the construction season begins. The first signs of heavy machinery and horrible noises to come are the spray painted neon arrows, lines and numbers on the pavement that reference the otherwise invisible infrastructure of pipes and wires beneath our feet.
These communications, between the city and the private contractors who work on that infrastructure, are the subject of visiting Spanish conceptual artist Irene Grau’s exhibition, construction season, running through August 5 at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. After being pulled to Madison for a residency by MMoCA curator Leah Kolb for what was initially expected to be a piece about Madison’s abundance of nature, Grau instead discovered and investigated these marks that pepper the sidewalks and roads. Grau then traced the symbols, created metal replicas, and painted them the same flashy neon colors.
“The idea is that no one really looks at the markings,” Grau told me in an email conversation, “because they are perfectly integrated in the everyday urban landscape. The funny thing is that those marks have been designed to be visible—colors choice proves it—and actually they are invisible.”
According to a gallery statement, Grau’s conceptual art, which draws inspiration from artists like Francis Alÿs who also documented walks, is partially grounded in a tradition begun by impressionists like Claude Monet, who often painted outdoors, visibly in contact with their subjects. The goal of this “plein-air” painting practice was to immerse the artist in nature to better capture the subjective feeling of a scene, including the wind in the leaves and the play of sunlight on branches.
But construction season isn’t concerned with sunlight or wind. The work points instead to human waste, systems of energy and urban development—subjects that are not quite so idyllic. But they are subjects through which humans must reckon with nature, and these intersections have a long history as a focal point in fine art. Monet’s paintings can be interpreted as a culmination, or execution, of this intersection, as impressions of nature that passed through his painter’s eyes.
“I am simply expanding my efforts upon a maximum of appearances,” wrote Monet to the Impressionism hype-man and art-dealer Durand-Ruel, “which are in close correlation with unknown realities.”
An unknown reality is that which we know exists, but that can’t be comprehended. While the universe fits this description, so does Madison’s sewage system. Even the workers who laid the pipe are unable to see this crucial system in its totality. A blueprint is a handy reference, but doesn’t help you visualize, for example, the texture of the pipe. We can only make crude, utilitarian references to these unknown realities, like spray-painted shorthand.
Here’s where Grau breaks with the impressionist philosophy. Construction markings aren’t a language of personal expression, but of hard, anonymous labor. The individuality of workers who spray-paint the code disappear in that moment of action, and Grau does nothing to reassert this missing individuality. The one picture in the gallery that includes workers cuts their heads off at the frame, highlighting their anonymity.
“From my monochrome painter’s gaze, I can’t avoid seeing these workers as performative painters,” Grau says. “These are paintings with no author, no dates, even no places, no matter who and no matter when. They have no particular site. It’s a dispersed painting, and could be everywhere.”
Grau draws on her extensive background working with the “painted monochrome,” or canvases filled entirely with a single color, to re-contextualize these symbols. What monochromes mean varies significantly between artists and interpreters. The tension in monochrome paintings can be between the formal aspects of painting (like brush strokes) and the spiritual experience of viewing a purified object. Sometimes monochromes are meant to be utopian visions of a world of color, and other times they are experiments in hiding the humanity of the artist in order to show something pure about the paint.
Many people find monochromes pretty boring, as I did before I read a bunch of essays about them. In a travel journal accompaniment to her 2014 exhibit color field, which reads almost like the opposite of construction season, as the artist brought monochromes into the landscape, Grau even recounts an encounter with someone who didn’t like a bright orange panel she had installed on a beach.
Grau writes, in the documentary-style narrative in which she later breaks her leg, “She makes a disapproving face at the idea that an orange panel stood up in the sand could be considered art. I don’t blame her.”
People seem to think monochrome paintings are an easy out. “My four-year-old could do that,” the cliche goes. But it’s actually not easy to meticulously fill a canvas with a particular hue and texture without mistakes. It’s possible that this is from where the frustration often comes, from the idea that a painter would intentionally hide their labor after you’ve paid hard earned money (or even just spent some free time) to gain access to the gallery.
In Grau’s hands, construction markings as monochromes point directly to labor, and to the physical systems that are supposed to guarantee our basic health. Displaced from the streets into the gallery, the language that refers to the way the pipes that whisk away our waste and cycle in tap water can feel seamlessly magical, as most people who use the infrastructure don’t know how they work. But it isn’t magic. It takes enormous investment of people’s bodies, time and money, and when these systems stop working, we have a massive social problem.
From the perspective of gallery attendees, who are likely art-minded folk, this construction language has been translated from one specialized code to another. The two speakers with their two separate languages, of fine art and blue-collar labor, will likely never meet, at least not in the gallery space. As Grau invites guests to rearrange the symbols, it’s like attendees are playing with an alien language, with the writers long since vanished.
I’m not arguing that this deliberate mistranslation is a mistake on Grau’s part. It’s possible that this is precisely the relationship Madisonians have to the ongoing development sweeping the city, in addition to the annual tradition of ripping up roads. People are obviously hard at work, but residents don’t necessarily see this as a benefit. It can be, as Kolb says, “an annoyance, but something that we take for granted.”
While I walked around my neighborhood in search of accidentally painted twigs and stones, which Grau asked guests to bring to the opening earlier this month, I met some construction workers preparing to tear the street up. They confirmed to me that the markings are for private contractors, and that the symbols themselves are also painted by contractors. They were indifferent to the conceptual appropriation of the symbols. Days later, the road on which we’d stood together was replaced by a hole and fences. I didn’t want to interrupt their work to talk to them again.