"The Best Art In The World"
Daniel Healey: 3M (Letraset)
PBA Projects, Los Angeles
Originally Dec 11 to January 21 (now extended through February 28)
By INDIA MANDELKERN, January 2021
One sticky summer afternoon in 2005, Daniel Healey inadvertently ripped off a piece of Scotch tape stuck to a Stone Brewing Co. cardboard box lying around his mother’s plush suburban condo. When the twenty-four year-old looked down, he found the horned face of the Arrogant Bastard mascot smirking back from the flimsy adhesive. Transfer techniques are ubiquitous––found in blue chip artwork as often as homemade greeting cards––but, for Healey, transfer-via-tape set a private game in motion. Some texts (low-tack mail order catalogs mostly) let him “steal” the ink. Others would resist or self-destruct. Healey has spent the last fifteen years collecting this precious material, strategically sucking pigment off the rare willing pages, and transmuting thousands of thumbnail-sized dabs of ink-loaded tape into richly layered abstractions that interrogate the definitions and boundaries of painting.
These works (plus a series of drawings) comprise 3M (Letraset). It’s the inaugural exhibition of PBA Projects, a pop-up “independent creative platform” devised by Pietro Alexander, a first-gen Covid-era college grad (the ceremony, he told me, was viewed from his parents’ bedroom) and Light and Space scion (son of the trailblazing Peter Alexander, who captured Southern California’s dazzling palette better than anyone else, and passed in May 2020). The venue (for the time being) is the bottom floor of Gallery 169, a modernist glass box just off of the Pacific Coast Highway, a hundred yards or so from the beach.
Citing “popcorn loops,” “jute strands,” and “deeply marled yarns,” the titles of Healey’s works often hint at the upscale furniture and lifestyle catalogs from which he extracts his material. Otherwise, you’d never know it. By gleaning smidgens of the luxurious domestic products photographed therein and transferring them onto hand-stretched canvases, Healey's rhythmic fields of pareidolia-inducing abstractions dramatize the subtle poaching operations we use to carve out sovereign spaces within an evermore insidious, attention-hungry, and totalizing consumer culture. Of transcendental to (homeostasis) (2020) demonstrates the extent of our powers at the margins; whatever representational content that Healey might have drawn from disappears into a shimmering ivory void. The appropriations at play are more explicit in Of (title) of untitled (2016/2020), a febrile and muscular eruption of color constrained within tight, gridded geometries, like a city hit by a hurricane. Only from inches away do you notice ghostly imprints of the source material captured and reconfigured by the tape: a combed cotton towel, a wicker seat, the egg-and-dart pattern on a piece of molding.
You could call these Scotch tape works collage, but they have a procedural kinship to painting. (When you allow that “paint” is really just a mixture of pigment and glue, it’s hard not to think of them this way.) The catalog is the palette. The tape is the brush and the varnish. The completed works look not only painterly but also opulent and lustrous; accreted layers of tape lend the works a glossy, resin-like sheen. You have to get very close to notice their faux craquelure-like effect. Healey is an expressionist in that way. He refuses to hide his brushwork.
The last works you’ll see in 3M (Letraset) are eight nine-by-twelve inch drawings hanging on the gallery’s inner right wall. These are also products of transfer techniques. Created by rubbing commercial typeface off of vintage Letraset sheets––tools used by mid-century ad men to design signs and corporate logos––these works also explore the potentialities opened up by subjecting throwaway found material (some of which still works, some of which doesn't) to games of chance. The results, however, look anything but. All eight drawings share an exacting, musical grammar. By recasting typeface as unencumbered design, Healey short-circuits the functional ends that the materials once served.
Healey’s enthusiasm for these games extends beyond the artworks on the walls. The press release posted outside the gallery’s door is transcribed with found Letraset sheets. So are the so-called business cards inside, free for the taking and riddled with jokes, puns, and fake phone numbers. Some of these cards might find their ways into the pockets of collectors and patrons. A lot will get lost, laundered, or thrown away. These yet-to-be-charted destinies are essentially the point. They extend the show beyond the hard white walls of the gallery, situating the artist somewhere between idealist and mercenary.
To ask what “counts” as a painting or drawing is a well-trodden modernist question, and 3M (Letraset) works out of a familiar conceptual toolbox. There is nothing new about making art from objects headed for the garbage. There is nothing new about sourcing pigment from found sources, recasting typeface as sculptures, or subjecting oneself to games of chance. Yet within this well-worn framework, these precocious and confident works illuminate the innominate pathways and opportunities camouflaged in conditions of scarcity. WM
India Mandelkern is a historian and writer based in Los Angeles. She has written about food, design, and the social worlds they sustain for numerous publications. Her first book, Electric Moons: A Social History of Street Lighting in Los Angeles (Angel City Press) is forthcoming in 2021.view all articles from this author