For the past five years Peter Wegner has shown his paintings based on paint chips - the kind you find at a hardware shop and, if you're like me, hoard by the handful, for the sheer pleasure of their absurd microcosmic order. At once a name, a code number and a rectangle of chroma, each paint chip is a world unto itself, a Proustian memory-trigger where a sour pink called 'Calypso Ruffle' transports you to some vague and hopelessly romantic elsewhere.
The slick surfaces of Wegner's enamel on aluminium paintings have all the charm of that elsewhere, but underneath they are troubled by the incommensurability of the paint chip's union of gridded structure, numerical order, affective language and colour - the mother of all unnameables. How can so many shades of red claim the same name when, clearly, language's system of difference can't fracture fast enough or splinter small enough to cover the range? Wegner, who also writes, seems to know the pleasure of the attempt to name. But pleasure or no pleasure, there is always the problem of capital and its ideological effects. After all, the paint chip is an advertising tool - a ploy to make a buck on a dream. Wegner's work makes these systems palpable, not through barefaced institutional critique, but by quietly elbowing some room into their rigid structures or - as he says in his book The Other Today Is the One You Want (2002) - by 'open[ing] up the space between the lines' and 'push[ing] back the horizon'.
What can language, the law and capital - the symbolic economies that produce the spaces of everyday sociality - learn from colour? A lot, by Wegner's estimation. Take green, for example, at once as innocent as Dandelion Green and as envious as Market Green - or so 1 or 125 Greens (2002) imagines, a six-foot painting that abuts a field of colour with a cacophonous column of 125 names for different shades of green. By pairing his better-known paintings with a dozen smaller-scale works, most of them never previously exhibited, this show revealed that while colour may be the reluctant centre of Wegner's work, the grid and its kin, language and the map, are the idioms he speaks fluently, recalling the concerns of so many artists from the 1960s and 1970s. But Wegner's work is not entropic or obsessively rational. Instead of the materiality of language, he attends to the materials with which our lives are inventoried: the policeman's ledger, the accountant's bar graph, the distribution of belongings dictated in a last will and testament.
This aspect is the thread that tied together all the works at Griffin. It is evident in the screen prints entitled Positions (1999-2002), in which Wegner has projected information from found microfiche to form a vast and repetitive carbon-paper-blue network of letters and digits. Look closely and it becomes clear that these are someone's weekly stock position reports, partially worn away by a field of scratch marks transferred from the damaged microfiche. These prints look something like the mystic writing pad of an identity now beyond recovery, having been gridded over too many times. What is most interesting about the Positions prints is their movement back and forth between two incommensurate patterns: the drone of digital data on the one hand, alienating and anonymous, and the scuff marks that record the phenomenological life of the microfiche itself - their wayward travels around the streets of Brooklyn, where for months Wegner came across and collected these lost records. Illegible though they may be, it is these marks of effacement, and not the figures of financial biography, that bring us closest to the real.
Wegner's most wonderfully surprising conceit is the hole punch - not the hole, but its remainder. In Grid (Emphasis Added) (2002), a sheet of graph paper is spotted with dots camouflaged back into its grid. If the grid is built of absences, we have to wonder: what happens when subtracted form is returned - does it emphasize the loss, patch it over or provide a surplus? In freighting these tiny circles with the whimsy of a doughnut hole, the tedium of an office job and the melancholy of something deleted and discarded, Wegner invents a figure of the polysemy of everyday life, where an empty signifier can be exchanged for psychic capital, and alienation always wrestles with affect.
First published in Issue 69