Hirsch E.P. Rothko

By Hirsch E.P. Rothko, a pseudonym of Christopher K. Ho, with Inez Kruckev, Winkleman Gallery, 2010

Jeremy Abernathy

Hirsch E.P. Rothko is an intellectual bear trap: a semi-fictional ghostwritten autobiography by artist Christopher K. Ho with quick storytelling and a sense of humor so sharp the time spent breezing through this thin volume produces a stinging sensation that lasts for days. Beginning in 2009 Ho abandoned his New York-based conceptual art practice for one year to become an abstract painter in Telluride, Colorado, a rustic mountain town with a population just over 2,000. Ho’s mission in this self-planned residency was to create artwork “disengaged from critical discourse,” distancing himself from the noise of big city life and the bland intellectualism that had been frustrating his creativity.

During his sojourn Ho produced Regional Painting, a solo exhibition that debuted last December at Winkleman Gallery in Chelsea. Hirsch E.P. Rothko, printed as a pocket-sized paperback, serves as the show’s companion text. Its pages detail the fall and redemption of Ho’s alter ego, Hirsch E.P. Rothko (an anagram of Christopher K. Ho), the text’s charmingly neurotic narrator who Ho, in service of a more total Gesamtkunstwerk, credits as the originator of the artworks in Regional Painting.

The presence of Ho’s mysterious ghostwriter, identified only as Inez Kruckev (another anagram), adds an intriguing dynamic of layered, collaborative authorship that also explains stylistic variations in the text. Chapter 2, for example, reads like a comedic homage to Notes from Underground. When Rothko’s detached arrogance exacerbates his dismissal from Rhode Island School of Design (where Christopher Ho was once a professor), his description flows elegantly: “As I cradled the phone and listened to myself being fired I gazed out at the beads of water denoting icy-coldness Photoshopped across the thirty-foot width of the double-triangle peaks, the left hand one behind the right and larger than it, while I tried to muster the interest to fake a plausible degree of indignant surprise.” Such long, confident sentences indicate the hand of an experienced fiction writer, or the touch of at least one skilled editor.

Chapter 4 introduces Rothko’s hippy companions—local Colorado artists—who spend their days riding mountain bikes and doing magic mushrooms in scenes reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon’s writing, pre-Gravity’s Rainbow. After an art history lesson up through Barbara Kruger, Hans Haacke and Jeff Koons, Rothko finally concludes that regional painting “isn’t about a specific look or style” but “an argument for an alternative model,” advocating for community instead of academic esotericism and rigorous contemplation instead of cutthroat competition. But how, one might ask, is a ski-resort village in Colorado a model that can apply to every region? How would it compare to somewhere like Santa Fe, another tiny town with its own regional culture and established relationship to the art market? And why abstract painting? Why not performance or a variation on Pop art or any number of other genres or techniques? For all these unresolved questions, Ho’s optimism still rings sincere, and the problematic doors he opens prompt further discussion about what regional art can be.

Jeremy Abernathy is an art critic based in Atlanta and the founding editor of BURNAWAY.org, an online magazine and destination for engaged dialogue about the arts.

Christopher K. Ho provides a free PDF download of the entire book at Christopherkho.com.

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