PAINTING 2008 AT GALLERY PROJECT: A REVIEW
Department of Art History,
The University of Michigan,
June 5, 2008
The press release for “Painting 2008” (on view at Gallery Project until Sunday, June 22) situates the exhibition on the other side of the longstanding debate over the possibility for painting to be modern, let alone contemporary-- “after modern painting was nearly declared ‘dead’ by leading minimalists and art critics of the mid and late 20th century” (emphasis mine). The pathos of this notion that painting could and maybe even did die is not just a matter of rhetoric. It speaks to the power of this particular class of human creative enterprise in the popular imaginary. And if one were to allow for the death of painting, then the next logical question, “If no longer painting, now what (art)?” makes plain the primacy and centrality of its position within the arts as a whole.
The situation for painting that emerged out of this state of affairs was the paradoxical one of being saved by the very parties claiming its end, and suffocated by those anxious to rescue it. The radical expansion of the terms for art-making and reception beyond the conventions and traditionalism associated with painting-- i.e., the turn away from painting in the sixties-- was inevitably brought (back) to bear on painting: hence the return to painting. Artists who directed their energies to practices other than painting-- i.e., rejected painting-- nevertheless could not withhold their discoveries from obtaining for painting as well, framing their practice as they did, as revelatory of the nature of art as an institution. While these artists segregated painting from the rest of art to deleterious effect, in essence to de-patriate and disenfranchise it, the apologists for painting worked the same boundary from the other side. They conceived of the ultimate aim (and end) of painting as self-critical self-definition, the “winnowing down” of painting to its fundamental elements.
The overriding concern of this period was, as one of the critics who declared painting dead asks the question, “What is it that makes it possible to look at a Paleolithic cave painting, a seventeenth-century court portrait, and an abstract-expressionist canvas and say that they are all the same thing, that they all belong to the same category of knowledge?” The strength of the works in “Painting 2008” is their having moved past the issue of “what is painting.” It is worth mentioning that Robert Rauschenberg, one of the greatest minds to practice art around that question, passed away two days prior to the opening of the show, on May 12, 2008. Mr. Rauschenberg’s singular contribution to the question was the modulation of “what is painting?” to “what may (or may not) painting be?” The wit, play and grace he brought to his propositions clearly did more for painting today than the dogmatism more characteristic of “ambitious” and “advanced” painting of the period, as the same qualities mark the most successful works in curator Adrian Hatfield’s (professor of painting at Wayne State University) roundup of local and national painting in 2008. But do not expect the paintings to be any less challenging because they open themselves up to “play,” and any less thoughtful because they aren’t hung up on the question of what painting is: there are many more questions for painting to ask of itself than what it is. A few anecdotes of my own experience of the show will start us building this list.
I went to visit the gallery on a Sunday afternoon. There were one or two visitors, as the beautiful weather and an annual street fair offered competing diversions. But at a certain point, the gallery was empty except for Rocco DePietro, gallery co-director and also one of the artists represented in the show, and me. In the stillness and relative quiet of the gallery, I was able to hear the sound of water running. My first thought was, “Is it part of a painting?” I looked around for a painting depicting water first, and then for speakers (which is telling in and of itself). There was a brief moment of paranoia that I’d missed something both obvious and crucial. And while I sat there, puzzled, it slowly resolved into recognition that a toilet had been flushed somewhere in the building, much to my chagrin. This is a rather different sort of confusion about painting than what an early 20th-century viewer in front of an abstract painting might have felt. It is less to do with not “getting” or “seeing” what is pictured than with where the picture lies, i.e., where it is perceptually, sensibly, physically and temporally situated. Painting is no longer constrained to the archetype of oil paint that covers a stretched canvas hung on a nail in the wall. While these liberties considerably widen the range of options available to self-identified painters, it also requires of them a keener editorial sensibility to avoid the shoals of “anything goes.”
Hatfield proves himself to be in possession of such a sensibility, as he has assembled an effective survey of contemporary painting here. Not only does one get works that keep to painting’s “classic” preoccupations, such as surface incident, depiction, and-- most impressive for this reviewer-- technique, but also paintings that push the category in new directions, yet still manage to remain quintessentially about painting.
The first work on the exhibition checklist, Matthew Scarlett’s Chair Painting, is the most conventional painting in the show, and quite intentionally so, I think. As an easel painting with oils, it is what usually comes to mind when one thinks of painting, and thus serves as the baseline for comparison for the rest of the paintings in the show. The strength of the work is its demonstration of the peculiar operations and relationships simultaneously at play when it comes to a painting. This simple painting of a chair “shows” how one paints a parlor-room armchair upholstered in a currant and forest green striped fabric with regions of color, how stripes “fold” with the addition of darker tones of the same color, how to differentiate on a single plane the seat cushion and the chair’s back. The painterliness of the chair’s execution (the evidence of paint’s manipulation on the surface) inspires faith in the skill of the painter’s hand. The floor is in stark contrast: one struggles to get the flatly painted planes to cohere into a “floor.”
Directly across from Chair Painting is Ashley Hope’s gouache on paper. One wonders about the decision to hang this particular work by the window, in the most visible (and thus privileged) position in the gallery, given the “raciness” of the subject: a close-up view of a young woman’s crotch rendered in monumental proportions. One guesses from the delicate swallow print of the girl’s panties her youth, and Miss Hope’s statement on the painting identifies the subject as Miss Downes, the object of her adolescent fascination with puberty’s transformation of the female/ her own body. Although some of the sexuality implicit to the body part figured has been diffused by decontextualization, the image remains an unsettling one. The anxiety and incongruity built into the experience of puberty seems to be suggested by the sublimated violence to the swallows, which are “swallowed” by the girl’s inner thighs and the seams of the panties’ construction.
The pièce de resistance is the 12 x 73 upended Styrofoam cups, whose bottoms (now viewed from above as the “tops” of the cups) are painted in fluorescent green, orange and yellow and arranged on the floor like so many tiles. I almost walked through them, as my eyes were trained to the wall, although I’d noticed the floor piece upon entering the gallery. I wonder how many others were similarly caught unawares while traversing the gallery floor, being conditioned to look for a painting on a nail in the wall.
The nail in the wall is exactly what is foregrounded in another installation painting by Mark Fox. A delicate assemblage of ink and watercolor drawings gathered loosely into a ball dangles from a giant, ominously surreal-looking hook from the wall. Talk about utter subordination to the viewing apparatus.
Sarah Buckius takes the most liberties with the term painting: hers is an “animated digital performance painting.” Truly a painting for the HD era: a small room (cell) in which the artist (I presume) performs various poses represents a pixel. This modular unit is rotated and distorted using a software program for image manipulation to create abstract patterns. Here, a painting is defined as something that is presented to the viewer at the same orientation of a traditional painting, irrespective of the materials used/ absence of paint.
Roland Beamish’s three integrated works are among the strongest in the show. The complexity of what’s going on in each, from the frame with organic-feeling cutouts, further embellished with layers of adhesive cutouts that continue the stratified effect of the bezel cut frame, to the truly bizarre imagery that hearkens to a post-genetic-meltdown era, is done in a minimal palette that doesn’t overwhelm the viewer. Past and future intersect in these works in peculiar ways. The futurism implicit to the imagery nevertheless seems dated, like the future as imagined a decade ago, from when Dolly was cloned: think how the future as pictured in the Jetsons reads to us today. Yet the tour de force technicality of its construction puts us right back in the artisan’s workshop/ artist’s studio of centuries ago, a model supplanted first by the industrial factory, and then the 2001: A Space Odyssey clean room of computer chip manufacture.
One of my favorite pieces in the show is Susan Bricker’s Bed. I love the way that the “sheets” are both actual sheets-- of paint applied to plastic and peeled off when dry to create little paint tiles-- and represent sheets, doing exactly what bed sheets do-- wrinkle, bunch up, lay on top of other sheets. The painting is built up in the way that paintings are, layer by layer. But in Miss Bricker’s piece, the layers don’t blend into one another. The liquidity of paint as a medium has been rendered into sculptural units by Miss Bricker’s ingenious technique, thus isolating each “brushstroke.” There is a wonderful tongue-in-cheekiness to the door that “opens into” the room, inviting us in-- the archetypal picture window painting of the Renaissance tradition. But because the bed is painted “in relief,” it exceeds the room and is “outside” of it.
Nicole Gordon’s two mixed media installations are the weightiest works in the show, both in terms of the feeling communicated to the viewer (“serious,” “dark,” “menacing”) and sheer size. She directly cites from the paintings of Pieter Brueghel and Hieronymus Bosch, masters of the Northern counterpart of the Italian Renaissance. The paintings literally come off the wall, as the paper cutouts and tree sculptures installed in front of them continue the pictured scenes into the room. The paintings’ strong sense of directionality-- from background to middle ground to foreground-- is critical to establishing the paintings’ continuity via the installations into the room. The more I look at Miss Gordon’s paintings, the more I’m convinced that hers is going in the direction that painting should go in order to remain challenging. They demand something of the viewer that a lot of art nowadays is just unwilling to give the viewer credit for, opting instead to offer up the “fast and easy” of pop culture.
While completing my review, I overheard Rocco explaining to a visitor that one of his works was “as much about decision making as paint.” I am happy to report that, from what I can tell by “Painting 2008,” there are a lot of good decisions being made in and for painting.
 Douglas Crimp, “The End of Painting,” October 16 (Spring 1981), p. 80.