Glee: Painting Now
Art New England, Feb/Mar 2001
By Craig Stockwell
“Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was a theme song of the Reagan Eighties. I didn’t buy it then. But I am ready to confess that we live in a more Edenic time now and I am thus ready to entertain the curatorial assumptions that underlie “Glee” at the Aldrich Museum. The assumptions, essentially are these: abstract painting has thrown off the yoke of serious preoccupations that have weighed it down and these painters are painting out of a generous urge to express their glee.
How is this glee expressed? The most common thread that runs through these works is intense color and smooth surfaces that show no brushwork. The work selected does have a very NOW quality to it. Many of the artists use digital imagery or digital tools in the initial phases of creating their images. This is a strong and serious show, despite its title, and many of the best of current abstract painters are represented here. This is an important show to see if you’re interested in the current condition of abstract painting, or painting, or art.
The Aldrich has not hung a painting show since 1994. During this period there is no doubt that painting has fallen outside of the “dominant discourse” of art making, a discourse recently focused on installation and multi-media. This is one way in which the “weight” of painting has become lighter, with painting pushed to the margins of artistic discussion and presumed dead it was actually able to work as a medium less concerned with carrying the meaning of art. In our current culture effective expression comes mostly from the margins, thus, in a curious way painting has achieved the possibility of becoming more meaningful by being less important. Aren’t these wonderful times?
An entire show of painting that shows no brushwork. Why is it that the abolition of the painted mark indicates a liberation from the weight of painting? It probably connects with a general cultural fatigue with the self-absorption that the Boomers have led us through during the past thirty years. This show is representative of a potential cultural shift. The shift is from a culture dominated by the Boomers. The Boomers, in the eyes of those attempting to un-seat them, are a generation mired in melancholy and self-importance. The artists in this show are presenting work that is quick, decisive, weightless, and not pre-occupied with explorations of self. It is also smart enough work that one can assume that all those issues are nonetheless considered.
In 1986 Yve Alain Bois wrote an essay entitled, “Painting: The Task of Mourning.” This essay and the book of essays of the same name have been important reading for all students of contemporary painting in recent years. In simple terms I would say that this show of Glee represents that the task of mourning has been completed. These are painters who perhaps never even knew the deceased, and are now anxious to get on with life. The other option is to consider this attempt at levity to be a serious and offensive act of superficiality in the face of a grim and decaying reality that we in fact live in. It is a choice, a point of view, and these two curators: Amy Capellazzo and Jessica Hough have taken the optimistic view that, “abstract painting, perhaps the most serious and headstrong form of the visual arts, can¹t take your call right now because it¹s out having a good time.”
My personal history reflects that of my generation. I’m a late Boomer, born in 1952. After initial success with minimalist sculpture in NY in the late 70s my work has turned to painting and for years has been based on the notion of discovery through excavation. Think: DeKooning, Ryder, Bill Jensen. Curiously, it was during a very difficult time of grieving, when my mother died a year ago, that my work rapidly moved into an airy, quick, and bright form. It was not the type of catharsis I would have expected. This work made me extremely nervous at first; I felt that this work lacked substance and meaning in that meaning comes only as the result of struggle and working the dark passage. There is, however, a feeling that after a long hard hike I am finally strolling in the open air of a ridgetop. I am committed to a sensuality of paint and presence of the body through gesture that I feel these artists have eschewed. But considering the questions of surface and color as well as how content is generated has raised difficult questions that my own work needs to address.
I see melancholy as a cultural phenomenon common to my generation. The richness of feeling that often results from Melancholia remains its justification; failure to act or to accept an authoritative (parental) role is the symptom. And we, being an anti-authoritative generation, had our justification for this continuance. The idealism of the 60s, and indeed of Modernism, has kept many of us focused on ideas of perfectibility or mired in discouragement. Either way there is a melancholy involved and a refusal to accept that there is some loss, some grief, albeit unnamable.
Freud defines the terms that outline melancholy as a pathology of retentiveness wherein grief is repressed and illness results. Mourning is, “the reaction to the loss of a loved one or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one…an ideal, [etc.]” In painting, what we had lost, in the passage to postmodernism, was the ideal of art as an endgame. Modernism carried with it the idea of perfectibility, the idea of moving towards an ultimate goal. That pursuit no longer made sense to the postmodernists. Yve Alain Bois emphasized that that which painting must mourn is the loss of “the end of painting.”
Melancholia was the illness that rendered painting inconsequential. In speaking of the illness of melancholia Freud did describe a potential resolution, “The fact is, however, that when the work of mourning is completed, the ego becomes free and uninhibited again.”
This is a moment in time. At this moment it is interesting to note that some artists have freed themselves from a weight that was restrictive and repressive. It was a weight that came from a cultural generation that demanded an end to repressive forces and inevitably created their own. This is what art does best, surprises us. It offends and extends our notions of what is morally right. The superficiality of this show is its offense; as a result what has to be examined is our resistance to surface. This show is strong enough to make such questions possible and present.
There are 20 painters in this show. Several of the artists have received considerable attention lately, some have appeared in recent Whitney Biennials: Linda Bessemer, Ingrid Calame, Peter Halley, Stephen Mueller, and John F. Simon, Jr. For no other reason then because their work raises particular issues for me about painting at this time, I’m going to look closely at only eight of the artists represented.
The Possibilities Available Because of the Limitations Inherent in Painting
Yek is a Chinese artist living in Las Vegas who creates shaped (curved) surfaces painted in intense and original color with very self-conscious interventions of a few painted squiggles in hotly contrasting color. These paintings lead me to think of Robert Irwin and his paintings from the 60s. Irwin achieved a rigorous and reductive body of paintings that led him to examine every nuance of surface, color, shape, lighting and surround so much so that he eventually moved on to working entirely with light and space and left painting behind. This is generally seen as an evolution or even a progress, but, at this time when all progress is open to re-evaluation, I feel that Irwin also abandoned a rigorous research and moved into theatrics. What was left behind was the chance for the viewer to continue to see Irwin’s thinking worked out within a restricted form, much as a poet is restricted by (and liberated by) the traditions and boundaries of poetic form. Our culture has tended to applaud movement away from given forms and the heroic quest to break new ground. I have no idea if Yek is even conscious of Irwin’s work but my assumption is that most painter’s today, having moved through academia and various MFAs are extremely conscious of their choices and very well versed in critical theory and the “study of Artists.” Regardless of any specific relation to Irwin, Yek is certainly working with and against the decisions of how to work as an artist in a field where ALL possibilities are now open. Yek, in revisiting a form that was abandoned by Irwin is finding meaning in the limitations imposed by painting. Yek’s painting provides an intensely visceral viewing experience, a lively encounter with color. That this happens with an object that is a painting refers the viewer to the entire realm of Painting that has gone before and provides a reference and sense of ongoing inquiry into a common problem, the problem of Painting. Irwin’s work implies an end to that problem and a newer and more important problem to move on to. It is a different and very interesting inquiry, but different from painting. Yek’s work provides evidence of a younger artist looking at the options available and rejecting the theatrics of Irwin, and installation work in general, in order to “gleefully” encounter color and form in a very immediate way.
Painting and Conceptualist Method
Alex Blau’s paintings are small, about 1 foot square, and she makes them with multiple layers of resin so that a thick and glossy surface is created with wonderful, out of control, goopy ridges forming on the back edge. What I want to address is Blau’s method for developing content. The imagery is taken from snippets of packaging and is thus neutralized of content. Of course packaging refers to content and social commentary. But randomly chosen package designs as the basis for image making removes the responsibility for creating image-content, so that the image-content arrives as a given, just something that attracted the artist’s interest. There is, of course, content in having made the choice of choosing in that manner. This manner of beginning a work with random occurrence is the methodology of conceptual art. The beauty of conceptual art is that the idea sets the work in motion and the artist is removed from willfully or spontaneously interrupting the process. The idea is that within that constraint natural and imaginative forces are unleashed to create the work. It’s a little like back door Surrealism, or Surrealism without the dripping clocks, without the imagery.
Digital Imagery and the Sense of Place
Alex Brown’s work resembles early geometric abstraction except that the patterned images have a compositional element that is compelling and mysterious. “Port Gentil” appears to be a somber geometric study of interlocking shapes, very satisfying. It is that, but in addition we learn that the image results from a blow-up of a digital image of Port Gentil in Africa. Amongst environmentalists the “sense of place” is an important notion in preservation and community building. Lucy Lippard wrote a disappointing book on this subject and its relation to art called The Lure of the Local. This concept is easy to sentimentalize. Brown’s evocation of locale is cool, distanced and paradoxically quite intimate and engaging. It’s a surprise in this show to discover the role that the computer plays in so many of the works, a surprise in that “computer art” is perhaps arriving ubiquitously rather than the bright and empty printouts we see in shows that feature computer art. Again it is technology being embraced and enfolded that is represented by these uses of the digital. This is a sign of artists at home in their culture. People at home in their culture tend to be gleeful. Dostoyevsky and Kafka were not at home in their cultures.
Composition, Color, and the Symbolic
At the opening the curators of the show gave a walk-through tour of the works. Stephen Mueller’s work was passed by and only called to attention by a guest. I felt that there was some discomfort in his inclusion here. His work doesn’t fully fit the curatorial idea; it is more complex, symbolic, and layered. There’s darkness, in spite of the saturated color. He is an exquisite colorist as well as being able to wrest original and profound figure-ground experiences from his painting. His work is evocative of the spiritual without being specific. The “figures” in his painting suggest Buddha-like presences and other forms of spiritual symbolism. I began to think about composition. On the one hand many of the paintings in the show choose the conceptualist method of deriving an image from givens: Ingrid Calame traces her shapes from street stains in LA; Carl Fudge scans images into his computer, manipulates them, and then transfers them to canvas. But several of the painters are very consciously composing their pictures. It seems so old-fashioned. Mueller’s sense of placement of the five elements in “Plum Blossoms” is so lacking in symmetry and so accomplished in finesse that composing almost becomes the content of this work. Abstract painting has not paid much attention to composing elements, certainly not since the Abstract Expressionists. Abstraction has tended far more to be absorbed in process. It makes me think more of David Salle’s work, without the specificity of images. Mueller’s work refuses to occupy a clear and didactic territory; perhaps this is what marks it as different. So much of the work makes one point clearly. This is the success of the superficial, the adherence to surface. “Plum Blossoms” questions the surface, hints at depth, toys dramatically with figure/ground. There’s glee here, but of a darker sort.
Greg Bogin has two works in the show. I experienced them very differently. “Have a Nice Day” is the painting in the show that I feel most aptly expresses glee. The work appears glib and corporate, a soft-shaped canvas in soft candy color with a rectangle in the center. It looks like a very contemporary logo. But the painting works on the viewer and begins to deliver more than expected, very satisfying and intelligent relationships of forms. Something pleasurable in the color and size. It reminds me of sublime experiences I had in front of Barnett Newman paintings 25 years ago, and this is a surprise, which is what sublime experiences are all about. “The Hospitality Industry” is a “hard-edge” painting, three colors, tough and shiny enamel paint. The figure ground relations might be sublime but they remain obvious and superficial. What I can’t help thinking of here is that era that occurred in the 60s when even life-long abstract expressionists dropped their paint flinging and picked up masking tape to create “hard-edge” painting, much of the resulting work was sterile and quickly dated.
Monique Prieto continues to get incredibly intelligent and sensual results from her limited, blobby vocabulary. In her work the few shapes painted flat in 50’s pastel colors have an exquisite way of just touching, just meeting, just parting. In places one shape seems to be over the other and hiding a part then slips aside and reverses the relation. In this show where you’ll get no sensual satisfaction from the paint itself, unless your idea of a beautifully painted surface is the hood of a brand new car, the sensuality comes in more discrete ways. This goes back to my initial observation about what unites this show; the total lack of worked painting surface. In a recent review of the Guggenheim show “1900: Art at the Crossroads” Richard Shiff noted how the entire show lacked any “polished surfaces.” The artists of that time, he theorized, in reaction to encroaching technology immersed themselves in the hand-work of painting. Territory they could still hold on to. So here we are at another time of rapidly changing technology and we have a group of artists responding with open arms. This embrace is shown by the polished surfaces, we like this world, it pleasures us. The heavily worked and impastoed surface connotes struggle and catharsis; these painters reject that method and by extension reject that worldview of self-inquiry as being a tortured process.
Finally there’s the painting of John F. Simon, Jr. This work pushes the definition of painting in that what appears is a small computer monitor mounted on the wall. It is so un-like all of the computer art I have seen up to this point. The piece makes a connection to Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie” in terms of palette and the grid of NY streets that appears as one section of the image. Within that section little black squares move that re-create actual traffic patterns on those streets. Sometimes the image switches to red, yellow, and blue. There are about five elements that make up the image and they are continually moving in a way that the artist says will NOT recur EVER. This improbability of recurrence represents a mystical step forward from the usual taped loop multi-media presentations we see. Mystical because it evokes the infinite, mystical because we have a machine presenting an intriguing and living glowing image that refers to the traditions of painting in an unexpected and intelligent form. It is intriguing that in this exhibit where surfaces are hard and dense this machine presents the liveliest surface, albeit beneath the polished glass of a monitor.
This is a moment in time. “Glee:Painting Now” captures an isolated aspect of this moment and presents it coherently. Go see how it feels, are you ready to be happy?