BY Helen Molesworth in Reviews | 01 JAN 98
Featured in
Issue 38

Cheryl Donegan

BY Helen Molesworth in Reviews | 01 JAN 98

Frank Stella's famous Jasper's Dilemma (1962) ironically presented the choice between painting in colour or black and white. However, the work also implied Stella's own dilemma: what to paint. Surely Stella's 'Black Paintings' of the 60s did much to turn the hand of many a painter away from the canvas and the entire medium of painting in search of less blasted terrain. Yet to retreat from painting in the 60s was to enter a field marked by competing modes of artistic address: Minimalist sculpture, performance, silkscreen and the subtle and not-so-subtle working through of Duchamp's legacy. In other words, it was to face concerns with seriality, the body, mechanical reproduction and, ultimately, the problem of the artist's studio (for if Duchamp could purchase his art work already made, the studio was hardly necessary). In her most recent exhibition Cheryl Donegan takes up these problems by dramatising the dilemma the studio still poses for artists.

13 paintings and one video, collectively titled Scenes and Commercials: A Retrospective Development - The Movie, comprise an extended narrative modelled on the sequential structure of plot development in movies, where each painting is a scene and the video the soundtrack. The dilemma posed by these paintings is both how and what to paint. The paintings, all unprimed canvases stapled to exposed stretcher bars, contain a cascade of types of images and means of mark making. They deploy the hard edge and the well-worn stripe, summoning

Barnett Newman and Kenneth Noland as much as Stella. These stripes contend with indexical marks of hands and feet, pencil drawings, and representational interludes comprised largely of advertising imagery (Newport cigarette ads feature prominently), floating laundry baskets, and images of the artist lifted from her previous video work.

In Scene Six: That's all the stain lifter that's all a larger than life film strip divides the canvas vertically, as do human footprints. It is a painting that straddles the two primary challenges to illusionistic painting, both abandoning the upright position of the easel (the foot prints) and registering the impact of mechanical reproduction on painting (the film strip). Here the painterly problems of index, content and expressiveness converge, and yet their art historical connotations are held in check by a modest pencil drawing of a stack of laundry baskets and a bottle of detergent. The reference to the banal labour of cleaning, a daily necessity turned into a parody of hygiene by advertising, is a counterpoint to the painting's continual struggle over mark-making - cleaning, of course, is the activity of removing marks, and is here aligned with the fleeting mindlessness of advertising imagery. Painting is supposed to transcend precisely these daily banalities, yet Donegan presents the artist's studio as an ambivalent theatre, in which the struggle over mark-making (be it in art or commercials) is held in relation not only to the mark removal of cleaning, but also to the late Modernist strategy of the reduction of marks to their most essential qualities.

In the midst of these paintings, which now read as an empty studio, a video monitor shows a banal image of a corner of the artist's studio, painted with stripes. The soundtrack sets the exhibition on its head. It is an out-take of the recording session of the Beach Boys' hit single Help Me Rhonda. The Wilson's father has arrived drunk and belligerent at the studio and badgers his son to 'sing from the heart', because, as he bullies, 'success comes from your heart'. Brian Wilson can only respond with irritated exasperation that the 'times are changing'. As we listen to the Beach Boys work out the harmonising for the do0-wop background vocals, the seeming effortlessness of pop music evaporates and all those conversations with music buffs who put Brian Wilson was on a par with Bach come flooding back.

Here encounters in the studio are stretched to cover popular culture, where the struggles over how and what to make are apparently no less a site of contest. While the out-take shows us the labour and generational struggles inherent in pop music, it also illustrates pop culture's insistence upon a cleaned-up end product, devoid of any of the marks of making. As a soundtrack for this theatre in which painting, cinema, and the quotidian converge, it activates what is for Donegan an everyday drama: her paintings offer indexical proof of this struggle between the production and reduction of marks in the studio.