I’m not sure that David Korty’s heat-hazed paintings of Los Angeles, London and Venice really believe in art. It’s not that they’re sceptical about it, which is always healthy, or that they don’t believe in other things (among them painterly special effects, the efficacy of the viewer’s viewing habits and a market climate in which the painters of cute, intensely chromatic canvases shift serious units), but rather that they stake so little on it. Believing in art means becoming embroiled in its complex pleasures, pains and tests, its demand for vaulting leaps of faith. Korty’s paintings do not do this. They play it safe. They know their targets, and speed towards them with Exocet precision.
Korty’s work isn’t unique in this; much contemporary painting shares the same worrying, wearying faithlessness. Nor is it precisely bad, if bad implies a lack of skill. Canvases such as his Untitled (Trafalgar Square) (all works 2004) – in which faceless figures, looking like the Mogadon-becalmed inhabitants of an Edvard Munch, mill about in front of a lozenge-windowed Georgian façade – display considerable technical ability, a bravura understanding of how line, colour and relative massings of paint may come together to make an image. The work’s weak spot, however, is its inability to convey meaning. If one were to write a list of its various components (it’s latte-strength trippy-ness, its latter-day Fauvism, its tourist-bus subject matter), one might use it to make a case for the painting as a comment on, say, the banality of the idea of the city as ‘urban playground’, but nowhere is this cogently argued on the picture plane itself. Untitled (Trafalgar Square), like much of Korty’s oeuvre, relies on the viewer to spin what is essentially a pretty picture into something weightier. Is this an act of audience ‘instrumentalization’, or is it (as I suspect) one of rather shaming cynicism?
The last time Korty showed at Sadie Coles HQ, in 2002, he presented a series of images of his native Los Angeles. Hot, muggy and seemingly painted in lab-fresh chemical additives, they spoke of the surprising romance of the city’s topography. Although this trope was nothing new (it appeared, for example, in the 1991 Steve Martin film LA Story), the show was zestily alive, and had a hard-to-refute internal logic. By expanding the subject matter of his painting to include London and Venice, Korty should, theoretically, have expanded the scope of his practice. On the basis of this show, however, his urban hymning has contracted into mannerism. Take his Untitled (St Mark’s), a view of Venice’s St Mark’s Square as seen through a lilac-shadowed colonnade spattered with drips of white paint that might allude to Jackson Pollock, or to pigeon shit, or (given that this is Venice) to both. The painting employs the same softened acid colours and dreamy atmospherics as the earlier images of Los Angeles, but here they seem misplaced. While the LA landscape is all about disorientating similarity, St Mark’s Square is an immediately recognizable location. The effect (with unintentional irony) is of a hack street artist painting the piazza ‘in the style of’ Korty, in much the same way as they might paint it ‘in the style of’ Canaletto.
Perhaps Untitled (St Mark’s) makes more sense if it’s seen as a pendant piece to Untitled (Tate Modern). Both Venice (with its Biennale) and Tate Modern are arty places, albeit ones that might be accused of prioritizing an undifferentiated ‘celebration’ of art over what that art might actually mean. Perhaps significantly, Korty chose to paint Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall as viewed from its main entrance. This is the most art-lite area of the building: a sloping, empty boulevard flanked by a café and a vast shop. Again we might possibly infer a critique of contemporary urban leisure here, but Korty’s canvas doesn’t bear this out. All streaky paint and dappled light, its as though Camille Pissarro, the most dim-witted of the Impressionists, has set up his easel in the museum foyer, exchanging painting en plein air for painting in air-conditioned comfort. If Korty’s paintings existed in a vacuum, it would be unfair to criticize them for being unreflecting or lightweight (sometimes unreflecting, lightweight things are exactly what we need). However, they exist, like a lot of work of their ilk, in a context in which reflection should matter, and difficulty should be embraced. It’d be easy to gild them with well-chosen words (they provide us with enough nod and winks), but that, of course, would be an act of bad faith.