BY Michelle Grabner in Reviews | 11 NOV 99
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Issue 49

Examining Pictures: Exhibiting Paintings

BY Michelle Grabner in Reviews | 11 NOV 99

It is a great time to be making paintings, an exercise so out of step with late 20th-century globalism that we long for them in the same way we long for the certainty of Cold War politics. Paintings are tradition. They are still, yet effectual. They have the courtesy to let the spectator determine their physical space and conceptual distance.

Lounge acts or psychological examinations, social studies or studies in edge, painting's potential appears unlimited. Its vastness is the unnerving underbelly of 'Examining Pictures', a capricious exhibition curated by Judith Nesbitt and Francesco Bonami. The show - one painting each from 56 artists - is initially glorious, a haphazard salon of endless invention on canvas. Stitching, spraying, pouring, squeezing, stencilling, modelling, staining, collaging and stumbling cleave various sized vertical surfaces and sample myriad issues which span the last four decades. However, this enthusiastic rejoicing of painting's resurrection from its perennial death postures a visual language momentarily free from consequence: an exhibition of 56 paintings without any sort of criteria other than the fact that they hang on the wall.

Is painting so counter to our new global world that it is all good? Is painting's quality now intrinsic to medium instead of idea? Is it a site of intrigue because it is a means of imaging not defined by speed, digitalisation, fibre optics, computerisation and satellite technology? These are only some of the precarious questions this seemingly inert exhibition teases forth.

Like an ecumenical service, 'Examining Pictures' is a gathering of optical abstraction, clumsy figuration, colour field painting, photo realism, academic still-life, decorative pattern painting and neo-Expressionism. Paintings by Rudolf Stingel, Elizabeth Peyton, Glenn Brown, Udomsak Krisanamas, Peter Halley and Sue Williams are content in each others company, bowing in recognition instead of mistrusting aesthetic alignments or prodding conceptual convictions. There is no sparring, only congratulatory handshaking over that fact that painting will live to see the dawn of a new millennium.

Yet within the exhibition's cosy, non-chronological layout, it is not difficult to conclude that design fundamentals and the principles of organisation are once again the most convincing content in painting today. Anselm Kiefer's passionate reworking of European history or Sherrie Levine's icy parody of early Modernism appear disingenuous when compared to Laura Owens' use of single-point perspective, Vanessa Beecroft's figure/ground relationships or Ian Davenport's tenuous edge. Even John Baldessari's text painting from which the show takes its name, Examining Pictures (1967-68), is as triumphantly formal as Sean Landers' horizontal bands of thick colour pulled over a stretch of raw canvas titled I Can't Think (1994).

While the inclusion of paintings by Gerhard Richter, Glenn Brown and Vija Celmins fail to convince us of the viability of pictorial illusion, works by Damien Hirst, Andy Warhol and Ed Ruscha do little to convince us of its artificiality. Portraiture by Luc Tuymans, John Currin, Elizabeth Peyton and Marlene Dumas continue Goya's exploration of heightened human realities while Margherita Manzelli, Vanessa Jane Phaff and Nader entertain us with twists on classical mythologies.

In this free-for-all context, the only condition that holds the work together is the wall. It is not surprising, then, that the works which acknowledge this are the most sure-footed and convincing pictures in the show. Today there is nothing shameful about either being a backdrop or decorative. Michael Raedecker's landscape Drift (1999) tugs at definitions of pretty using embroidery and minimalism. Joanne Greenbaum's black spirals and free-formed red squares in Untitled (1998) meander confidently over the picture plane while considering the virtues of compositional balance and two-dimensional ornamentation, while Laura Owens' painting Untitled (Floorboards) (1996), rejoices in painting's rudimentary language. Her naive rediscovery of basic illusionary tricks such as linear perspective, her exaggerated play with texture and colour, along with her strained sense of balance and proportion within the confines of the picture frame refresh painting's formal content. By conflating style, innovation and excess with early 20th century abstraction, Owens' reminds us how profoundly decorative paintings can be.

'The exhibition itself is like a picture, with the myriad choices that looking at one painting entails', state the curators. But without knowing why we are looking at it leaves us once again to ponder Louis Aragon's fatal prognosis: 'Painting has not always existed; we can determine when it began. And if its development and its moments of greatness can be drummed in our heads, can we not then also imagine its period of decline and even its end?'

Michelle Grabner is an artist, curator and professor in the Department of Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is Director of the exhibition spaces The Suburban in Milwaukee, USA and the Poor Farm in Wisconsin, USA.