in Opinion | 06 JAN 94
Featured in
Issue 14

Ode to Discernment

The practice they call painting

in Opinion | 06 JAN 94

When the people in New York speak about the problems of painting today, they seem conveniently to overlook one of the most disturbing aspects of the current situation. Namely, that with everyone jumping on the bandwagon at once to either kill painting, save it, invert it, deconstruct it, or otherwise come up with an eleborate excuse for doing it, the liklihood increases that any significant developments which do take place will be quickly smothered in all the sound and fury.

In its most recent incarnation, for example, painting has been embraced by the ABI (Anything Besides Installation) generation, who find encouragement in painting's seemingly perpetual role as the bridesmaid but never the bride. Unfortunately, such allegiances don't tend to last very long since the invariable (if temporary) rise of painting to the top of the heap tends to bring out the latent reactionary side of avant-garde thinking, wherein painting is quickly labelled bourgeois and materialistic by those seeking to direct the spotlight towards some other medium's newly acquired underdog status.

Having said this, it is worth pointing out that some of the most interesting issues in the New York painting scene have been raised like younger artists who like to appear unconcerned about where painting might be headed. A case in point is Cheryl Donegan, whose début exhibition in the fall consisted of four videos of the artist performing studio activities that drew a humerous, often sexual, parallel to the gestures involved in making a painting. On two facing walls hung a series of small canvases created by turning handprints into recognisable forms - a classroom exercise familiar to anyone who was once an elementary school student. In transforming the critical discourse surrounding painting into an occasion for literal child's play, Donegan is also deftly asserting a set of aesthetic values that are based on a careful examination and rejection of those standards which are most frequently employed to ascertain painting's degree of seriousness - and hence, its value. In almost complete contrast to this position, Walton Ford's most recent installation of watercolours, display booths offering views of extinct and/or endangered species, and a single vast mural dedicated to the disappearance of the North American passenger pigeon. Free use was made of the conventions of landscape and nature painting to draw attention to the range of cultural issues which are often overlooked in discussions of 'ecological art'. For instance, it takes a few minutes standing in front of his watercolour multiptych based on the fish of the Hudson River to realise that the accompanying information tables are taken directly from state-generated tests made to determine which of the fish are contaminated so as to be inedible, and which can be eaten, but in extreme moderation. By thus merging an ecological perspective with a critical position on traditional forms of representation, Ford implores us to a new appreciation of a degree to which the two problems are actually inseperable.

Other attempts to drag painting into the sphere of social critique have not fared so well. One example is Sean Landers, whose diaristic excursions, on canvas and paper, through the winding corridors of his own personal and professional frustrations, have, in the past, kept even the most jaded viewers wondering if he might actually be opening up a new chapter in the history of self-representation. Unfortunately his most recent exhibition incorporated large paintings on which the same rambling monologue that once seemed fragile and humanised has now become mannered and masturbatory. As if to underscore his inability to break free of the worst clichés of narcissism, Landers has also given us a strip-tease video that unintentionally provides an inkling as to why those relationships he's always complaining about never seem to last. Glenn Ligon also makes word paintings, but his are based on exploring the fairly narrow range of manoeuvrability that lies between straightforward declarations of racial difference and gradations of tone that cause his words to either slip into darkness or fade into white. After startling Whitney Biennial viewers last year with a tough and penetrating phototext exploration of the racial issues implicit in Mapplethorpe's portraits of black men, Ligon followed up this debut exhibition with a much anticipated second show of paintings that turned out to be technically identical to those in his first. As if to underscire the reluctance to push his studio work to another stage , the artist included a group of faux antiqued handbills based on how his disappearance might have been reported had he been born a slave int the ante bellum South. Were it not for the fact that Ligon's gallery seems more interested in presenting him to his best advantage, it might have been easier to dismiss the tedium of this group of canvases as lacking the insight and vigour of his more pointed work. At this stage, he's considerably more convincing as a political artist than as a painter.

Although many people seem disconcerted by the virtual disappearance of critical absolutes in the discussion of pictorial style and content, certain types of painting projects that might once have seemed overly hermetic and/or slight are beginning to appear in a somewhat different light. Mark Tansey, whose pictorial spoofs of critical and literary conventions have always struck this writer as weighed down by a tendency towards drawing-room cleverness, has produced a new group of works on paper that highlight the more generous side of his nature. While still functioning as visual puns requiring a sophisticated grasp of the way language is used to undercut the authority of the informed gaze, they buoy up this wise-guy glibness with a tactile richness that transcends the tendency in his previous work to cling to the crisp, but ultimately sterile bounds of illustration. One might imagine that Tansey had been given a preview of the work of Claire Khalil, an autodiadact whose first major gallery presentation showcased a visually epic bird's-eye view of Venice that has taken most of the last three years to produce. With its utter absence of theoretical dogma, Khalil's work achieves an odd symbiosis between obsessive rendering and an almost folk-llike tendency to distort of confound visual accuracy in order to cramin as many perspectives and multiple angles as possible. Buildings turn corners but remain flattened out; canals flow upwards and then back in on themselves in order to make room for every single façade, including those on opposite sides. Coming at a moment when the mere act of painting seems to imply an and almost foolhardy degree of faith in the visual, Khalil's paintings have even the most hard-boiled critics behaving like tourists as they crane their necks in th attempt to wring the last drop of paradox from her loving homage to the city of pleasure.

At the other end of the extreme, one finds the question of materiality to have become one of the more pressing issues in the ongoing saga of the hand-articulated surface. The German artist Günther Umberg's recent solo exhibition showed that he is continuing to take the best of the post Minimal quandary of painting's objecthood and transform it into a display of unaccountable sensuality. Functioning within extremely tight parameters of tone and surface, Umberg's work at first seems connected to monochrome painting's love affair with sequentiality and repetition. Closer examination reveals that the size and shape of Umberg's works, and their manner of deployment within the viewing space, are specifically tied to a series of associative references to windows, doors and mirrors. These are used to heighten our sensitivity to the temporal and physical conditions surrounding our approach to the work itself. By always throwing us back onto a heightened perception of ourselves within the exibition space, trying to coax meaning from the object, Umberg successfully transforms the passive situation of the viewer into an active dialogue about the conditions of viewing, be they informed by space, time, or more metaphysical considerations.

Another kind of discourse about pictorial depth and its relation to materiality was triggered by the latest body of work by Rebecca Purdum, whose paintings have tended in the past to rely heavily on deftly scumbled surfaces and tricks of colour interplay to deliver their basically impressionistic impact. Recently, however, Purdum seems to have dispensed with the smoky resonance that often left her paintings looking sensual but static, and chosen to highlight the ambiguities of space which have always been her hidden strength. One is lured quite easily into these new works, but the constant shifting between flat and curved space, and the peculiar quality of edgeless that would turn most painter's work into pure atmosphere, suddenly work to Purdum's advantage by keeping the viewer's eye constantly moving, as if in search of a safe point to disembark. By contrast, I found myself in a state of genuine confusion after seeing Chuck Close's most recent exhibition of gridded portraits, despite the fact that his achievement on purely technical grounds remains nothing less than astonishing. But what has been troubling me about Close's recent work is whether, by having his viewers squint to discern theimage they see in his work from its 'original', the artists isn't implicitly arguing that painting's challenge to the senses is irrevocably tied to a disbelief in the active engagement of the surface on the viwer's terms, emphasizing instead the artist's power to make the viewer go to uncomfortablelengths in order to grasp the painting's sense.

In a very different way, Carroll Dunham's newest work also involves the viewer's confrontation with painting's need to plumb certain, almost disagreeable, depths of materiality. But by literally pushing that reality closer to the viewer in the form of encrustations of Styrofoam balls on the painting's surface, Dunham lends the confrontation a cultural flavour as well as a purely visual one. As the home town painter who has been the most consistently successful over the larst decade in enticing the viewer into a state of aesthetic overload, Dunham has recently realised that the purely two-dimensional articulation of space was not offering the same possibility for imagistic expansion as did his unexpected foray into three dimensions, with all of its harsh literalness intact. Christian Schumann used the the grid to very much the same ends in his debut exhibition. The separate blocks of activity in his paintings provide a tether aloowing the viewer a temporary escape from the awareness that what one is looking at is indeed a painting. By copying the look of numerous popular styles at once without actually deriving any specific material from them, Schumann has already posed the question as to whether one line of investigation in painting will always be dependent upon its continuing ability to ransack the dregs of popular culture and create soemthing exalted from it. But he goes further in his investigation than most young artists exploring similar territory, in that he actually reconfigures the issue of painting's surface materiality as a kind of romp through various 'weathering' techniques that involve a further splintering of the imagery into a tapestry of rippling, pockmarked worlds.

Kerry Marshall's quasi-narrative paintings have a similar fragmented energy, but their imagery is tied together by the artist's social concerns. These are manifested by his disturbing evocations of life as a black teenager in post-Reagan America. Despite their burden of truth -they present an ungilded picture of violence as a way of life in urban conflicts - Marshall's paintings are most startling in terms of their equally straightforward need to bring unchecked painterly beauty into the action as well. Rather than pushing us towards an over-determined message of imjustice, Marshall's paintings allow us the unusual option of empathising with his belief that certain social conditions are unacceptable, at the same time as correctly asserting that if painting cannot manifest its own inner contradictions, it will remain functionally unable to escape from the handicaps of the past.