Irony has become such a predictable default setting in contemporary painting that when artists attempt to reflect it back onto their already-ironic forebears they find themselves driven to an antithetical position. Tony Just, for example, makes ironic paintings that are never sure if they wouldn’t rather be transcendentalist paintings. For his recent solo show at Sommer & Kohl, entitled ‘Sentimental Agitprop’, he showed a series made by applying dollops of matt black gesso onto traditional white-primed linen canvas, relatively greyish PVC or electric blue tarpaulin, and then pressing and dragging
the surfaces against each other. The ten paintings were each 100x80 cm – an agnostic medium size, at least in terms of contemporary abstract painting. They reveal no accretion; each time a single gesture qualifies the bare ground. Both brazen and nonchalant, they offset the drama of absolutist mark-making against a fey passivity to their cultural background. The paradox is ironic.
I mean passivity in the sense that Just allows his process to reflect various Postmodern giants of painting past and present, while never explicitly articulating his allusions. That would be too active a form of appropriation. The high-contrast splotches of black paint on a white ground echo Andy Warhol’s 1984 ‘Rorschach’ series, but without the symmetry that would put Warhol squarely in the frame. Just wields his gesso-loaded canvases like Gerhard Richter wields a man-sized squeegee – to drag oil across much larger canvases. But Just’s paintings remain materially untransformed compared to Richter’s seething fields of perceptual metaphor; he is less the aspiring acolyte than a wilfull pretender. The black paint overspill printed onto uninflected white is also an index of Christopher Wool’s idiom, and Just frames his gestures with peripheral, ‘accidental’ markings left by the stretcher of the dragged-over canvas, reminiscent of the imprints of Wool’s silkscreen frames. But, again, Just adumbrates a mere ghost, in scale and complexity, of Wool’s commitment to eliciting form, and even image, from accretive processes.
This is a post-1960s summary, which is the period that matters here. Just’s pseudo-expressionism qualifies the tonal range of painters who were themselves qualifying late Modernist gestural painting. In fact, he ironically reverses the pitch of the positions he assimilates: Warhol and Richter are more moralists than ironists, and Just’s hollow bluster deflates whatever is empirical and earnest in their work. This doubling-up – or back – is a persistent note. The ten upright rectangles, hung in level rows, mimicked an Ab-Ex panorama hang, but only via a more savvy contemporary critique of artistic production that posits mechanical seriality as a form of wage labour, and the industrial signifiers of tarp and PVC as right off the factory floor. Of course, the two positions are aesthetically incompatible: you can’t have the Modernist aura of uniqueness and indiscriminate capitalist production without mixing metaphors.
For all their Postmodern fluency, these are far from Pop-ish paintings. The two works on blue tarp (both titled Sentimental Agitprop, 2012) – matt black paint neutralizing the ground’s glossy weave like something opaque on stained glass – should look as one-dimensionally pop-seductive as an Anselm Reyle neon monochrome, but a crudeness in the collection of paint in the creased fabric weakens the dominant note of controlled effect. In the gallery’s office, a Richter catalogue was on display, which Just had clogged up with black gesso. The painted pages were pulled apart to create image striations that confirmed the intricate patterning of the reproduced paintings. It is both a violence to Richter’s art and a sympathetic development of his process of constructive/destructive erasure. The book may have been a Pop-Goth appendage to the show, far too superficially topical (given that Richter’s retrospective was on view half a mile up the road), but it was also a foil to reveal the paintings’ relative abstinence from such heavy-handed referencing. It represented an arch overflow of the kind of emotion – intolerant, belligerent, peremptory – which, in a more measured form, saved the paintings from self-satisfied tautology.