Art for Theory's Sake

An abstruse exhibit at the Walker pushes the art of painting out of its gilded frame and into the pages of a textbook

From today painting is dead." That's the French painter Paul Delaroche after hearing, in 1838, of the invention of the daguerreotype. In retrospect, he may have overreacted; painting was still in the flower of its youth, and continued to bear fruit for another century or so. Delaroche's assessment was also prophetic. Since the advent of photographic media--which, for the sake of argument, encompasses everything from those first bleary daguerreotypes to last week's Hollywood blockbuster--painting has become the dotty uncle of contemporary art, widely regarded by the rest of the family as decadent, anti-modern, and embarrassingly unhip. What was once art's lingua franca is now art's dead language--useful, perhaps, for understanding the past but irrelevant to the new-media world of seduction and velocity. That's maybe overstating the case. But the question lingers: Is painting a living art or an exquisite corpse?

The title of Walker Art Center's new exhibit, Painting at the Edge of the World, certainly suggests funereal gloom--one can almost imagine Nero executing a tasteful watercolor while Rome smolders. This is no wake, however: The exhibit's curator, Douglas Fogle, comes to praise painting, not to bury it. "Like a lot of people who came of age in the Eighties, I was always suspicious of painting," explains Fogle amid the final flurry of preparation for the exhibit's premiere, a week before the opening. "Photography made more sense to me. Painting seemed decadent and just not so important."

While a crew of assistants stencils a massive, semi-translucent mural onto one of the walls, the curator bounds about the gallery, stopping to point out an especially provocative piece or inspect a pile of basketball-sized packages labeled, somewhat suspiciously, "dung supports." Fogle, whose almost boyish enthusiasm for his subject complements a ranging intellectual curiosity, has an affinity for art at the margins of contemporary fashion. He opens the exhibit, for instance, with a series of unlovely sketches by the late Paul Thek. Thek is no undiscovered master, certainly. These intentionally bad paintings are like something you might find on the refrigerator of a parent with a three-year-old child, except that they are presented in chintzy gilt frames. It is, Fogle explains, a wry sendup of the "high seriousness" of museums, and typical of the exhibit's iconoclasm.

The neck is the window of the soul: John Currin's "Park City Grill"
The neck is the window of the soul: John Currin's "Park City Grill"

"As I was putting this together," he explains, "I started thinking about painting less as a craft or a science than a mode of thought, or a way of organizing visual space. I was asking myself the question: What is painting? So, when I was picking the pieces to include, I was thinking about painters who take radical, different approaches. I wasn't choosing art to make an argument, necessarily. But I was looking for work that pushes the medium."

To this end, Fogle has assembled a diverse body of work from the antipodes of the art world and enlisted it in a single, Promethean cause: resurrecting painting's tarnished reputation. Painting at the Edge of the World is no greatest-hits-of-the-avant-garde, though. These artists, mostly lesser-known international figures working in a variety of media and conceptual veins, question the nature of painting as both an artistic endeavor and aesthetic experience. There's a consensus among them that painting in its traditional and literal sense--as line and color applied to a flat surface--is indeed DOA; it can only continue as a self-conscious gesture, which, by acknowledging its irrelevance, challenges age-old notions of art as a permanent and valuable object. They're determined, in other words, to take painting out of its frame.

Thus Painting at the Edge of the World gives us "visual happenings" on the order of John Cage's chaotic concerts, designed to inject chance and time into the staid milieu of the painted image. The British artist Richard Wright, for instance, has been offered a corner of one gallery for a wall painting, a frenzied visual improvisation completed in one marathon session the week before the exhibit's opening. In the Walker's lobby, meanwhile, German artist Franz Ackermann and a small army of helpers spent last week installing a monumental, Day-Glo-colored mural based on four days of wandering around downtown Minneapolis. "It's his response to the city and to America," Fogle explains. "He's really into the politics of tourism, along with the architectural space of cities. What he's making is a sort of psychological map."

Likewise, much of the art within the gallery proper is preoccupied with painting as performance. Rudolf Stingel, for instance, offers a photographed set of step-by-step instructions--in six languages, no less--for making a silkscreen painting, as though the task were no different from whipping up a salad or programming your VCR. (After looking at the finished product, which hangs adjacent to the directions, you might decide that the salad is a better use of your time.) Stingel's piece shares a gallery with a video installation by the Fluxus-influenced California artist Paul McCarthy, who films himself sloshing paint around empty rooms. McCarthy, you might recall, made an appearance in last year's Let's Entertain exhibit, with a photo essay patched together from images of Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom, Adolf Hitler's Third Reich, and porn magazines. His work fit the context of that show: It was smug and dumb, but entertainingly so.

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