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

These current pieces--performative reflections on the act of painting--don't do much to advance our understanding of the medium (though the sequence entitled "Face Painting," in which McCarthy slides his paint-covered head across the floor like a rutting walrus, is a swell little joke). The problem here may lie less in the execution than in the presentation: Performance art, however well-conceived, loses its immediacy--and thus the thrill of transgression--in translation to video. What we end up watching in this case is simply a guy with wet paint on his face--essentially Art's Lamest Home Videos. (About McCarthy's other video installation, featuring a mute painter defecating on house plants while wearing a potato-sized prosthetic nose, the less said, the better.)


Elsewhere, another Let's Entertain émigré, the German photographer Andreas Gursky, brings photographic media to bear on painting with sharper focus. Gursky's photograph of Jackson Pollock's "One: Number 31," shown hanging on the pristine walls at the Museum of Modern Art, is a fascinating act of deconstruction. Pollock, whose animal joy in the act of painting was almost a performance in itself, believed in getting as close to his canvas as possible. Here, we're separated from it, first by the frame of the painting, then by the framing of Gursky's photograph. In sanctifying this gloriously messy creation, the museum setting also sanitizes it. Gursky's photo seems an act of reconsecration: Pollock's painting is seen floating between parallel planes of shadow, as though it had been untethered from the material world.

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"

This particular painting has been photographed often: One of Gursky's Düsseldorf colleagues complained that Gursky pilfered the idea of shooting it. But the treatment here supports Gursky's reputation as an elegant, though enigmatic, artist. The choice to shoot Pollock's painting sans onlookers seems especially apt: In this vacuum, the inanimate object reflects a spiritual life of its own. Pollock's primitivism looks holy again.

Though Gursky is not a painter--"an artist who uses photography" is the preferred nomenclature--he merits inclusion in an exhibit about art's changing visual vocabulary. Delaroche presumed, after all, that photography would eclipse painting because it faithfully recorded reality. But while photography has certainly become the idiom of the mass media, in the art world it seems to be drifting ever closer to painting. Gursky is Exhibit A. His vigorously composed photos, sometimes digitally manipulated, are more than mere reproductions; as pictures that reveal more than they show, they reflect a subtle and individual artistic mind at work. Like Cindy Sherman, Gursky disproves Susan Sontag's famous differentiation between photography and painting: "The painter constructs, the photographer discloses."

The late Belgian poet, filmmaker, and sculptor Marcel Broodthaers (who died in 1976) takes a conceptually similar route with his slide show "Tableau-Bateau," a photographic dissection of a rather shoddy 19th-century oil seascape. Examining this example of anemic genre painting from every unflattering angle, Broodthaers seems a merciless surgeon. He reveals every tremor in the brushwork, every tonal dissonance. Yet the result is strangely sympathetic toward the anonymous artist. Even the granulated texture of the canvas, explored in microscopic detail, speaks of the tactile joy the painter must have taken from his work. When we look at the whole painting again, it seems somehow more complete and more luminous. In this case, knowledge of the means enriches the end.

Though Broodthaers's piece celebrates the act of painting, it also typifies a problem with Painting at the Edge of the World as a whole. Like much of the art here, this near-pathological deconstruction presupposes that representational art--which, like the romanticized fishing scene, traces the contours of existence--has long ago exhausted its potential. Would we be so quick to dismiss this storied tradition if Broodthaers had picked, for instance, a Vermeer or a Degas instead of this bargain-basement J.M.W. Turner? Doesn't such art still have value as an observation of and reflection on human experience? By both admission and omission, Painting seems to casually dismiss these possibilities.

Even the "straight" representational painters included in the exhibit--and there are surprisingly few, given the show's putative focus--are engaged in a sort of theoretical meta-art. Consider the example of the young American John Currin, perhaps the most stylistically orthodox painter in the Walker's exhibit. Currin, along with his Yale classmate Lisa Yuskavage, is at the fore of a much-heralded revival of figurative painting, and the three pieces displayed here demonstrate his technical mastery. In one, "The Cuddler," a woman wrapped in a hood and a jacket gazes warmly out from the canvas. In an adjacent piece, "Park City Grill," a woman holds out her chin to reveal the sinewy, marble-white arch of her neck. Currin's painterly fluency is almost obscene: The detailing of the woman's hair recalls the nymphs in a Boticelli, while a vase of flowers lingering in the background could have been left there by Renoir. In both composition and execution, these paintings allude to classical precedents.

But Currin is no classicist. He made his early reputation, after all, drafting vaguely unwholesome images of nude women with fetishized physical features (Currin shares with Yuskavage an affinity for outsized breasts). The paintings here, while appearing more innocuous, also have an unsettling undercurrent. In the first, you might notice that the woman's thumbs, protruding from her jacket pocket, seem unnaturally bent. Her neck, too, has been grotesquely elongated. Beneath the warm winter coat and classical veneer, she is deformed. The tension between classical form and modern psychosexual anxiety is even more tangible in Currin's other portrait. Here, the woman's neck, painted with a sickly blue tint, is exposed to the vaguely malevolent male figure to her left. Currin hasn't forgone the unsettling sexual charge of his earlier work. Instead, he has complicated it with dissonant visual cues that blur the border between style and subject. It's Toulouse-Lautrec filtered through R. Crumb.

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