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

Nevertheless, hints of an alternative slip through the exhibit's rhetorical barricades. The collages of Chris Ofili, for instance, suggest a winning synthesis of folk art, mythology, and appropriated imagery. Ofili, you may recall, became the sensation of 1999's Sensation exhibit in Brooklyn with a portrait of the Virgin Mary made, in part, from elephant dung. Dung plays prominently in the three pieces here as well--could we call it a cri de crap? Using Byzantine patterns of beadwork, clippings of eminent African Americans from popular magazines, and three-dimensional amalgamation (the aforementioned waste product), Ofili creates a sort of pastiche-cum-folk portraiture. If you let your eyes wander into the spider's web of color and darkness, Ofili's work may charm its way past your incredulity.

Ditto the work of Thai-born artist Udomsak Krisanamis, who's represented by four thickly impastoed collages. Krisanamis's canvases are as crowded as Ofili's: Here, vertical strips of rice noodle are laid across quilt-like bands of color and numerals clipped from newspapers. The effect is, variously, like looking into a monsoon of color, or gazing down from heaven at the topographical patchwork of a city. Krisanamis's use of numbers stems from the fact that, after the artist moved to the U.S., he learned English by examining newspapers and blacking out the words he knew. By process of elimination, patterns emerged between the lines. The same principle has carried over to Krisanamis's art. At first blush, these buzzing canvases seem impenetrable: You might feel as though you're being screamed at in a foreign language. Spend some time with them, however, and harmony emerges from the cacophony. Like Ofili, Krisanamis strikes a note of saving grace--a belief in art's ability to communicate ideas and emotion.

The Japanese artist Takashi Murakami also suggests a workable detente between painting and modern visual culture. Anyone who saw Let's Entertain is likely to remember Murakami's sculptures--two life-sized pixies drawn from the kitsch iconography of anime films and manga comic books. The same visual motifs recur in his paintings, two of which are on display here. In "The Castle of Tin Tin," for instance, a helix of vibrantly colored cartoon characters with maniacally exaggerated features--imagine a tower built of Technicolor piranha--balances against a reflective, silver-washed sky. The flat, bright tones and hint of malevolence give Murakami's paintings an ethereal quality, as though they were visual projections of a childhood dream.

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"

Though relatively unknown in the occident, Murakami is something of an icon in Japan, as well as a one-man cottage industry. He has licensed his motifs, including a puffy Cheshire Cat-style character called Mr. Dob, for T-shirts, posters, and coffee mugs, and now employs a studio of assistants to churn out paintings. Like Warhol and Duchamp, Murakami proves that an artist and a con artist can inhabit the same body ("kitsch" and "shtick" are anagrams, after all).

Given Murakami's penchant for pop-cultural appropriation, it's surprising to learn that he is a student of Nihonga, a Japanese painting style developed in the 19th Century in reaction to the influx of Western art. Murakami's self-styled "super-flat" paintings consummate a marriage of traditional form and the ephemeral imagery of trash culture. He suggests that the two might yet live together gracefully.

And, more than any artists on display here, Murakami seems attuned to the pleasure principle--that what's good to look at is inherently good. Despite Painting's eagerness to frame painting as an abstract intellectual exercise, such delight breaks through. Perhaps this is the antidote to painting's current affliction. It's heartening, anyway, in the midst of all this toxifying artspeak, to come upon an artist who is so wholly and happily in the camp of beauty. When painting becomes such a self-aware gesture that we can no longer appreciate it on this basic level, art's exquisite corpse will start to stink.

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