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.

"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.

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.

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.

In Currin's work, as well as that of the other artists on display here, the old art-world pieties no longer apply. Genre, style, and even quality, the time-tested taxonomy of art, are rendered meaningless. So, too, are ideological markers of the Nineties, like gender and politics: This art refers, like a mirror held against a mirror, primarily to itself. Painting at the Edge of the World is postmodern both in its conceptual framing and in the literal, oxymoronic sense of the term: This is art in the future tense, independent of time and tradition. It's post-Pop, post-Op, post-Abstract, post-ironic, post-history, and perhaps even post-art. Indeed, Painting at the Edge of the World might be post-everything.

 

Why this apocalyptic mood? Fogle, who has taken up painting's defense with a convert's zeal, offers a historical view of what he terms "the trouble with painting." In an essay of the same title prefacing the exhibit's catalog, he explains: "Though collectively troubled by painting's status, we barely flinch when it miraculously rises from the dead again and again. This continual death and rebirth of painting, what we might call its Lazarus effect, has become a common feature of the artistic landscape over the past 200 years."

The art world's indifference to the medium's vital signs, Fogle continues, stems in part from painting's traditional role as the basic currency of the art market. A picture, by virtue of its size, permanence, and time-intensive production, is the objet d'art most likely to be sold, hoarded, and fetishized by collectors and museums. Thus art becomes commodity, and commodity becomes artifact. Artists--especially American artists since World War I--who felt uneasy with this progression were likely to respond either by not painting at all, or by tinkering with the notion of painting's commercial and aesthetic value.

Consider Andy Warhol's prints. By mass-producing visual flotsam--Marilyn Monroe's bee-stung lips, for instance--Warhol undermined the idea of his paintings as something singular, irreplaceable, and thus intrinsically valuable. While Pop was conceptually rich--and linked to Duchamp's subversive gambits--it did lasting damage to painting's currency by making previous notions of picture-making seem quaint and irrelevant. Artists who wanted to get ahead no longer learned drawing or color theory: Why study when you can steal? After successive assaults by Abstract Expressionism and Pop and Op Art, the grand old traditions of representative art seemed to reach some fundamental dead end. Where could painters go, aesthetically or conceptually, except backwards?

In his influential 1992 study of the problem, "In Defence of Painting," Hilton Kramer argues that painting has been displaced from the center of the visual world because of its nature: It's a fundamentally static medium in a moving world. "Painting is, in some fundamental sense, just no longer there for [us] as an aesthetic imperative," Kramer writes. "It has been effectively supplanted by other media--photography, video, assemblage, arrangements of objects claiming to be sculpture, and that whole range of display or tableau that goes by the name of conceptual art--that are said to have greater immediacy and legibility, and hence greater relevance to contemporary life." Paintings exist in the eternal now, in other words, while conceptual art and real-time photographic media march on into the future.

This hearkens back to Keats, who saw, in a piece of Grecian crockery, both the value and absurdity of worshiping frozen beauty. But the schism between kinetic mainstream culture and mimetic visual art has grown in the past half-century. Consider the parlance of today's popular media--cinema and television--versus that of painting. On one hand, we have "moving pictures," presenting life at life's pace (or even faster), and "television," enticing us with endless vistas. On the other, we have the "still life," which translates into French as nature morte, or "dead nature." The Old Masters understood this: Those gutted hares in Chardin's airless tableau were reminders that this, too, shall pass. To comprehend these or any other paintings is, on some basic level, to consider time and mortality. It's not that painting's dead; it's that the illusion painting makes manifest--of life, stilled--no longer has the same meaning for us.

Painting at the Edge of the World asks the next logical question: Where do we go from the end? Or, to adopt the fashionable opinion of painting, what can art say in a dead language? The artists included in this show take up the challenge either by reverting to childlike primitivism (the globby, intentionally bad pictures of Mike Kelley and Paul Thek); adding temporal or spatial elements (Wright's improvisations and Martin Kippenberger's funny, fluid "sculptural paintings"); or co-opting photographic media (Gursky and McCarthy). It's an unfortunate side effect of the exhibit's curatorial conceit, however, that so much of this work refers only to itself. It gazes Narcissus-like into a mirror, and, transfixed by its own form, forgets art's imperative to show us the world in new ways. At some point, then, Painting at the Edge of the World reaches a reductio ad absurdum: It offers no possibilities beyond self-reference. Movement, we are taught in high school physics, requires force as well as direction, and most of the new art here seems devoid of both. It's art for theory's sake.

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.

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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