Rumors of Painting’s death are a persistent—and tired—tune in contemporary art. Like last year’s hit song that you can’t get out of your head, the idea insinuates itself, amplifying in sound until it can no longer be ignored. And when that happens, the only antidote is to curate an exhibition of painting and put it reassuringly back in the public eye. Yet as evidenced by recent exhibitions, there are many pitfalls in curating a show of painting’s good health.
A recent visit to Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center brought reason to revisit the issue of painting, or rather, the issues posed in curating contemporary shows of painting, particularly with the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center’s Painters Panting (April 13-June 24, 2012) still relatively fresh on my mind. The Walker’s exhibition Painter Painter—on view through September 27, 2013—is that institution’s first group show of painting in a decade but, thankfully, makes no attempt to educate its Midwestern public on what they’ve missed. Rather than attempting to round up the best hits of the past ten years, the exhibition—which was curated by Eric Crosby and Bartholomew Ryan—skips straight to the present, featuring works completed in 2012 and 2013.
The works in Painter Painter are so fresh one wonders if the paint’s even dry. Curators Crosby and Ryan describe these works as exemplifying recent developments in abstract painting and studio practice, firmly situating them within the Western canon of painting. The 15 artists hail from US and European cities, reminding us that despite recent market trends and interest in Chinese painting and Modernism’s unapologetic borrowing of African art traditions, the Western art world still stakes a proprietary claim to painting.
Though Painter Painter doesn’t seek to break ethnic barriers in contemporary art, it does focus on paintings that shatter the physical boundaries of the frame. Diana Molzan’s Untitled (2013), presents a sheet of canvas cleverly hung like a shower curtain on a bare frame, adding a theatrical sense to this work. In the folds of the canvas are triangles painted in soft feathery bands of 80’s Pop color, which accentuate the dips and bends of the material. One particularly striking work is Molly Zuckerman-Hartung’s The Failure of Contingency (2012), in which painted ribbons of canvas spill like linguine over the floor, beginning from a small square frame and ending in a puddle of fabric underneath two folding chairs.
The aforementioned works tread uninhibitedly into sculptural territory, and to be sure, the more three-dimensionally minded works in this exhibition are the most successful. Take Rosy Keyser’s Big Sugar Sea Wall (2012), a large work in which sheets of corrugated steel and polycarbonate have been hammered onto and behind a wooden frame. The sheen of the steel and polycarbonate is enhanced by the addition of enamel and spray paint. The work embodies a certain wild strength, like a roof torn by an aesthetically-minded gale.
In the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center’s interpretation of contemporary painting, curated by director Stuart Horodner, it was video, not sculpture, that appeared to be paintings’ most fertile direction. Painters Panting argued for painting’s continued relevance with a compelling, if scattershot, collection of artists. Some of the inclusions felt like a who’s-who of painting, like the paintings of iconoclast David Diao, whose work often satirizes art-world obsessions with market prices and fame, or the crowd-pleasing wall painting by Judy Ledgerwood, who is at this point a veteran of painting-obsessed exhibitions, as evidenced by the Renaissance Society’s Why Paint from 1992.
Though all the works were strong, the most convincing argument was put forth by the videos in the exhibition, if only because they presented the most cohesive thesis of painting’s evolution. Alex Hubbard’s videos feature the artist and friend enacting certain violence to an assortment of materials ranging from fresh flowers to household paint, mops, and saws. In Jennifer West’s, conversely the hand of the artist is invisible: the artist applied eyeliner, nail polish, and sprayed fragrant directly onto film, creating spastic, sparkling animations. These films privileged the primacy of color in the moving picture and illustrated that action painting could be best realized in a medium that construes gesticulation as a living brushstroke.
Though Painter Painter tended toward the sculptural and very new and Painters Panting cast a broader net in terms of both medium—including Saul Fletcher’s photographs as well as the aforementioned videos—and decade, the shows had more than a few things in common, not the least of which were their terrible titles. Painter Painter, an emphatic doubling of the word, creates a muted staccato in the mouth that sounds plaintive to the ear. Spoken twice at a normal tone, it seems intended to reassure: “Yes, yes,” it says, “I’m still here,” convincing itself of painting’s relevance as exhibitions like this tend to do, by merely reaffirming its continued existence.
Painters Panting, rather than creating a soft echo in the palate, leads one to stumble over the awkwardness of its pronunciation. It is a title that calls attention to itself by the simple fact that one must pause carefully before attempting to speak it, like a horse warily approaching an unfamiliar hurdle. The title derives from Emile de Antonio’s 1972 documentary Painters Painting, which inspired this exhibition, but puns in effort to accentuate the strained status of painting today. Unfortunately, the only thing this title proves is that puns are best spoken, not seen. It may be successfully argued that painting can ascend whatever historical limits naysayers would confine it to, but a pun will always be a pun.
Of course a name is just a name, but a more damning point of similarity between these exhibitions is their deference to certain geographical limits in contemporary painting. Painter Painter, as previously stated, featured a slew of European and American artists. Painters Panting was mostly American, with Britain represented by Saul Fletcher. Of course, none of these shows were meant to be the last word on contemporary painting, but as the most recent word on painting at these rather prominent regional institutions it would behoove them to extend themselves towards contemporary art in a global context, rather than contemporary as defined by major Western cities. The Walker and the Atlanta Contemporary are both institutions that pride themselves in their forward-thinking exhibitions and trendsetting curation, but an exhibition of painters who show in New York or, in the case of the Walker show, Berlin and London, is hardly avant-garde.
These exhibitions and their ilk call attention to the insecurities of painting by their very nature, but in their execution declare the evolution of painting more than a primacy of painting’s original existence. Essentially, painting’s influence is felt strongly, even if what purists would call painting has changed radically. But painting is always changing, and every shift has instigated a call for its death. The moves made by the Impressionists, Modernists, Abstract Expressionists, and so on and so forth, sounded like death knolls to their detractors, but made painting all the more relevant. Enough with the preemptive eulogies and defensive exhibitions; painting exists, and it’s good. The trick is to show it in a framework that’s more self-aware than self-obsessed.
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