One has to appreciate the soft-landing easel painting made after fending off a characterization as an elitist commodity a decade or so ago. The breadth of painting’s identity has benefited from its desirability in both professional and lay contexts, as well as domestic and industrial settings. There are commonalities between fine art production and manual labor in the enduring romanticization of the master/artist mentorship. Painting rests on social histories that outline an independent body of knowledge older than Marx and as rational as Kant – ritual instincts for image-making that have long defined and defended culture. Its cognitive range includes past and present but currently isn’t pressed to map topical dilemmas. Painters aren’t journalists or cultural theorists, and this isn’t France. Subjects like evidence-based and ethnographic research that are afloat mostly in scholarly journals and activist presses are only subtexts on canvas.
Painting enters society less deliberatively perhaps, but on its own terms. Social practice, in contrast, helps clarify painting’s renewed sort of self-sufficiency. Its still very much about images begetting images and a dismantling of content and cultural consensus. Today irony and beauty make irreproachable bed-fellows.
Painting was once a part of an instrumental debate about modernism that stood with architecture. Both mediums’ meta-discourse with seclusion and shelter was critical and publicly therapeutic. Architecture and painting offered us a place to stand and something to see. One view had it requiring less about collectivity and class and more about mission and nerve. When you see a painting today, it’s about the viewer and the image in veiled conversation. Painting became casually more Brechtian, whereas new genres constricted content with wake-up wall texts. The works in “50 Paintings” are flat, fragmented, and unmistakable – 50 correlated signs, orchestrated by the curators, with some help from Saarinen’s unbeatable 1950s cradling edifice.
“50 Paintings” curators Michelle Grabner and Margaret Andera seem to untie a dialogue of late modern painting that’s gracefully reasserting itself. Radical art forms that spun off painting in late modernism pushed traditional features, such as improvisation and poise, to the margins. Painting retook ownership. A show, like “50” makes a case for painting returning to a more sovereign state after being fraught with conceits as diverse as AI, embroidery, and vernacularism. This show is all painting, no collage, no photography, no silk-screening, no drawing. Does that matter? Yes.
The curators hold that the painters represented are influencing contemporary trends and there’s no doubt that it’s a comprehensive assessment of artists who are garnering collectors and curator’s attention. They’re influenced by paint technology and subjects that stretch across decades by artists who range from youthful to truly mid-career. The show seems keenly aware of antecedents. Periods, subjects, and styles that once jockeyed for position accumulate here with gracious multiplicity. Contrary visions are one example of the discipline’s authentic contemporaneity.
Surveys where one work represents each artist is uncommon in museum exhibitions. Compact rectangles ensure some structural continuity between voices and patterns so it’s not impossible to see gestural landscapes, schooled figuration, and ironic painterliness in comfortable rapport. If all were large-scale works, patterns of expression would not be possible. Below are a few notes on artists who know how to let form and material unfold.
Uncontaminated third-generation geometric abstraction in David Diao’s Reitveld homage, a slightly younger Peter Halley nicely spatializing Peter Halley, Sarah Morris’s playful night garden, Ann Pibal’s hot pin-striping, and Jennie C. Jones parsing of an efficient perimeter exemplify the show’s abbreviated geometry and hard edges.
Eddie Martinez surely muddies his palette mixing oil and acrylic, but check out his beautifully skewed Hans Hoffman cognizant canvas. He can paint with one hand tied behind his back. He’s that good.
Super-competent is also descriptive of Carmen Neely in “Another Way To Imagine Your Details.” An evaporating landscape of cursive vapors winking at Cy Twombly is radically spectral.
I like how Amy Sillman and Fiona Rae key up familiar de-compositions. Paint courses over reasoned anti-formalism in seamless measures of off-the-hook brushwork beats.
The brush is less evident in Caitlin Lonegan’s untitled abstraction, as her drips and smudges drift edge to edge. Shallow spaces tumble through understated middle-value color and arid light. The picture’s focal point is gigantic, and the scrubbed-sore pigments make you sweat.
Abstraction is still the principal conduit between two centuries. Sensibilities of 1920s abstraction, midcentury nonobjective painting, and all of its descendants are remarkably conversant. It’s a glacier that engulfs fragile details even as it dissolves. When the ice flow’s gone everything is displaced but its mark is indelible.
The exhibition does include remarkable emblematic and figurative work. There’s Judy Ledgerwood’s lavish ambi-patterned canvas and stunning wall installation, a box-lunch adult selfie sticker portrait by Jake Troyli, and a spirited portrait of post-new world royalty by Amy Sherald.
But if you want to measure where we are in the flow of contemporary painting, take the melted glacier metaphor now passing incrementally below the surface. If abstraction isn’t the super-fluid that hydrates other pictures, their subjects are likely on thin ice and a tight schedule.
At first it seemed that limiting the dimensions of the work missed an opportunity to speak about our polarized and ideologically plagued culture. The scale and meditative posture of “50 Paintings” seemed a bit restful, but let’s be honest. Where does one even start making sense of one existential threat after another in any medium? Painters’ painters respond by translating embryonic studio experiences when their radical DNA comes out to play. The most memorable work still confirms the hard core modernist obsession with extinguishing illusions, which in art and the culture at large, are fatigued and fraudulent. And if abstraction flirts with ornament or spectacle, it can right the ship with chromosomes from the lab that once de-classified majesty and outed antique patronage.
Milwaukee’s Green Gallery will host three consecutive exhibitions curated by Michelle Grabner titled “MOREOVER: 50 Paintings”. Beginning March, 2014