Brian Dupont: Artist's Texts

An artist's writings on art.

Posts Tagged ‘Amy Sillman

Out of Time (Part 2): In the Desert.

As part 1 of this essay considered the metaphorical space of the desert as a model for the new condition of painting within Postmodernism, the physical space of Forever Now is equally revealing. The exhibition is on the top floor, sitting in stark contrast to Matisse’s cut outs.[1] Compared to the lyrical journey on a pleasantly winding path that circumnavigates one of the high-water marks of modernism and pure pleasure in color and form, how is an exhibition mucking around in the creation of the grimy present supposed to stand up? The show feels as if it is being hyped to raise its profile as much as possible just on the way to the 4th floor. A large painting hangs over the main lobby like a billboard and several monumentally framed pieces are propped against the wall on either side of the entrance, like outsized carnival barker’s signs. Once inside the large space[2] is divided into a series of branching chambers with partitions encouraging meandering and no strict path, but also no exit except back the way one came.[3] Dead-ending against the back wall forces the viewer to rebound and wind one’s way back through the show and make new connections and consider different relations and viewpoints. The exhibition layout cancels any hierarchy and allows for slipping glimpses of how some model of the whole might lock together. Looking at the show is an exercise in exploration, of navigating terrain that is not set.

Other than being painting made recently, the work has no common denominator, outside of perhaps generalities of abstraction or a certain sense of scale[4], although many of the works have bits of the real world peeking through. The artists share no agenda or style; they are simply trying to make paintings that reflect how they interact with and process their world. That their work shows its influences and continues a dialog with art of the past does not necessarily point to any “atemporal” influence of the net, beyond its reality as a condition of our shared world. All of the artists have started making their mature work, if not lived their entire lives since the advent of Postmodernism; the interaction between the history of images and present production is ingrained in how they approach the canvas.

Amy Sillman’s abstractions provide the clearest model of how painting can make something new when the language of invention is played out, and in the process they show just how obsolete the idea of “newness” is. They are often (and incorrectly) labeled as a grab-bag mix of styles, a criticism that latches on to surface similarity rather than looking at just what Sillman creates for herself. She has found her voice in the direct handling of paint, getting colors that don’t easily go together to mix with gesture, shape and space to form a hard won picture that just barely keeps their different compositional elements in balance. They teeter on the edge of falling off the ledge, but the constant revisions within the picture are what give them their subtle vibrational energy and move the eye through the painting. The more complicated she gets the better; her simpler paintings flatten out as though with too few pictorial balls in the air there is not enough to sustain interest, either hers or the viewer’s. While there are no intimations of the figure here, it has often made appearances in her work; when it does it is more complicated in its relation to abstract elements in the picture than Guston[5] while remaining much more autonomous than in deKooning.[6] Just because she is working with a subject others have used, she is not beholden to them and her practice allows her raise content in subtler ways than her supposed sources.

Nicole Eisenman’s large portrait heads combined confrontational scale with unassuming demeanor. They confront Picasso with a sly rejoinder born of a contemporary eye. Her large frontal slabs of color are as precisely keyed as Sillman’s, and the paint surface is as worked and rewarding of close inspection. In several of the paintings she has pasted ethnographic clippings onto the surface. Their shapes echo those built in paint, put they flicker irritatingly, causing a difficult shift in resolutions of scale as the dull grisaille of newsprint or Xerox tries to hide against oil paint, but sit on the surface pushing the space in the painting back. They continue to grate, itching the brain; the fact that I want them removed is probably why they’re there. It is also an example of just how aware a critic must be of one’s own biases. One of my favorite paintings by Eisenman, The Break up, has a similar format, but lacks additional collage. I found myself longing for its unadulterated surface, and spent time going back to see if I could get the artist’s intent rather than trying to make them fit into my own preconceptions. Her Easter Island portraits make for a dynamic conversation with Mark Grohtjahn’s mask paintings, which explode out with color and minute gesture – the mass is the same as Eisenman’s, but built as a mosaic rather than a slab; we get to see to very different artists approaching a similar idea in very different ways. In Grohtjahn any sense of a source portrait is obliterated in a flurry of paint. His works are not without their own material quirks. Impasto paint curls around stretched linen, but the paint is actually on cardboard. If you look carefully you can detect the slight deflection of the surface plane away from the wall in one of the panels.

These sorts of material inconsistencies and deviations from “pure” painting run throughput the work in the show. Greenberg’s purity of medium was being discarded almost as quickly as it was becoming established dogma, and what a painting is made out of is considered only when it is blatantly foregrounded by the work, and then if it is so obvious the work usually falls flat. Rashid Johnson’s scratches in soap and wax fail for inserting a Twombly-esque distraction where none is needed[7]; if the resonance of the materials and their importance to the artist’s cultural and ethnic experience is the central point then shouldn’t the simple act of just matter-of-factly putting them on the surface be enough? Trying to make it look like art seems more self-conscious and is ultimately unconvincing. On the opposite end of a similar spectrum Richard Aldrich’s wispy gestures are interesting as sketches writ large, an idea proposed quickly in the studio, but they do not read as full blown statements – it is here that we start to encounter the slippery slope of just how much work really is needed to make a painting.[8] It seems as if the critical eye may slide over some paintings that seem to easily made, too strategized into being. By contrast Dianna Molzan breaks apart the components of a painting to make charming and inventive objects that inject personal idiosyncrasy into the cool ontology of the painting as object. Every aspect of her wry objects is carefully considered[9], and this investment results in a warmth and humor in a small scale object[10] that stands up to an empire of large canvases.

Twombly’s influence runs deep through the exhibition, like a common genetic marker. His off-handed and scrawling gesture is a common antecedent to Provisionalism and other strains of the abject in contemporary painting.[11] Critics have not laid the blame at his doorstep, but he is the precursor for the aesthetic developments that are the most troubling to the old guard. He heralds the obsolescence of virtuosity, the divorce of the monumental work matched to a grand statement. To put it another way, when Richard Serra called Twombly the bravest person in modern art for taking on Pollock with only a pencil, the other side of this is that it was possible not only to take on Pollock with only a pencil, but to win. In winning he shifted the stakes and scope away from the tortures of labor and towards the academics of abstraction. He removed doubt[12] from the process of making a painting that was an anathema to Guston and deKooning. It’s instructive to compare his Treatise on the Veil to Forever Now and see just how much contemporary painting falls under his influence. There are other such giants that loom over painting (Polke comes to mind) but Forever Now’s focus on abstraction is what foregrounds Twombly.

Perhaps the most surprising comparison to Twombly is Julie Mehertu, who has covered her trademark precise pen line with flicks of brushed ink. It’s as if turbulent weather and atmosphere has descended to surround her previous architectural subjects. In the larger painting on view it is possible to discern her more standard pictorial language in earlier layers, giving these works the feeling that they were unsatisfactory works that were treated as salvage experiments. They also seem to come out of the small scale (and definitely less-produced) paintings in her recent solo show at Mariam Goodman, but whether they represent a new direction or merely a tangent in her practice, they stand out for how they relate to the exhibition’s curatorial conceit. Mehertu’s iconic works are steeped in the relationships of systems and the transfer of information across global networks; there is a robust thread connecting them to the digital references the concept of the atemporal suggests (and William Gibson’s writings practically demand), but Hoptman’s focus is on the recycling and reclamation of images and references rather than the mechanisms and infrastructure of that transfer. As such whatever formal turns Mehertu takes, the comparison of the exhibition is limited to surface similarities of the aesthetic qualities of the objects themselves and not to exploring the deeper implications of the interactions.[13]

Collector’s darling and critical whipping boy Oscar Murillo is presenting his paintings for the first time in New York. Given the arc and design of his career it would seem to raise expectations perhaps beyond what the paintings can support.[14] Murillo seems aware of the possible bind, and his interest in moving his art past just being pretty pictures on the wall is on view in a pile of unstretched canvases left lying in the corner to be dragged around and rearranged by the show’s visitors. The gesture speaks to a common desire by painters, especially those working abstractly, to be taken seriously and express something beyond mere decoration.[15] Murrilo’s answer is to allow the viewer to interact with his works as he does before they are finally stretched. There is a frission to be found in touching and moving works in a museum, however the artist’s studio is not necessarily an ideal arena for viewing art, and importing its processes into a museum trivializes his choices rather than lending them gravitas. Instead of revealing thought and process they become just an opportunity for the audience to take selfies. The gesture also feels arbitrary, as his stretched paintings on the walls are not out of place with the rest of the exhibition.[16] The bruised surfaces and casually gestural compositions belie an elegant colorist with a keen sense for collage and editing together fragments to form a cohesive whole; his integration of the separate parts and seams are much more integrated into his overall process and the resulting paintings than Albert Oehlen’s recent exhibition with a similar focus. The youngest artist in the show, he is emblematic of the potential problems of a new, metastasized art market that limits judgment to such a narrow career arc, without allowances for growth or change.

Forever Now is MoMA’s first exhibition of painting in 30 years, but beyond the imprimatur it is neither encyclopedic or revolutionary; instead it continues a line of exploration that maps trends and similarities in Postmodern painting. High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967 – 1975 at the Whitney Museum explored how painting turned towards objecthood in the wake of Minimalism and the advent of Postmodernism. Cheim and Read presented Reinventing Abstraction, a less known history of the 70’s and 80’s as a source of continuing rehabilitation of abstraction in painting during a period when Neo-expressionism crested into a second wave of conceptual art; it showed painting that was being made in studios the last time MoMA put on a painting show, and illustrated just how much influence can shift and change. In the vein of the shifting landscape of criticism and fashion, one should also consider the Whitney’s Remote Veiwing (Invented Worlds in Recent Painting and Drawing), which explored contemporary painting’s relation to dense and personal networks of information.[17] An exhibition a decade past, its links and history organize a thesis that is not dissimilar to that of Forever Now, but with a drastically different focus. The network of Remote Viewing leads to practices of labor-intensive detail, to an exhaustive search for a framework that will mesh with a personal vision. Forever Now references the contemporary Internet, where the birth and appropriation of images are midwifed by brand identities and the ease of cutting and pasting over a wi-fi connection. That so much of Forever Now seems to fall flat[18] may point to this ease of execution; as labor is devalued across the economy, the less demand there is for works of art that grate with a material density that cannot be easily replicated by a JPEG or digital scan, but the most successful works on view maintain their material reality as paintings. This remains true throughout the medium’s history, no matter the whims of the bazaar.

 

The essay concludes in Part 3.

 

[1] Conveniently coinciding with the exhibition title, entrance to the show is not timed.

[2] Which is not dissimilar from the large gallery spaces where most of this work is exhibited.

[3] A strategy well known in the design retail stores.

[4] Most of the works lock in at a large, but not overwhelming scale.

[5] Who could only get close to head-like lumps when working abstractly.

[6] Who made the abstraction of the figure the entire subject, the figure was the space of the painting, never really in it.

[7] Johnson’s inclusion is curious as he is primarily known for much stronger sculptural work, and the “paintings” included are a minor strain in his practice. These works fit with the exhibition in a way that one of his mirrored shelving reliefs do not, but that speaks more to his being included as a broader marker representing his practice; this in turn points to a possible agenda not encoded in the works themselves.

[8] I’m reminded of deKooning stepping back and wondering if his start could contain a picture, and it seems like for Aldrich the answer is not only “Yes” but also “…and it’s done.”

[9] Just examine the care and detail in the construction of her stretchers. The more common commercial stretcher builds would interrupt the delicate geometries she creates.

[10] And they are objects as opposed to pictures; their depth and the relation of the inside to the outside are inherent to them in a way that separates them from “Painting” proper.

[11] Much like Richard Tuttle in sculpture.

[12] Think of the references to graphitti that abound around his work and consider the confidence of his marks as someone stepping up to a wall with limited time and no room for doubt.

[13] I do not think it was necessarily a good idea to hang Mehertu’s paintings adjacent to Rashid Johnson’s works. The superficial similarities, albeit played out in contradictory materials (ink separated by isolating layers of acrylic vs. the earthy weight of soap and wax) are a facile comparison. It would have been just as obvious to hang Jacob Kassay’s silver mirrors across from Johnson, if he had been included.

[14] Then again, maybe not. One can also look at the recent trend of museum-quality shows in commercial (mega)galleries and then think that maybe David Zwirner has a much cannier strategy mapped out (remember the giant killer robots mentioned in the notes of Part 1? They’re coming in Part 3).

[15] It is nearly impossible to circumvent such criticism, but perhaps painters would be better off reading this than importing a Columbian chocolate factory to 19th Street for a month.

[16] It may be a litmus test for how you feel about the show and contemporary painting in general if you consider that to be a good thing or bad thing.

[17] It is startling to read contemporary criticism of the show and to see the nascent fragmentation of painting as a medium and similar concerns that are the same after so much time. Perhaps there is an origin for Provisionalism in Vernacular abstraction, or at least a historical precedent.

[18] There is always room for curatorial kvetching: I would’ve cut Bradley and Josh Smith and replaced them with R.H. Quaytman and Joanne Greenbaum.

Written by Brian Dupont

January 13, 2015 at 12:00 am

The Searchers

Two of the best painting shows up in Chelsea right now are Amy Sillman: Transformer (or how many light bulbs does it take to change a painting?) and Charline von Heyl at Friedrich Petzel. Both artists are essentially working within the idiom of “abstract painting”, but both have figurative forms and references moving through these canvases as they search for meaning. The difference is in which direction those bodies are moving.

Amy Sillman’s large paintings feel more resolved, as if she’s arrived at a place that allows for a definitive statement. Parts of her previous figures are reemerging from gestural drawing and vivid color, aiming cartoon flashlights to help them find their way out the gorgeous wilderness Ms. Sillman has painted them into. Painting them out may be akin to a rescue, but contrary to a search in the wilderness I think the more space Ms. Sillman has to work with the better. Her large scale paintings allow her gestures and forms to get large and really move around the entire canvas without clogging the pictoral space. As she restricts the area available to her the paintings sacrifice clarity, as if we’re losing a sense of a larger whole by zooming our magnifaction in on a detail. In this sense a few very small paintings presented give us the least, and are akin to looking at only one or two pixels.

Where Ms. Sillman has a more noticeable style, Charline von Heyl takes the idea of searching for a new image to the extreme where the idea of individual style breaks down; indeed it can be easy to miss her search in the artworld’s tidal cacophony. I know her work more through its inclusion in recent tomes on abstract painting, such as Robert Nickas’s. Those paintings, even in reproduction, show an artist playing with the language of abstraction in each painting, taking it apart and seeing just how far it can be prodded, pushed, and stretched. Here there are passages evoking things that emerge from her gestures, stains, and patterns. Black Stripe Mojo has a cascade of forms that evoke livestock against a striped ground, a James Bond pin-up pushes through a pattern of diamonds in Woman # 2. Some forms are more concrete than others, but each is ultimately at the service of Ms. Heyl’s investigation. She sets her boundaries at the level of individual paintings, whereas Ms. Sillman’s carry over through her entire exhibition. It is the difference from canvas to canvas that lets Ms. Heyl trade the definitive statement for the energy of the search.

Written by Brian Dupont

May 2, 2010 at 11:15 pm

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