Painting: Now and Forever, Part IIby Craig Olson
Greene Naftali Gallery & Matthew Marks Gallery, June 3 – August 15, 2008
Ten years ago the late, great Pat Hearn teamed up with Matthew Marks for the brazenly titled Painting Now and Forever, Part I. Billed as a “highly subjective, celebratory survey of contemporary painting” it featured over 40 artists, old, young, alive and dead. This mix of styles and attitudes siphoned through an old, traditional medium was tossed into the mid-90’s pseudo-conceptual ether—rooms filled with naked people, advertisements-for-oneself, new photographs of old photographs, and the ever-narrowing terms of academically sanctioned theory and politics. Luc Tuymans and Joanne Greenbaum were thrown together with the likes of Kenneth Noland and Andy Warhol. It was a show that, with aplomb, pulled the lens off the proverbial camera to show that despite what the academics and conceptualists had been banking on, painting was alive and well and sprouting big new healthy tentacles.
Painting Now and Forever, Part II is the contemporary sequel to that show, and ten years later things are just different. Held concurrently at Matthew Marks and Greene Naftali galleries, this 2008 double-header is a little more studied, a little less celebratory. None of the artists from the original exhibit were included in Part II, with the exception of Mary Heilmann (a longtime friend of Hearn, who showed Heilmann early on) whose inclusion was a wise decision indeed. Her three big, beautiful paintings shine through the exhibit like beacons in the night. Given her own side gallery at Mathew Marks, her late 80’s masterpiece “Miss Hunter” (1989) is flanked by two other juicy canvases, one from last year, “Fire and Ice Remix,” and “Trellis” (1996). Their funky and loose formality is a reminder that work can still made from the heart and mind, outside the pitfalls of dogma and irony.
There’s plenty of that though, and a lot of nudging and winking around the inclusion of so many non-painters who nevertheless find themselves leaning heavily on the medium. Works like Mike Kelley’s carpet brushed with fluorescent orange and hung on the wall, “Carpet #2” (2003), at Naftali, Rodney Graham’s small painterly stabs at modernism at Marks, and Josh Smith’s muddy abstractions (which I’m told defy the rules of artistic convention in an ironic and informed manner) all feel about as relevant and timely as a Seinfeld rerun.
There are more successful examples here, however, that call into question our artistic heritage. At Naftali, the three big globular covers of the Mona Lisa from the Austrian collective Gelitin are creepy, hilarious mutations of an excessively familiar masterpiece. Their offenses are a refreshing reminder that we don’t need to keep kicking an old dead horse. Instead, we can dredge up its deformed, decaying body and stuff it inside a frame to assess what we’ve done to it.
Sergej Jensen’s preternaturally minimalist painting “Werewolf” (2003), complete with little whiskery threads of saffron, is in such poor taste I couldn’t help going back to it, hoping it would spring to life like Lon Chaney, Jr., and devour the sentimental little painting next to it, Katharina Wulff’s “Landscape for Happy Witches” (2008).
There are several moments of unmediated painting, however. “Hollow Earth” (2008) by Richard Hawkins is particularly memorable. Two panels pushed together, one slightly larger than the other, hang ominously in Naftali’s space, each executed in smoldering hatch marks of oil paint—pinks, oranges, and browns--—and containing a small, off-center orb and text along the bottom edge. The larger panel, which is on the left (with a blue orb floating in a radiant umber whirlpool), reads “Celestial Telegraph,” while the right panel, with a white orb hanging in a loose painterly field, reads “Ether.” A bright yellow feather sticks out from the upper right corner of the work. It’s a bizarre incantation of something unseen and unknown. Perhaps it’s a receiver or charm for the bad energy floating around it, tapping into unseen forces that were once so feared that artists painted the upper left (sinister) corners of their paintings black. Or perhaps it is what it is, an odd, savage little abnormality unconcerned with patting its own back.
The lone green giant by Elsworth Kelly, “Green Relief” (2007), hangs majestically and quietly in the Naftali space. Its empty window into color and shape seems as relevant as ever, especially given its current company. Clean and futile in its maturity and grace, it proves that old masters can still be fonts of learning, and just posts to whip.
At Marks things are less rambunctious. There are more of the old horses here too: Anne Truitt, Jack Goldstein, Martin Kippenberger, Blinky Palermo, and Stephen Prina. Palermo’s “Stoffbild” (1969), dyed cotton over wood stretchers, is smart and clean. Its slack formality is a joy and and an affirmation that the expansion of artistic consciousness can be as casual as a piece of fabric.
With the inclusion of Kippenberger’s lumbering “Untitled (From the series Krieg Böse/War Wicked)” (1991) and Charline Von Heyl’s cool “Untitled” (2007), we’re reminded of the long shadows these painters have cast over the next generation, leaving us to wonder why none of these younger artists (Wendy White, Wilhelm Sasnal, Tobias Lehner) were included in this survey—an inclusion that could have breathed new life and conflict into many of the works found here.
Instead, we’re brought back again to nagging doubters like Michael Krebber, whose “Contempt for One’s Own Work as Planning for Career” (2001) seems amateurish and weak. If the sentiment is such, why make it at all? Perhaps the motivations behind the pouty painting are more in line with “professional development” and “marketability strategies” than in the intensity and range of the medium or the long, hard hours of looking that artists have always known and lived. It’s in that space that knowledge of your medium, and ultimately of yourself—not contempt for your lack of success—can and does occur.
Painting: Now and Forever, Part II shares little of the original incarnation’s spirit and revelry. Even if a convincing link between the two could be established, I’m not sure it would illuminate the 2008 exhibition. Maybe because the context has shifted, or maybe because there seemed to be less pat judgment in the original group and more actual argument, but this time around things never seem to get going. There are small moments of interest and intrigue to be found for sure, but overall it feels bogged down in whispers and giggles, elbows and backslaps. It’s certainly not the big, ugly, chaotic cacophony it could be, one that we could all love to hate.