What codes of painting remain to be transgressed? With today’s flexible and permeable boundaries, how is it possible to infringe upon or go beyond? Are we at a point where painting has ceased to adapt? Halted in challenging painting’s outward limits, must we work simultaneously within and around the medium?
Transgression, like the experience of art, is relative to its context, whether it be political, formal, environmental, or institutional. Still, painting has yet to exhaust its transgressive possibilities. By recombining, recasting, and recontexualizing its identity with other mediums, actions, and places of dissemination and display, painting can still transgress its normative historical position.
For the most part, boundaries are currently broken where the painting ends and dissemination begins. Although alluded to in recent philosophical writings by Giorgio Agamben, Vilém Flusser, and Jacques Rancière, art historian David Joselit helpfully addresses these notions of unmasking distributive relationships in the circulation of art. In the essay “Painting Beside Itself” (2009) Joselit conceptualizes painting as a network in a series of transitive actions and behaviors of and around these objects. While he refers to varied examples, from Wade Guyton to Amy Sillman, Joselit builds his argument primarily on a single example of the painting installation “Lux Interior” by Jutta Koether.
In contrast to Joselit’s examples, a few contemporary painters come to mind who work in a more focused manner with electronic or performative constellations. Loren Munk arranges constellations of often lesser-known art historical narratives in his paintings. These paintings are organized by the diagrammatic structure of flowcharts and often follow the shapes of large, colorful geometric shapes and patterns. They illustrate a nexus of artists, locales, and galleries, the portrayal of which also extends into his YouTube video documentation of New York-based contemporary art openings and events. As one large web of historical information, Munk’s work enlarges the scope of art history and transgresses the boundaries of its dissemination by simultaneously broadcasting recordings over the internet and visualizing art history on the canvas’s picture plane.
Dave Miko and Tom Thayer’s recent enigmatic yet spectacular collaborative exhibition at Eleven Rivington interlaces image and surface. Various acidic-colored animations are projected digitally on the surface of low-hung canvases. Miko and Thayer play with additive and subtractive color, projected and refracted light, and the speed at which these painting-video hybrids are experienced to engage painting outside of the picture plane. The results are challenging, constantly shifting, and evolving, as montages of color and atmospheric light.
Franklin Evans’s immersive tape-painting installations dismantle the usual self-contained and rigid Modernist grid by spanning the wall and floor, and hanging from the ceiling. Most recently, he has combined trompe l’oeil photographic imagery and sound elements from his laptop, which, placed on a table, reimagine the gallery as the workplace it was in creating the installation. Arrangements of reproduced book covers wrapped around wood blocks are placed on the floor. They supply an illusion of information to be subverted when viewers are invited to walk over them. Evans is thus continually extending the experience of the artist’s studio into the gallery, making visible neural systems and thought processes in the mind of the artist.
Similarly, David Scanavino’s recent installation at Klaus Von Nichtsaggend was unified by various elements of painting in an enclosure of a painted, mint green watermark on the gallery walls. Not only does Scanavino extend the notion of painting to other mediums (such as matrices of paper pulp pressed directly to the wall and floor tiles on which visitors walk), he also looks inward, seeking newness through private, individualistic expression. In doing so, Scanavino also transgresses the tradition of painting as a discreet and contained object.
Thus, painting can also be recombined, and its tradition infringed upon from within the medium. T.S. Eliot said in Tradition and the Individual Talent (1920) that an artist has to break with tradition in order to form his or her own individual style. Only then, paradoxically, can the artist rejoin tradition by creating a new node on this narrative. Painting and its history of many networks of traditions is constantly reinvented by the individual transgressive impulse.
This break with tradition is echoed within the discussion of formal rule-breaking in Raphael Rubinstein’s recent essay “Provisional Painting” (2009). Yet, he takes for granted that “strong painting” is a skill with certain attributes that suggest image-ness, representational concerns, and a painting that is self-contained and largely not influenced by the context of its display. This is nearly antithetical to Joselit’s view of painting as network. From this vantage point, many of Rubenstein’s assertions about the provisionality, or the eternal doubt, of painting don’t exactly acknowledge the way in which Jackson Pollock’s opening of the picture plane can be in service of a performative act, or that artists such as Yves Klein and Janine Antoni have since made this possibility explicit.
Today the most fascinating place to look for transgression in painting is at the junction of the picture plane and in the space around it. Artists are working at the intersection of related action and focusing on the installation and the circulation of the experience. Not only is the physical space for display an aspect to activate, but the performative and virtual spaces in which reproductions are placed as well. The ways in which these representations are stored, endlessly reproduced, and discussed on such virtual platforms as the Internet have created infinite possibility for painting.
GREG LINDQUIST is an artist, writer and editor of the Art Books in Review section of the Brooklyn Rail. He is currently a resident at the Marie Walsh Sharpe artist residency.