Reena Spaulings | May 11 – June 8, 2014
The best of painting at this moment gives consideration to the question, “What can painting do?” What is the particular voice and range of investigation that painting can offer and in what form? Jutta Koether, in her current show at Reena Spaulings, offers three strong arguments: it can fill a room with sensory (visual) information, it can require and reward a slow reading, and it can address its own history.
In his seminal essay “Painting Beside Itself” (2009), David Joselit describes Koether’s previous exhibit at this same gallery, Lux Interior, as exemplary of the shift in painting from object to network. Joselit identifies the elements of that exhibition: a single painting, based on Poussin, hung unconventionally; spotlight (with a story); and performance. In Champrovent, Koether has reduced the elements to 11 paintings hung on the wall, yet she occupies the space fully. Having expanded the field of painting, she now condenses and concentrates on using painting as installation to create a space that is meditative, fleshy, sensuous, and thoroughly enwrapped in a meditation on sex, sexuality, gender, and art history. The room exudes a very pink sensation, enacted via the pink paintings on white walls. This feeling is exquisitely articulated through the arrangement, content, and pacing of the 11 canvases.
Reena Spaulings Gallery has an unusual raised platform that creates a gallery within a room. The staged space is utilized here to emphasize a stage-managed entry and unfolding reveal. A wall has been added two-thirds of the way into the gallery that isolates a window and leads us along the right wall, where the eight grid paintings, “Bruised Grids” (2007 – 14) are hung in a line. The grid paintings are both slight and dense. These are paintings that Koether does in one day, and she does a lot of them. The 12-inch surface is divided into one-inch squares, with the squares loosely painted in. On top of the grid is a scumbled layer of gold interference paint that moves in and out depending on your angle of viewing, ungraspable, a hovering presence. These are small meditative paintings and they appear, at first pass, to be insufficient, of dubious accomplishment. What they offer is accompaniment and foil to the three larger paintings in the space; they offer flesh to the bodies to come.
At the front of the gallery, towards the street windows, hang the three larger paintings. Here the viewer encounters the nude/naked figure, and art history: Balthus, Lucian Freud, and Chardin. The Balthus painting is the most immediately recognizable: a copy of “GoldenDays” (1944 – 45)(which was painted at Champrovent, hence the title of the show), replete with a girl stretched out on a couch, self-scrutinizing mirror in hand. Balthus? Balthus, who attracts both our fascination and embarrassment? The Lucian Freud copy is of “Eli and David” (2005 – 06). Eli is the dog. In Koether’s version, David alternates genders. Finally, there is “Ear Freud Chardin”, a painting I found indecipherable at first. I saw the ear, but it was only after finding the Freud print online that the image suddenly came into existence for me. The Freud etching is a focused detail the artist created after having first made an etching of the Chardin painting, “Little Schoolmistress.”
These paintings are a sophisticated and layered consideration of how to represent the human figure, how to consider the sexualized sitter, the sexualized artist, the studio, the use of paint, the gender and role of the sitter, and the painter and the copyist. They are badly painted in a way that seems both economical and dismissive of labored finesse, overblown in their gesturalism, but satisfying to the work set out for them. In the end, it all adds up to observations and questions about painting rather than conclusive and declamatory statements. Time is stretched out, as the interplay of strategies and images is pleasurably unraveled. Joselit’s network field is both contracted in activity and expanded in the more narrow possibility of what painting itself might do. What is created is a room of reference and experience. Koether has reduced the variables, eschewed actual performance, and delivered an experience that stretches the range of painting to under our skin.
Craig Stockwell is an artist currently in Brooklyn at the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation for one year. Otherwise, he lives, works, writes, and teaches in New Hampshire.