On ViewMitchell-Innes & Nash
September 10 – October 17, 2015
A screenwriter bursts into his agent’s office. “I have a great idea for a new picture,” he enthuses. “We do a remake of The Wiz. Only with white people!” Clichéd Hollywood joke, sure, yet pretty much on point with regard to current trends in music and art. The mash-up, dub, remix, redux, or whatever you want to call it, has replaced the “appropriation” strategies of the ’80s. The legacy of modernist abstract painting has morphed into something called zombie formalism that, despite critical derision, has become a bankable art style legitimated by museums and, to a greater extent, the art market.
Mitchell-Innes & Nash is showing the paintings and works on paper of Keltie Ferris. These very large, high-keyed, color-filled canvases are warmly inviting on first viewing. Bright reds and blues dominate. The arching motifs are brushy passages of paint, checkerboard squares, and general noodling around with the brush over airbrushed planes of color. The press release notes that “Ferris explores painting as a personal index,” and indeed, there is something deeply felt about these; Ferris manages to vivify her paintings. In Story (2015), she first paints a stack of vertical bands, which are covered by vertical pulls of paint, which are fogged over by a Jules Olitski-like mist of airbrushed pigment, which is then doodled over with scratchy, felt-tip-pen-like green strokes. In Marksman (2015) a similar technique references Christopher Wool and Arthur Dove; other works suggest the passages of Jonathan Lasker, Ross Bleckner, Gerhard Richter, and Amy Sillman, as well as African textiles and Amish quilts. When these elements come together, as in Cleopatra (2015), the result is quite likeable, like an Atari version of a Marsden Hartley.
The problem at the center of this type of art-making process is not the lack of original material. “Voodoo Problems” is a great song. Hendrix is great. Jay-Z is great. Put them together and you have a sonic Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of greatness. Nor is it the use of the repetitive mark-making, the quilting together of random paint strokes. Shows of McArthur Binion and Jack Tworkov (at Galerie Lelong and Alexander Gray Associates, respectively) are running concurrently on the same block and offer an instructive lesson on how this material can be based on a much stricter, more disciplined approach to great effect. No, there seems to be a greater problem, which might be the fault of we, the audience, as much as it is the artists. We are often accepting of mediums of convenience, things that are good enough rather than more difficult and better. We laugh at memes and YouTube postings, listen to degraded MP3s while driving, going for a morning run, or waiting on line at Starbucks for a pumpkin spice non-fat decaf latte, and often view art exhibits only on our laptops. Information theory tells us that the amount of bits needed to communicate certain types of content (like that hilarious dog that really wants a cheeseburger) on the internet can be much lower, and lower still, as the viewing audience becomes adapted to interpreting more content with less data. Maybe good enough is okay. Or maybe not.
When looking at painting, specifically post-Frank Stella painting, there has been a similar decline in levels of painterly qualities that sometimes leaves us feeling that something has gone missing. Stella himself wryly observed that “what you see is what you see,” though in his work he replaced a certain romantic approach to painting with geometry, and in doing so merely replaced a certain appreciation of painterly beauty with the beauty of geometry and color.
All of this is not, in the end, to disparage Ferris’s work. Indeed, this type of painting obviates criticism to some degree. A more clever review of this show would have consisted of a William S. Burroughs cut-and-paste mash-up of the reviews of Clement Greenberg, Rosalind Krauss, Barbara Rose, and Peter Schjeldahl. But perhaps we should take away something instructive from all of this. If television has taught us anything lately, it is that we should fear the walking dead.
- Correction: The October, 2015 print issue of the Rail incorrectly stated that Ferris's work appeared in the exhibition The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World (MoMA, December 14, 2014 - April 5, 2015). Ferris's work did not appear in that exhibition.