Painting After Postmodernism:
by Tom McGlynn
REGGIA DI CASERTA, ITALY | APRIL 12 – JUNE 16, 2018
At this very difficult to locate point in time, when a quickened simultaneity of current events constitutes and then immediately reconstitutes a daily news churn, it can be almost impossible to conceive of a prehistory to the seamless nature of the ever-present postmodern.
Considering how inextricably marbled by the postmodern our every waking moment seems to be, it might be helpful, as a preface to this particular review, to call up an exploration at an older point in the term’s inception. Referring to the New York art world of 1980, Craig Owens theorized that “the postmodern” was a reformation of an allegorical impulse. He writes “Appropriation, site specificity, impermanence, accumulation, discursivity, hybridization, these diverse strategies characterize much of the art of the present . . . (they) also form a whole in relation to allegory suggesting that postmodernist art may be in fact identified by (this) single coherent impulse.”1 Owens goes on to make the point that “Allegory concerns itself . . . with the projection-either spatial, temporal, or both- of structure as sequence; the result however is not dynamic, but static, ritualistic and repetitive. It is thus the epitome of counter-narrative, for it arrests narrative in place, substituting a principle of syntagmatic disjunction for one of diegetic combination (and therefore) allegory superinduces a vertical or paradigmatic reading of correspondences upon a horizontal or syntagmatic chain of events .2”
Barbara Rose’s conception of Painting After Postmodernism (PAP) seems to want to address, in Owen’s terms, the “static, ritualistic and repetitive” aspect of the postmodernist turn. In her catalogue essay for the show she describes a “[postmodernist] theory [that] supplanted iconography as a discipline for the initiated, inspiring academic art in the way that the Renaissance philosophers provided subject matter for Mannerist artists.”3 Against the counter-narrative of postmodernism Rose presents Painting After Postmodernism in a now familiar critique of the academic orthodoxy that postmodernist theory, as applied to art, has become. Even as early as 1987, in shows such as The New Poverty, curated by Tricia Collins and Richard Milazzo, (in which an emphasis on raw materiality reigned, in very tactile works by Meg Webster and Holt Quentel for example)4> there was a critical pushback from the largely photographic, postmodern media theoretic of the so called “Pictures Generation”. In her essay, Rose decries the “increasingly inhuman, technologically driven, globally-networked world”5 and her aspiration for the exhibit seems to be to show that painting can restore a humanistic pause to the inevitable rush toward artificially automated being: “The space of postmodernism is that of reproduced images borrowed from photography, film and video. The rebirth of pictorial space which is ambiguous and amorphous is based on a visionary consciousness.”6
The Reggia di Caserta, the current site of PAP, is a former seat of the Bourbon kings of Naples, and one of the largest palaces in Europe. Its physical grandeur is a culminating monument to the royal control and containment of temporality that held such fascinating sway in the minds of late 18th and early 19th century subjects. The first iteration of PAP (September 15 – November13, 2016) was shown in a classic modernist building in the center of Brussels, therefore the “postmodern” embedded in its title had a relatively more contemporary architectural analog. Its newest location in a late baroque palace takes on an almost altogether different meaning and aspect. By increasing the temporal interval between one allegorical gesture and another (the palace’s historically coded space and the epoch- defining premise of the show) the choice of the newer site imparts a vaster sense of temporal theoretics, in both political and aesthetic projection, to the exhibit. This more attenuated conceptual interval in such an already exhausted allegorical time form (static, ritualistic, repetitive) as a Baroque palace might be an even more perfect place to stage a post-postmodernist exhibition. One could perceive Rose’s concept for PAP as a plea for the restoration of painting to its former glory as a paradigm of cultural significance. Quixotically romantic, this type of restoration shares a common ideological conception with historical Restorations of monarchical rule. While she critiques what she calls Clement Greenberg’s formalist “rule book” in her catalogue essay, Rose may herself be seen as protesting for too much of a formally disinterested connoisseurship of the Kantian stripe that Greenberg himself typically favored (at a press conference for the show Rose declared that “It’s not an exhibit for the masses”). What is fascinating about the exhibit is not that such contradictions of intent are revealed (Rose’s counter-narrative can be seen as an antithetical postmodern move in itself, for instance) as much as they serve to re- problematize the viewer’s ontological relationship to painting as object and how that object might yet again gain personal—and by extension cultural—significance. Ad Reinhardt’s famous cartoon of an abstract painting interrogating its viewer with the punchline “What do you represent?” comes to mind. The curator’s reasoning here seems to be to make it more difficult for a contemporary viewer to walk away from this existential question: “What do you deeply, fundamentally represent in a world full of shallow (postmodern) representations?” The gaining of this type of insight she implies, in order to have a strong footing, must be arrived at in the present, in our fully realized selves (and certainly not limited to Greenbergian optical strictures) and shouldn’t rely upon the formal abstractions of the static, allegorical, postmodern. It’s quite a tall order Rose asks of the viewer, but her wager seems to rest upon the idea that it’s a humanely ennobling one.
The Italians are most at home in the historical context of the Reggia Caserta. This is not altogether surprising considering that contemporary Italian painters are implicitly challenged by the extraordinary precedents of Latin classical antiquity. The remarkable selection of antique paintings and marbles at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples can confirm this fact. The frescos and mosaics of Pompeii and Herculaneum, for instance ,can be a daunting pictorial heritage to live up to. Some of the most compelling paintings from the Italian contingent take into serious consideration both the symbolism of such a heritage but also that existential time itself is a material to be exploited. Nino Longobardi and Bruno Ceccobelli paint as avatars (or mediums) of Roman/Christian symbolist import. Longobardi’s Trismegisto (trittico) (1993) contrasts three leaning figures in gray against rectangular fields that closely contain them. The ossuary cells of the early Christian catacombs beneath Naples are brought subtly to light in this dynamic momento mori. Ceccobelli’s works here are much more aggressive in their physical presence and symbolic directness. A good example is his shroud-like hanging of Vista Universale, (2006). In it a monumental eye hovers, thinly described on a felt banner with washes of fabric dye (mordant). Both painters use a physically slowed down processes to symbolically describe mystical time. A lighter tone is struck in Rossella Vasta’s paintings such as the selections from her Montagna Cosmico series (2017) represented here. Golden oil paint and pigment, in dramatic abstract pours on stained white-grounded canvases, echo the format of stacked mountains of a traditional Chinese landscape, but if they were painted in emulsified gilt, rather than ink. The phenomenal color, gesture, and physicality of these compositions interacts dynamically with the baroque swag of the palace that could still be seen poking through at places in the installation. In this context, Vasta’s gestures joyously express that time is fluid and present (and the moment golden) rather than fixed in some picturesque timelessness administered by those (whether postmodern initiates or regal courtiers) who would then take up an office to dispense its worth.
Roberto Caracciolo’s Sei Meditazioni IV (2007) is structured as a sequence of moments experienced simultaneously as one might in a deep contemplative state. This large canvas contains alternating rows of notational streaks of paint in gently descending order towards the center of the piece. The work shares a slight pictorial kinship with the surely placed strokes of a Sumi-e master. The apparently random rectangular geometry of the painting approaches the mechanics of mathematic logic yet the muted, multi-colored hue and tonal shifts confound formulaic equation by alternating levels of contrast and assimilation of the forms. Time is spatially articulated as a fluctuating shimmer of vastness and particularity in this work.
The Americans represented in the show are multigenerational group ranging from the recently deceased Ed Moses (1926-2018) to Melissa Kretschmer (b. 1962). Moses, known for his inveterate exploration of materials that sometimes begat symbolic imagery, is represented by the almost completely abstract Orange Apr (2011). Its vivid cadmium red ground is laced with a deep black craquelure that approximates both Chinese ceramics and the dried up mud of Death Valley alike. It’s fitting in this context that such a painting also dialogues formally with the works of Arte Povera artists such as Alberto Burri’s (late work) and Lucio Fontana’s (early work.) Like these Italians, Moses let his materials speak for themselves whenever he could. Kretschmer utilizes wood supports that she then works with power and hand tools to inscribe striations of lines in interval which are subsequently poly-chromed. Works such as Crosscurrent (2015) and Inlet (2016) are smaller in scale than many of the other works in the exhibition yet because of their sculptural insistence, their scarified presence, they hold their own. The strong, at times stark, lighting in the overall exhibition flatters some works more than others. For Kretschmer the lighting emphasizes the sculptural aspect of her work rather than its optical dimensions which are equally complex. In fact, the necessity to mount all of the paintings in the show as freestanding from the wall (so as not to damage the historical decor) lent the entire exhibition a sculptural physicality that played well against the ostentatious Baroque appointments of the palace. This in turn imparted an aggressive agenthood, an almost peripatetic projection of pictorial presence, to the paintings that effectively placed the works in the ambulatory space of the viewer. It’s interesting that in such a situation oblique references to European street performances of the 1960s such as in Daniel Buren’s abstract placard carrying Sandwich Men (1968) come to mind. Were such performances not attempts to get art out of the typical constraints of the theoretically circumscribed white box also? This is perhaps an unintended consequence of a pragmatic display solution but it nevertheless lends the exhibit a dramatically festive aspect which may seem appropriate to the initiation of Rose’s proposal towards a new, painterly, paradigm. Additionally, her aspiration for painting to recapture the metaphysical, poetic and transcendent moment might be paradoxically well served by such a physically radical presentational gesture, since it emphasizes and outlines the limitations of such, generating a critical frisson that energizes the exhibition. Larry Poons’s career is a great example of one that upset given notions of the propriety of painterly presentation. He is particularly well served by the off the wall display of his paintings which themselves jump from their planar moorings in deep relief. Eschewing his early fame as a composer of optically complex color fields and forms, Poons began, by the late 1970s, layering on heavy coats of paint to later augment these with collaged elements. One of these heavily encrusted collage paintings is represented here by Grin (Francisco) 1991. Its aleatory distribution of textures and colors writhe in giddy contrast to the proprietarily arranged garlands and cartouches of the baroque setting of the Bourbon palace.
Belgian artists in the show include Werner Manners and Mark Maet. Their work may be said to represent two poles that bracket an aesthetics ostensibly native to their country. Manners’s work represents a playfully Flemish relation to geometric abstraction while Maet’s a mystical symbolism that has deep roots in older European religious traditions. Manners’s The Lolita Series (Chapter 7) (2015) is a large composition grounded by short notational black lines that suspend four geometrical elements colored in green, yellow, black and white. The space of the painting approaches the cosmic in its deftly juggled abstraction yet there is also a serious bemusement at work, perhaps an inherent skepticism that prevents the painting from devolving into merely tactical quotation of Modernist abstraction. Maet’s The Mouth of The Sky (1988) is also a large painting but one more religiously expressive of universal symbolism. Its achromatic, white toned and thickly painted concentric rings have a purity of intention that may seem ascetically understated, but they are perhaps an apt symbolic foil to our current age: an era of hyperbolic quotation marks that hang, increasingly meaningless, in the air, and which seem to universally encircle Western culture at present. Xavier Noiret-Thomé’s paintings here benefit from the unique contrast of the contemporary with the historical in the palatial context. This is because his abstractions are highly articulated with different approaches to process and materials and so parallel the wide range of different marbles, murals, and plaster surface treatments that decorate the Reggia di Caserta. His Thingummy Painting/Aldebaran (2008-10) is a dark sky of a canvas encrusted with a celestial array of shiny objects that have a lapidary effect on a monumental scale. His ambitions, however, seem confined to the individual subject’s midnight dreaming rather than the rapacious aspirations of a Sun King’s waking domain.
The question of whether the postmodern is something that Western culture, specifically in its continuing history of painting, can effectively get out in front of is not fully answered by PAP. There are a number of other artists participating in the exhibit that space here does not allow to cover7, each of whom seem chosen by Rose to represent particular aspects of a fully embodied painterly practice deploying a wide variety of paint applications including, but not limited to, raking, scumbling, spray-painting, scoring, masking, pouring and relief collage. Such a range of physical application is meant, according to the show’s thesis, to counter the shallow and slippery signifiers of a hypermediated (postmodern) world. In essence, Rose’s is a romantic aspiration toward the raising of a Blakean Jerusalem for painting amongst the super-induced, allegorical ruins of the postmodern. At the press conference on the morning of the opening of PAP, Laura Valente, who is the president of Fondazione Donnaregina per le Arti Contemporanee in Naples, an institution in support of the exhibition, came up with a neatly cryptic phrase to address the essentially picturesque phenomena of showing contemporary art in a historical context: “Everything is born contemporary.” Rose’s curatorial return to the open-ended fluidity of painting’s working space might be best interpreted via this simple statement. New Jerusalems of the aesthetic domain, Rose seems to imply via her curatorial choices for PAP, may be most effectively erected by slowly putting one transcendent revelation before another: one tactile painting at a time.
- Owens Craig, “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism” The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. New York, Oxford Press, 1998. p321
- Ibid, p 320.
- Rose, Barbara, from the catalogue essay, Painting After Postmodernism Belgium-Italy-USA, 2018.p 181
- The New Poverty, held at John Gibson Gallery, New York, October 10 - November 7, 1987 may itself be considered within the tactical field of postmodernist theoretical discourse, yet to a large degree it also marked a shift in register from postmodern “pictures theory” toward a kind of aesthetics of dialectical materialism, calling forth a need to ground theory in phenomenal experience. Rose’s premise for PAP treads somewhat similar territory.
- Ibid.p 178
- Additional participants in PAP include: Walter Darby Bannard, Arturo Casanova,Elvio Chiricozzi, Mil Ceulmans, Gianni Dessi, Joris Ghekiere, Karen Gunderson, Martin Kline, Lois Lane,Paul Manes,Roberto Pietrosanti, Marco Tirelli, Bart Vandevijvere, Jan Vanriet.
TOM McGLYNN is an artist and frequent contributor to Artseen.