Clicheby William Corwin
ALMINE RECH GALLERY | JUNE 20 – JULY 28, 2018
According to the rationale behind the summer group exhibition Cliche, finding a painting that doesn’t fall into the pattern of one cliché or another is about as easy as finding a needle in a haystack. This cheerful and overstuffed show—with 43 artists in all—strives to find a thought-provoking and elastic catch-all for the prodigious number of styles and subjects of its chosen participants. Curator Bill Powers’s definition of cliché is therefore a bit lax, and many of the categories of cliché around which pieces are grouped are esoteric, tongue-in-cheek, or otherwise inscrutable. (So much so that a detailed list and map are provided.)
While some works are images or forms that exult in their banality and predictability—such as Sally Saul’s silly sweet clay dog portraits Black Dog, Dog with Bone, and Little Dog (all 2018), Josh Smith’s oil on canvas Untitled (2015), a classic Memento Mori, and a riff on Van Gogh’s famous smoking skeleton, or Genieve Figgis’s gooey painting Under the Rainbow (2018), in which thick paints bleed and swirl into each other—not all elicit a resigned sigh or guilty smile as we acknowledge a tired (or tried-and-true) visual trope engineered to eke out a sensation of happiness, comfort, or self-reflection. Other subjects and compositions simply don’t fit this definition of cliché, and Powers has roped in some very expansive genres of visual representation: Would we call a short story, a sonnet, or an epic poem a cliché in literature? It feels overly simplistic to accuse traditional formats like portraits, self-portraits, landscapes, and nudes of being inherently clichéd, as Powers has done in several of his selections—these are just too open-ended and accommodating of variety. It was also necessary to consult the exhibition guide while wandering through the galleries in order to fathom the nuance of cliché playing out among what appeared to be a random selection of paintings by sometimes recognizable contemporary artists. Some works, such as Richard Prince’s cheery smiley face Untitled (Kool-Aid) (2011), clearly fit within their cliché category, but others were impossible to ascertain. (I could not tell, for example, that Shara Hughes’s One Last Step (2017), a stained-glass-like psychedelic view onto a copse of trees, fell into the genre of “window.”)
The pejorative sense of the term cliché also gets whitewashed in this exhibition. One should, ostensibly, loathe the experience of enduring an onslaught of hackneyed and trite images. This is overwhelmingly not the sensation one has viewing George Condo’s Name Composition (1989), a painting that presents the timeless arts & crafts activity of rendering one’s own name in elaborate, usually puffy lettering. Except for those with children aged five to eleven, this comes as a refreshing alternative to the deeply symbolic or abstract imagery with which we are usually faced in our art-world perambulations. Is a cliché still a cliché if it comes as a welcome change? The same question holds for Albert Oehlen’s untitled (2013), which the gallery describes as an example of “finger painting.” The curator seems to conflate cliché with art worldcliché. Perhaps I, as an artist and art writer, have to contend with Renoir’s, Degas’s, and Picasso’s “bathers” regularly, but most viewers wouldn’t shudder at the sight of Cy Gavin’s gritty and richly textured Bather III (2018). Nor would one ever really grow weary of images of lightbulbs—another subheading of clichéd painting identified by Powers—such as Al Freeman’s nod to Claes Oldenburg, and Coosje Van Bruggen Soft Lightbulb with Yellow Cord (2018).
In this sense, the exhibition had the positive, and perhaps unintentional, effect of demanding that one leave one’s overwrought art-world assumptions at the door in order to appreciate the full taxonomy of subjects that can be depicted—subjects to which we often have become so habituated, we no longer register the psycho/socio buttons that the images are pushing in our collective psyche. Some works succeeded in both falling into a very typical category while also containing a kernel of the unexpected: Mark Grotjahn’s exuberant depiction of a skull, for example, Untitled (Skull XXIV 48:50) (2016) is a painting of an object “officially sanctioned” as one worthy of representation going back to Dürer, Holbein, and well before that. Elizabeth Peyton’s Queen Elizabeth aged 16 (1997) and Sam McKinnis’s Prince George & Prince William (2018), are examples of the “British Royal family” (as the exhibition notes) or the wider cliché of aristocratic portraiture. And looking at Cynthia Talmadge’s flickering pastel pointillist Bath Salts Part 2 (2018) reminded me how short-lived pointillism was. However, it is Rene Ricard who, with a single work, questions both the value and arbitrariness of categorization—in a universal sense, the central theme the exhibition plays with: how clichés form categories that are repeated so often that we feel we already know what is coming. Filed under “religious art,” which seemed quite accurate, is the initially confusing drawing Cross Dressing (Purple) (1989). It is simply a handwritten list: “3 spikes, 1 loin cloth, and a simple crown of thorns.”
William Corwin is a sculptor and curator based in New York City. His work has been reviewed in the Brooklyn Rail, ARTnews, Sculpture Magazine, Artcritical, and Art Monthly. In 2016, he organized I Cyborg at the Gazelli Art House in London. He currently teaches with the Meet the Met program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and hosts a program on Clocktower Radio.