Misgivings and Reassurance in Contemporary Painting

We had been driving through Alligator Alley for about an hour suffering just a bit of art fair hangover and reviewing everything we had seen.  After relating a series of paintings at NADA that I had especially liked, my wife asked, “So what in particular did you like about it?”  I found myself fumbling for words and muttering something about composition.

I suppose a lot in regards to personal taste and judging art is intuitive.  It’s difficult to always be explicitly conceptual.  This line of thinking, though, spared me from needing to articulate my opinion save for when it came time write.  For some time I’ve had some nagging thoughts in connection with contemporary painting, and this line of thinking spared me from the need to articulate them.  Well, it’s come time to write.

Misgivings

It’s unclear whether the bias is personal or professional, but for the past several months my preference has leaned heavily toward painting.  I feel the need to say that plainly; I’m not picking on the medium.  Really, it is difficult to find a medium that has had a more caustic relationship with critical theorists and post-modern thought.  At its best it seems painting is perpetually on the cusp of being declared dead.  At its worst it is the receiver of outright rejection familiar to neo-expressionism.  Almost fundamentally the medium seems contrary to a post-modern sensibility.  Thus its current popularity (both personally and generally) is a bit surprising.

Miami’s 2013 NADA and Untitled Fairs definitely made clear that an increasingly expressive painting style is gaining traction.  Each booth seemingly showcased individual styles and characteristics unique to a single hand.  It is difficult to imagine that somehow the art will be separated from the artist.  Will we see critical praise of artwork double as personal praise of a singular talent?  Essentially, I wonder if a more expressive style of art and medium will be accompanied by a return of emphasis on authorship.  Though it would seem unavoidable, I honestly hope not.

It’s tricky severing the brushstrokes from its gesture and the gesture from the mind of the artist.  I don’t want to be presumptuous but privileging one would seem to privilege them all.  Admittedly, a lot of post-modern thought on hegemony, hierarchy, privilege, authorship, and the individual is severely overwrought.  However, I do appreciate the way in which it drastically shifted attention away from the artist and instead toward the artwork.  This shift was seriously overdue and an idea I believe it would be unwise to part with.  Superficially at least, it would appear this new sort of expressive painting could work contrary to the relatively balanced view of authorship achieved over the last three decades.

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Rebecca Morris
Untitled (#05-13), 2013
oil on canvas
79 x 79 in.

This painting style, so-called New Casualism orProvisional Painting(depending on which publication you read), is more than just expressive.  It is a sort of anti-aesthetic, but not quite in the irreverent vein of Dada.  Rather, these artists presumably explore value in imperfection, incompleteness, the meta-narrative of painting art history, and anything really outside the bounds of typical 2D training.  In the Brooklyn Rail article lending the style its name, Sharon L. Butler says, “The idea is to cast aside the neat but rigid fundamentals learned in art school and embrace everything that seems to lend itself to visual intrigue—including failure.”

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Raoul De Keyser
Crossing, 2010
gesso and oil on canvas mounted on wooden panel
12 5/8 x 12 4/5 in.

However, this idea presents two troublesome possibilities.  First, perhaps the shift in painting accompanied by New Casualism doesn’t carry the weight it hopes to and is merely the ugly becoming attractive, or not breaking the rules but just playing by a different set.  This would be like the sudden shift of 1990’s fashion from ugly to chic.  I suppose what I’m suggesting is that it may be that this sort of painting is not exploring new conceptual/theoretical territory but superficial aesthetic nuances – an art ‘movement’ operating more akin to a fashion world on canvas.  It is an especially Tumblr-friendly aesthetic.  This particularly makes me uneasy with the thought that despite what the artist statement may say there maybe little depth beyond the work as a simple image/commodity for the info-economies that is social networking.

The second troubling possibility is this: the only difference between bad painting and New Casualism may be an MFA and a well written artist statement.  I’m familiar with the trope that one must first know the rules before breaking them.  Still, I can’t help but suspect that too much value is being allowed to piggyback an MFA into New Casualist painting.  Both bad practice and New Casualism disregard conventions of painting and one might comment that the artist’s intention separates the two.  However, I feel a frank inspection would reveal that, in reality, working from within a system academicizing art is really what privileges the painter here, not intention.  An “outsider”/self-taught artist intentionally disregarding painting conventions and art history will hardly be considered a New Casualist and somehow this seems wrong.

In the October 2013 Artforum article Pardon My French, Thierry de Duve speaks about an idea which arrived with the 1960’s that “if anything and everything can be art, chances are that anyone can be an artist.”  While this sort of optimism may have since waned, its legacy may be an inclusivity that largely characterizes contemporary practice.  I won’t go so far as to say that a New Casualist style of painting threatens this inclusivity.  However, it does seem to work contrary to it.  Perhaps the relatively recently increased emphasis and value placed on MFA programs is partly an Apollonian swing away from this 1960’s utopian inclusivity.  Still, it seems paradoxical for a style to disregard convention yet still privilege an intellectual class.

Another post-modern precept that much of contemporary painting seems to operate in opposition to is the idea of the art object.  Arguably, the increasing commodification of art led to a reaction from many artists to create work that is less…commodity-ish.  I suppose it seems a lot of a commodity appears to be tied up in its physical objectness – an object that can physically be obtained, owned, sold, and bought.  Thus, perhaps naturally, a popular reaction was to eschew the physical nature of art in favor of its conceptual one.  Culminating, of course, in conceptualism, much of current painting seems unconcerned with this aspect of contemporary art.  Little else embodies collecting, the art market, and capitalism in art than painting.  Its small size, though I do like it, only seems to add a “collect-them-all” appeal to the art form.  It may be recalled that perhaps a small reason Neo-Expressionism faded as it did was that the movement was partially perceived as a sort of market manipulation by Charles Saatchi; he was at least thought to have believed the medium lent itself well to it.  Perhaps, this should serve as a cautionary tale to New Casualism.

Finally, I should mention Jerry Saltz’ scathing article on the same style (which he curiously calls ‘Neo-Mannerism’).  Of course there was the expected rancor from the painting community, in which I can be included.  We may both have misgivings about the same painting style (though I’d characterize Jerry’s misgivings as ‘complaints’), we have misgivings about very different aspects of that style.  Saltz takes issue with the aesthetics of New Casualism, which I admittedly like.  Thus, I was disappointed that he didn’t offer visual examples of his visual criticisms.

I suppose the bulk of my misgivings are rooted in the feeling that a great deal of contemporary painting may be ignoring some of the best thought to come out of art and theory over the last several decades.  I really don’t mean for that to sound so heavy-handed or dramatic.  I don’t reckon that if my misgivings are in fact true this is some sort of regression that perhaps may have been the case with Neo-Expressionism and the Transavantgarde.  Rather, hopefully, may it merely be a temporary conceptual laziness.  Still, perhaps my misgivings are just ill-founded and badly interpreted.  Contemporary painting – New Casualism and Provisionalism – offer several reassurances.

Reassurances

It’s tempting to tie moody dramatic brush strokes to ideas of modernism too often.  Contemporary painting is characterized by a similar stroke.  However, it’s very unlikely there is any considerable amount of Greenbergian thought behind it.  Really, “expressionistic”, a term I used earlier, could be wholly inaccurate.  It may be that such a brush stroke doesn’t refer to the singular vision or experience but to the physical body itself.

The painterly, the “expressionistic” brush stroke in contemporary painting is likely more often a documentation of the hand that left it.  This may signal a return of interest in the body.  Of course this should be expected.  In an increasingly virtual world, the function of the physical body within it is becoming increasingly murky.  Painting lends itself especially well to exploring physical concerns, specifically through such brush strokes that suggest the bodily mechanics that create them.

Regardless, it might not be so bad for painting to return to considering the individual.  Maybe not the artist as individual, but the collective idea of the individual in general.  Art has been preoccupied with its own market and politics for so long that a change of scope may be in order. I can’t tell if I’m getting bored with it or just emotionally tired, but a more intimate subject matter could definitely be welcome.  It may in turn lead toward the elusive balance of a personal artwork that steers clear of sentimentality.

Another apprehension with contemporary painting that I mentioned earlier is its objectness, a worrying regression to the art object.  The multitude of available pieces, the ease of display and exhibition has always made painting ideal for art collecting, contemporary painting perhaps especially so.  The fear of painting’s descent into a simple economic commodity is understandable.  However, the 2010’s are very different from the 1960’s.

Originally, Conceptualism was partly a reaction to, or at least immediately preceded by an art market that reveled in high-priced and highly collectible Abstract Expressionist painting.  New Casualism, however, is partly a reaction to, or at least immediately preceded by a bloating art market reveling in often ostentatious and enormous ‘Neo-Conceptualist’ art.  In their own ways, Conceptualism and New Casuaulism are each, in part, push-backs against the artwork and art market of their respective times.

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Barbara Rossi
Black Rock Top, 1972
Acrylic on Plexiglas with printed satin, oil on wood frame
41 x 33

It should also be noted that, to some extent, by the year 2014 artists seem to have largely made peace with the idea that regardless of intent or form, their art will likely (or even hopefully) wind up as a commodity for sale.  In the rare exceptions in which artwork does not fit in as a commodity (e.g. net art), it is usually seen more as a problem than an accomplishment, even by some of us staunchest anti-capitalists.  Today, the question isn’t so much whether or not one’s art should work from within the art market, but how it should work within that market.

The work that dominated fairs such as Basel leading up to the 2010’s (and arguably still do) were often perceived as imposing, gaudy, and glossy tokens of wealth.  It would require a considerable fortune to simply care for some of whatever formaldehyde dipped object a collector liberated Damien Hirst of.  Eventually, in light of the housing market collapse of 2008 such work could hardly avoid seeming garish.

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Jim Nutt
I’m All A TWit, 1969
acrylic reverse painting on vinyl window shade with enamel on wood

Contemporary painting perhaps reeled itself in partly as a reaction to this recession of wealth – literally as art supplies were more difficult to afford and figuratively as a reflection of a more modest market.  It may be that New Casualist/Provisionalist painting also tired of the cynicism that characterized preceding work and opted for a more intimate practice.  Further, contemporary painting appears ready to take up issues in the medium set aside since the 1970’s, but from a new vantage point.  Though it’s composed of considerably more figuration, it may be little coincidence that  artwork from the late 1960’s and 1970’s such as Funk Art, the Chicago Imagists, and “Bad” Painting visually resemble much of contemporary art.  Thus, though it may not be conceptually perfect, contemporary painting is an appropriate, even welcome, response to much of the dominant artwork that preceded it.

* * *

After reviewing my personal misgivings and reassurances with contemporary painting, a sort of convoluted pros and cons list, I’m left with no substantial judgements.  Really, I’m only left with what was perhaps always obvious: to judge and experience art individually with their larger “-ism” serving as nothing more than context.  Perhaps New Casualism’s and Provisionalism’s most glaring fault is simply the name that, for better or worse, bundles the artwork of many to be summarily judged as one body and sold as one style.

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