Nothing new under the sun? Does it really matter? “The past,” as William Faulkner wrote, “is never dead. It’s not even past.” The past cannot be ignored, disdained, used up or discarded; it’s the ligand that strings us all together.
And so what do we look for when we seek out the new? A rupture with the past or a capstone to cumulative experience? Often, the most intriguing new work of art is the one that neither breaks with nor crowns a tradition, but that remakes the past into something both alien and familiar, a personal insight into form and content that radiates outward with far-reaching implications.
The press release for Xstraction, the current group exhibition at The Hole, promises “a major show looking at new approaches in abstract painting.” But by the end of the first paragraph the text backpedals a bit: “We hope to present some of the various tendencies in the tradition of abstract painting from where they may have begun to where they are going today.”
The latter statement is more on the mark. There are only a few paintings here that are startling in their originality, but despite their sheen of newness, their relationship to antecedents is very much in evidence. This is not a criticism; to the contrary, it’s a major factor in the richness of their aura (a word I use advisedly). The rest of the works in the show appear to be earnestly made, but their conversion of past practices (abjection and process are especially pervasive) for the here and now do not register as particularly imperative.
The conceptual foundation for the majority of the work in this show was laid by Leo Steinberg forty-five years ago in his essay ”Other Criteria,” which was adapted from a lecture given at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in March 1968 and later included in the anthology of the same name (1972).
In a section of the essay subtitled “The Flatbed Picture Plane,” Steinberg describes the phenomenon, well underway by ‘68, in which paintings “no longer simulate vertical fields, but opaque flatbed horizontals [that] no more depend on a head-to-toe correspondence with human posture than a newspaper does”:
The pictures of the last fifteen to twenty years insist on a radically new orientation, in which the painted surface is no longer the analogue of a visual experience of nature but of operational processes.
This transformation of the picture plane was “expressive of the most radical shift in the subject matter of art, the shift from nature to culture.”
There doesn’t seem to be a single work in Xstraction that departs from Steinberg’s assessment of then-radical art. Each work proceeds from a material and/or conceptual premise; there is no ordering of reality, as we see in pre-1960s abstract painting, but rather the creation of a new order of reality. These works do not interpret shared experience; they are presented by their creators as supplemental experiences for those possessing the sensitivity to respond to them.
If only Xstraction delivered more fully on its promise. There are two interrelated problems with the show: the first is that it is overhung, with too many largish works jammed across each wall; the other is The Hole’s zigzagging, cut-up space and its jarring mismatch between a centrally located exposed-brick wall and the conventional white sheetrock walls surrounding it.
These physical factors relegate most of the artworks to what come off as leftover spaces. The paintings wend their way around the corners and recesses of the gallery without gaining cumulative power. Similar works feel suffocated, and dissimilar ones look discordant.
Still, several paintings in Xstraction stand out despite all that’s working against them. There’s a delightful easel-size tour-de-force by Trudy Benson, whose work I’ve written about at length elsewhere. Landon Metz’s loosely geometric shapes, which are dyed onto raw canvas (“Untitled,” 2013), emanate a laid-back monumentality, while the hand-woven cotton canvas beside it by his studio mate, Ethan Cook, also untitled and from 2013, uses pale colors to build a quiet tension between two funky, tripartite rectangles.
It’s an effective piece, well thought-out and skillfully crafted; that it is securely rooted in the past, recalling the fabric works made by Anni Albers in the 1920s and ‘30s, is not a deprecation but a welcome sign of continuity, just as Metz’s dyed canvas’s bloodlines lead back to Helen Frankenthaler.
One of the most engaging works is Kador Brock’s “rdnsiiiii” (2006-2012), whose materials include oil, acrylic, flashe, spray paint and house paint. The bristling, detritus-strewn canvas echoes the density and seriousness of a late Milton Resnick, while the curling, hot pink fabric scraps scattered throughout disrupt the otherwise formal surface with an up-to-the minute pop sweetness.
The wall text explains that the piece is composed of residue sanded and shaved from other works, which “evoke a new kind of ‘history painting.’”
But the work goes beyond personal history, with the pink fabric conjuring up associations such as the smoldering coals in Francisco Goya’s “The Forge” (c.1815-1820) and the motif of an unswept floor, known as an asaroton, found in Roman mosaics, a historical parallel that returns the piece to Steinberg’s description of the flatbed picture plane:
To repeat: it is not the actual physical placement of the image that counts. There is no law against hanging a rug on a wall, or reproducing a narrative picture as a mosaic floor. What I have in mind is the psychic address of the image, its special mode of imaginative confrontation […]
That “special mode of imaginative confrontation” is in the forefront of Andrew Sutherland’s “Devoid” (2012), an all-white acrylic painting made by pouring paint into a trash bag, letting it dry and then applying it to linen. The result is a patchy, wrinkled surface reminiscent of elephant hide.
Even if you didn’t know the artist’s process, you would never mistake this painting for a Robert Ryman. Ryman is intensely involved with the act of painting, approaching each work as if he had never painted before.
Sutherland conceives an idea and then executes it. There is none of the call-and-response that we sense in the textures of Ryman’s brushstrokes. Sutherland’s “Devoid” simply exists as a painted entity in which, as the Xstraction press release states, “the artist’s hand is not only invisible but out of the question.”
This is not to say that the work isn’t compelling, because it is — surprisingly so. It’s fascinating how much weight a wrinkled, white surface can carry. Perhaps its formal potency has something to do with its quirky means of production, which wraps parentheses around the tradition of monochrome painting, from Ryman to Brice Marden and Yves Klein all the back to Kazimir Malevich. Whatever the reason, its fresh take on an old subject feels emphatically, defiantly new.
Xstraction continues at The Hole (312 Bowery, East Village, Manhattan) through June 20.