In terms of freewheeling, soul-bearing angst, Abstract Expressionism might once seemed to have had the final word. Instead, Abstract Expressionism led to all manner of variations and reactions: second-generation Ab-Exers who lyrically rounded off the movement’s epic impulses; minimalists who discarded turgid gestures for visions of epic materiality; the faux-expressionist paintings by Gerhardt Richter and Sigmar Polke that undermined Ab-Ex’s very aspirations for the epic.
But why obsess about the epic at all? With his seven paintings currently on view at The Painting Center, Thomas Berding steers curiously between all these routes. His ragged, brightly hued abstractions, with their kaleidoscopic designs of brushed and scraped colors, seem inspired by the evocative surfaces of Ab-Ex, and just as sincerely indifferent to its climactic gestures. His vigorous paint handling would do any expressionist proud, but he mostly eschews Ab-Ex’s largesse of rhythm, and even Expressionism’s ambitious physical dimensions, confining himself — at least in this installation — to easel-sized paintings. Masked–off areas and a strategic mixing of oil and Flashe (a matte, vinyl-based paint) suggest sturdy effort and deliberation rather than a passionate struggle; forms tend to circulate intriguingly rather than urgently, as if the artist, stirring together elements of flaming pink, crusty off-whites, and gray-greens, then allowed them to settle like tea leaves. Berding’s process is a unique blend of the immediate and the constrained, the accumulative and the anticlimactic.
The paintings, however, are hardly devoid of rhythmic movement, and the installation handsomely pairs them according to their internal dynamics. The diagonals emerging from the background tapestry of brushstrokes in one canvas mirror the angles in another; the somewhat centripetal rhythms of a third echo those of its neighbor. Viewing them together, one gets a strong sense of a distinct temperament. The reworked surfaces suggest a wry, hard-fought romanticism, less about singular expressions than about the sheer eternal struggle with material paint — an impression confirmed by his titles: “Pie Chart Fanfare,” “Wheel of Misfortune,” “Distraction Machine.” (Like every painting in the exhibition, these three are all dated 2015.)
Has Berding simply taken Ab-Ex’s aesthetic of all-over, enveloping painting to its logical, postmodern extreme? Perhaps. His staccato textures could be said to reflect the rhythms of our time, and its frantic networking and nonstop dissemination of images and ideas. As the press release for the exhibition notes, Berding’s images recall the visual effusions of contemporary technologies: flow charts, screen-based symbols, exploded view diagrams that turn familiar machines into radiating fragments. Every painter belongs to his time; if Jackson Pollock’s canvases suggest an artist circling his own psychic abyss, by comparison Berding’s give the impression of contemplations of a shimmering screen. It’s an intriguing and appropriate approach for our day, when we’re all liable to be healthier, safer, and savvier than Pollock, who was notorious for drinking, brawling, and at one point even urinating in Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace. But we may still miss that epic impulse.
Thomas Berding: Discard Parade continues at The Painting Center (547 West 27th Street, Suite 500, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 23.