Terminology is slippery, and using it as the premise for an exhibition can be slipperier still (witness the Museum of Modern Art’s recent stumble with “atemporality” in The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World). But the concept underlying Metamodern, a group show at Denny Gallery on the Lower East Side, actually holds the potential to enrich an already strong array of works with a few additional, if speculative, layers of meaning.
“Metamodern” is a term that’s been around for a few decades, but it began to circulate more widely after the publication of “Notes on metamodernism,” an essay by Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker that was published in the Journal of Aesthetics and Culture in 2010.
In the essay, the authors seek to distinguish what is metamodern from what is postmodern, which they view in terms of a generational shift, and how both relate to modernism:
Indeed, if, simplistically put, the modern outlook vis-à-vis idealism and ideals could be characterized as fanatic and/or naive, and the postmodern mindset as apathetic and/or skeptic, the current generation’s attitude — for it is, and very much so, an attitude tied to a generation —can be conceived of as a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism.
The metamodern, therefore, “oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naïveté and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity.”
The fluid nature of the metamodern may sound to some like a philosophical dodge, but it feels congruent with contemporary art’s cognizance of its own power and impotence. We are too far removed from the early 20th century’s wars and revolutions to believe that art can truly be an agent of change, but we also recognize that it must be something more than hollow commentary. To paraphrase one of the essay’s subtitles, the metamodern is art after the death of art.
In Metamodern at Denny, nine artists — Amanda Valdez, Russell Tyler, Rachel Beach, James O. Clark, Austin Eddy, Justine Hill, Christopher Martino, Marcelyn McNeil, and Brendan Smith — are represented by one piece each. There are overlapping sensibilities in most of the work, with the outliers being James O. Clark’s “Use More Green” (2015), a stepped aluminum bar holding six green glass balls that’s mounted near the ceiling above the gallery entrance; and Austin Eddy’s small polychrome, semi-abstract sculpture, “Smoker” (2014-15), made from plaster, twine, wood, soldering wire, cut tin and tin foil, among other materials.
The rest of the works are abstract paintings, a category in which I would include Rachel Beach’s “Rime” (2014), a tall, geometric totem built out of plywood and colored in oil, and Amanda Valdez’s cut-fabric “Untold” (2015). However, it may seem a bit disingenuous to declare these works within specific parameters, since the in-between-ness of metamodernism can be viewed as extending to the liminal zones between disciplines as well as what used to be regarded as high and low.
The most aggressive painting in the show, Brendan Smith’s monochromatic “Custom Light Mars Gray: Finish 3” (2014), is so laden with ridges and gouges of oil paint that it borders on bas-relief, with Russell Tyler’s nearly monochromatic “PAX” (2015) not far behind.
One of the astonishing things about Smith’s thick, gray abstraction, which at first glance looks like a go-for-broke eruption of paint, is that the canvas edges are immaculately clean, as if a mountain of paint were dumped in the middle of the surface (which is backed by a wooden panel) and the artist forcefully pushed it around while remaining hyperaware of how far it could go before it fell off the sides.
Similarly, Tyler’s hot-mango-and-peach-colored painting is both wild and controlled: the pink edges framing the perimeter were painted and then taped off, so that the swirling, lashing brushstrokes — which animate the work’s otherwise strikingly blank interior, a rectangle within a rectangle — wouldn’t disturb their smoothly finished pigmentation.
These details lead to the observation that what all the works in the show have in common, with the exception of Christopher Martino’s nearly chaotic canvas, “Clean Rake” (2015), Marcelyn McNeil’s hard-edge abstraction, “Cliff Hanger” (2015), and possibly Eddy’s small sculpture, “Smoker,” is the deliberation put into their construction.
Justine Hill’s “Paper Doll 3 (Tiki)” (2015) required not just a good deal of forethought but also a disciplined application of craft, shaping a wood panel into a ragged ovoid before wrapping it in canvas and applying acrylic, pastel and pencil. Although the surface is a riot of lines and abstract shapes, there is something somber about this work when compared with the more carefree shaped canvases of Elizabeth Murray — a difference that feels particularly emblematic of the 21st-century conceptual divide that these artists have crossed.
It is as if Hill has adopted the raucous format upon which Murray unleashed her pop-culture references, but takes instead a more formal approach, line as line, shape as shape. Like the other painters in the show, Hill assumes an appropriately meta attitude to the aesthetic tools she’s inherited, interrogating and repurposing them with a self-consciousness that allows for reflexivity while shutting the door (or perhaps leaving it slightly ajar) on irony.
And so it’s not surprising that most of these works possess the spirit of spontaneity but, upon closer examination, reveal a considerable degree of planning. Even two of the funkier pieces in the show, McNeil’s abstraction, which features a sizable portion of pentimenti, and Eddy’s cobbled-together sculpture, feel more like realized concepts than arrivals from points unknown.
Only Martino’s “Clean Rake” seems to have suffered some of the old-time travails of mid-20th-century modernism. Done in oil, acrylic and mixed media on a notably battered-looking canvas, the paint has been smeared, scraped, sprayed, scalloped and grooved, summoning the spirit of such bygone modernists as Roberto Matta and Antoni Tàpies.
With its hovering spritzes of color, fluctuating sense of space, and scattered, amorphous forms, this is a seriously anxiety-provoking work, one in which the pendulum, to cite Vermeulen and van den Akker’s formulation, has swung toward melancholy and naïveté, fragmentation and ambiguity.
Though hard to take, “Clean Rake” — a curious title suggesting both a clean slate and the rake-like furrows embellishing various passages of paint — offers a counterweight, if not a corrective, in the exhibition’s balance of art and life. The other works are constructions, smartly planned and beautifully wrought, but this one is the wilderness, leading you where you don’t necessarily want to go.
Metamodern continues at the Denny Gallery (261 Broome Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through August 29.