Trying (and Failing) to Make Painting Great Again

Wallace Whitney "Untitled" (2016) Oil on canvas 75 x 68 inches
Wallace Whitney “Untitled” (2016), oil on canvas, 75 x 68 inches (photo by Jason Mandella, all images courtesy Canada Gallery)

Here’s the thing about the Make Painting Great Again exhibition at Canada Gallery: I honestly dislike it. I find that the work is laid out in a scheme that is aggressively insouciant, like spare bottles that were gathered together to be redeemed for cash.

The curation suggests that variety is what’s supposed to make the medium seem superlative (again). That’s why there’s a diversity of approaches to painting using distinct substrates and techniques, but they are laid out willy-nilly. There is Sadie Laska’s “Tomorrow’s Party” (2016), which consists of spray paint on aluminum that is painted to resemble a cutout suit of clothing; Dugan Nash, who, with “Untitled” (2016), has applied acrylic paint to a bowling ball to give the viewer a representation of a planet with land masses and oceans; and Sarah Braman, who applied acrylic paint to plywood in “Seven Suns” (2016). To be clear, experimentation is valuable; that spirit of willingness to take chances refreshes the field.

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Installation view of ‘Make Painting Great Again’ (all photos by Stuart Lorimer unless otherwise noted)

However, presented like a series of commercials — “And now this!” — without any other, clear organizing principle, the works lack vitality; many wither and die on the vine. Take the section of the gallery that has Dugan Nash’s work in between Braman’s painting and Wallace Whitney’s “Untitled” (2016). There is a suggestion of a visual homology between the roundness of the ball and the color circles that Braman has made, but they don’t complement each other; they make the other deadpan and inert. Then Whitney’s work (like Anke Weyer’s “Gosche” (2016) which is elsewhere in the gallery) is an energetic painting that goes for abstract expressionist gold, and mostly succeeds by keeping my eyes moving through the painting, generating visual drama and holding it intact. Nash’s ball looks visually stagnant next to it.

Installation view of ‘Make Painting Great Again’

There are individual pieces that feel casually indifferent, such as Katherine Bernhardt’s “Two Simpsons, Plantains, Basketballs, Cigarettes” (2016): it’s a painting of cartoonish figures borrowed from pop culture and everyday life that just wallows in mundanity — which I can’t help but read as a kind of complacent self-satisfaction that is coextensive with the gallery’s attitude about this show.

Katherine Bernhardt "Two Simpsons, Plantains, Basketballs, Cigarettes" (2016) Acrylic and spray paint on canvas 96 x 120 in.
Katherine Bernhardt, “Two Simpsons, Plantains, Basketballs, Cigarettes” (2016), acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 96 x 120 inches

Canada Gallery is very much one of the “it” galleries of the moment, with three of the artists in the show also included in the recent MoMA Forever Now exhibition (Joe Bradley, Matt Connors and Michael Williams). In case I happened to be deaf to the gossip around the show, the gallery was kind enough to provide me with Jerry Saltz’s review when I requested images — perhaps to help me come to the conclusions shared by others. However, when I look at paintings I try not to be swayed by genealogies of style, or reputation, or CVs, but instead by the experience of seeing. I always ask, does the work reward the time I spend with it, the attention I give it? And with this show, I have to say, it does not.

Make Painting Great Again continues at Canada Gallery (333 Broome Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through July 15.

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