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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.

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 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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Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney, PhD, is the opinions editor and managing editor of the Sunday Edition for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on...

30 replies on “Trying (and Failing) to Make Painting Great Again”

      1. Although this is not a forum for “self-promotion” as you have so succinctly stated, you, ironically, have made it one for boorish and gag-worthy, LONG-WINDED personal opinion, laced with your barely-tolerable, and repulsive, mean-spirited remarks…you blamed Ms Yanni for being out of context concerning the article…and then you made your content all about YOUR own subjective and childishly contrived commentary. I would ALSO call that outrageously hypocritical, passive-aggressively bullying…and obviously narcissistic bullshit…and only, IF I was deliberately trying to NOT flower it up with useless self-promoting superlatives and still maintain my own glassy-eyed opinion. My own thoughts were along the lines of this being a fair article, that her attachment was just as relevant, and most definitely more so than your piss-poor and spiteful rebuttal of it….once again, IF, you have any 4th grade level of reading “comphrehension”..( emphasis mine?…WTF else’s would it be nitwit?) ..and also considering that most contemporary painting I’ve seen curated over the past 40 years has been as dull and uninteresting as the Freudian-esque philosophy regarding the over-use of hyphenated words and names…And just to end this on a positive note…your spiteful and baiting comments made you sound like a really creepy and pompous bitch. How do you like them apples?

        1. Wow! Arrows to my heart.

          From your tone and your rhetoric you don’t know anything about me you didn’t know before reading my comments.

          While you may not agree with me, please try reading what I have written, as others so often do in these pages, supposing that it was written fairly and in earnest.

          And yes, many of us do get rather “LONG-WINDED”. ?

    1. Dear Maïe ,

      Let me thank you again for your positive energy and support for my art publication.
      Abstract art opens so many possibilities for creative expression.

      Thank you very much !

      Catherine

      1. Dear mai-rafner,
        Thank you for starting a “conversation” because this is what healthy dialogue is all about. If you had taken the time to read my article just like you read the one above you would have learnt two things:
        1) That it is not promoting “me” but critically writing about a hard-working, self-taught painter who strongly believes that Painting is far from dead . Hence it cannot be called “self-promotion”.
        2) My professional life straddles two very divergent worlds one as a highly qualified and specialized medical doctor and second as a lifelong practicing artist, a passionate and dedicated art curator, collector and international art critic and contributor. My scientific background informs much of my artistic practice and when it comes to carrying out a proper argument the best and most appropriate way to do that is by backing it with evidence-based facts and that is what my article on Catherine Rebillard does today.

        1. Dear Maie Yanni,

          I don’t really see what your article, which I HAVE read, has to do with this article. So if you are not promoting your article, and thus yourself (a self that seems to be pretty self-important), what ARE you doing that has to do with what Mr Rodney has said?

          SELF-IMPORTANCE: Don’t you think it would have been sufficient simply to say that you are a physician, artist, and art critic? Why all the superlatives? ” . . . a HIGHLY QUALIFIED and SPECIALIZED medical doctor and second as a LIFELONG PRACTICING artist, a PASSIONATE and DEDICATED art curator, collector and INTERNATIONAL art critic and CONTRIBUTOR.”(Emphasis mine.)

          All that aside, I did appreciate reading your article, though I found your language a bit flowery for my taste. Also, as I was reading, I somehow imagined that you were writing about some sort of Grandma Moses, or, at least someone of an advanced age. I was surprised when, at the end of the article, I found that Ms Rebillard is a rather young woman, some 42 or 43 years old. The ‘same’ article, of course, might have been written about any number of self-taught artists. (But isn’t the ‘art’ in artist always self-taught, if I understand what you are getting at when you raise the question of ‘what it is to be a “true” artist’.)

          1. Dear Ms. rafner,
            Your toxic answer does not deserve an educated reply.
            I can only suggest you undertake a course of anger management and find some sort of support for your dyslexia although I have a feeling that in your case it is far too late for intervention !

          2. And are you also a psychiatrist?

            I feel no anger toward you or anything you’ve said, or even you’ve said it. I am only reacting to what I see as inappropriate and unnecessary self-aggrandisement. I was trying to be helpful, by telling you how at least one reader was reacting. But as I have so often observed, the perpetrator seems to have the most difficulty in hearing those sorts of comments.

            Dyslexia is not an issue here, although what I type is constantly being edited by the spell-checker, and I don’t always pick up on the changes it makes, still, I do try to go back and fix things. For instance, your name, which keeps coming out ‘Hannibal’. I apologise, and hope I have corrected that and other misspellings.

            I don’t know what I’ve said that has made you so judgemental. Don’t you think that ‘toxic’ is a word that is too much over used in these comment sections? In any event, you know the meaning of the word, so why use it?

            Also, with the word ‘support’, you seem to suggest that dyslexia is something akin to alcoholism. I don’t really know, perhaps it is, medically, but in my case no one has ever used it. I’ll look into it, or perhaps you can point me to something I might read on line. (By the way, what was your cue? The fact that I don’t see any immediate connection between your article and Mr Rodney’s? Surely not that!)

          3. Dear Mai,
            Apology accepted and thank you for correcting the spelling of my name.
            Let us now turn the page and move on.

  1. I am not understanding why painting needs to become great again. It is like I hear Donald Trump talking about America. If you don’t see the value paintings have, why bother? The fact that Pokemon nowadays is more valuable than a Picasso says it all.We have moved to a different era.

  2. Dear Seph Rodney –

    You say that “Whitney’s work . . . is an energetic painting that goes for abstract expressionist gold, and mostly succeeds . . .”, and yet you close your article with “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.”

    That, along with other statements, leaves me wondering: Are you judging the paintings or their curation — or, perhaps both?

    1. Dear Mai-Rafner,

      In truth I am critiquing both. I particularly find the curation to have failed, but much of the work leaves me wanting too.

      1. Thank you, Seph. Aside from curation, judging from the gallery shot that includes Nash’s “Untitled”, the ‘hanging’ of the show looks pretty weak. I think we’d all agree that with the exception of one or two pieces, most exhibitions of new work leave us cold, or at most, luke warm.

        Years ago I attended an evening of four string quartets. At the end the person sitting next to me turned and said, “Humph! I only liked one of them.” I replied, “That’s pretty good, don’t you think?”

      2. The name of the show sounds desparate or arrogant… kinda took the surprise element out of your piece; -)

  3. an interesting piece but it’s hard to grasp due to its isolation – a suggested (better) approach would have been to cover a couple of painting shows, where weaknesses/strengths could be compared – this gives the readers a larger context.
    as it stands now, to me this is largely a tl;dr piece that could have been edited by half without losing its impact.

  4. I am a painter. these paintings seem pretty ho hum to me. I agree with the author. when i see a show i don’t like, i try to figure out what it is i don’t like about it, and it is usually a. the work is just awful or boring or both, or b. the curation and/or installation is “off”. perhaps the paintings would be more interesting in a different context…………. and that is giving the paintings, and the artists, the benefit of the doubt. which is a nice thing to do.

  5. Frankly, a lot of this work appears to be either exceedingly self-aware/ self-congratulatory, or so repetitive as to be mind numbing. It looks like a lot of the stuff that has been coming out of MFA programs for years now, which then gets immediately snapped up by a trendy little gallery. Slight differentiation of the same theme. New models in the product line but nothing too radically deviant.
    I love painting. It would be nice to see some painters try to be legitimate artists again, instead of coming off like a bunch of insecure MFA students constantly looking over their shoulder to get a thumbs-up from the professor.

  6. Wait a minute…who said painting stopped being Great. Perhaps this is why the show doesn’t depict the monumentality that painting has.

  7. Funny piece – from the images here I can say the most interesting aspect of this show are the stains on the concrete floor.

  8. Gosh! What a storm in a pretentious tea cup. Let me give it another swirl… Writers who find it necessary to say they “honestly” don’t like something lose credence straight away. Can’t we assume honesty? Second sentence begins: “I find….” which is otiose and weakens its object clause. That inflated kind of writing turns me completely off even when the author’s opinions may have some merit. In any case, even where the hang is far from perfect, it is absurd, irrelevant and indulgent to faff around querying whether it is fair to dismiss individual works on grounds of their placement in a gallery. A petunia in an onion patch appears prettier than its conventionally planted sisters.

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