LONDON — About 30 or so years ago, painting’s grand State Funeral at Westminster Abbey in London was attended by a messianic multitude of artists of a fairly conceptual or New Media stamp. Video artists were especially welcome.
Some years after that, Frank Stella told me in an interview that things might not be quite as bad as they seemed for those who still insisted upon foolishly clinging to the illusionistic world of two dimensions — as long as Abstraction was rigidly adhered to. Figurative Art had ruled the roost for centuries. It had had its moment. Goodbye to all that then.
All this never quite happened though. The funeral was canceled at the last minute because the venue was too large and too costly and too pointedly religious for all the skeptics.
What is more, those pesky East Germans under the cosh of Communism kept on painting and painting until the Wall fell (and then after too), as if there was nothing wrong with it at all. What other means could there possibly be to mirror the reality of the triumph of the proletariat?
Then other factions weighed in. Many older painters had kept on painting because they were too deaf to catch the news of its death when it was shouted out from the rooftops. And there was another group of troublemakers too: the art dealers. How easy is it going to be to sell a cup of water suspended from a bracket or a very, very slow and grainy artfilm about the gradual descent of a droplet of water into a fashionably dank and under-lit basement in Shoreditch? they all asked each other.
What is more, how was conceptual art, often so tweezeringly tiny and colorless and unemphatic, going to satisfy the needs of all those culturally sky-aspiring super-rich with their oversize super-homes?
And leaving aside the genuine problem of papering walls with small and intricate spasms of conceptual thought, were not the super-rich, being dumb and literal-minded for the most part, also inclined to want to see the world mirrored back at them, too, that world into which they had bought so magnificently?
And then there were all those big art fairs, with their big white walls! What to put on those walls?
And so, for better or for worse, painting clung on, the abstract kind and the figurative kind, and the kind that wove its subtle way between the two impulses. It seems that you just can’t finally kill off something that so many people — stupid or clever, rich or fairly cash-strapped, for better or for worse, wrong or right — seem to have an itching desire for, something that just won’t go away no matter how much blunt theorizing you might throw at its head.
The fact is that Ideas can only go so far. Someone somewhere is almost bound to declare sooner or later that he or she prefers the idea to be embodied in some appealing way which may take in streets, a human smile, a primate, and even a busted-up car or two. storytelling is what we humans seem to want to do, as Philip Guston reminded us when the purists sledge-hammered him back in the 1970s. How fortunate and canny that he had pitched his studio out on the Maverick Road just outside Woodstock!
So here we are then, back at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, a public institution which has been doing good work summarizing and anticipating trends for decades, and the show is called: Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millennium. Painting is back with a mighty clash of cymbals!
And it’s as spanking new again as the latest buffed-up old thing ever could be. The only thing we need to do now is to describe the show a bit, and to ask ourselves whether these works are worth hanging on these walls. Is the figurative art of now as good as the figurative art of then? And is it similar or different from what we were once used to?
We have 10 painters here, and three of them, Cecily Brown, Ryan Mosley, and Tschabalala Self, are very good indeed. The mood of the show is a fairly nonstop frenzied one from first to last, because there is so much coming at you in all directions these days. Every source available — printed, digital and even things seen by the human eye, that most ancient of tools — gets tossed into the painter’s mix.
This wasn’t the case in Goya’s early painting days, for example, when, generally speaking, you got to see great works face to face only in churches or, if you were lucky, private collections owned by the aristocracy. So there is little that’s calm or reflective about this show, nothing that feels as if it were made in slow time, at a contemplative pace. The idea of a still life would be almost laughable. You do feel that you would rather like it to slow down a bit. But it can’t because it’s all about NOW, and NOW is just like that, unstoppably changeable, all about sucking in and spewing out.
Cecily Brown is so good because even though the surfaces are as splintered and frenzied as anything else in this show, she is such a finely modulated colorist that she makes all the rest seem like rank amateurs by comparison. Brown’s colors project the onlooker backwards in time in a slow, ruminative pursuit of her influences — she is much more than a painter slammed sideways by the whizz-bang-wow of the passing moment. You can see how much she got from Géricault, for example, in a lovely seascape.
Ryan Mosley has not been too well served by the curator of this exhibition. Only one work here – fortunately it is the largest – shows off how delightful, trumpetingly large and gorgeous his world of masquerade-y make-believe can be. His other paintings (much smaller) seem determined to convince us that he is primarily a painter who concerns himself with the slipperiness of human identity, that most fashionable of current sideshows.
Tschabalala Self’s lovely, shrieky, rackety mixings of paint and collaged fabrics are the only works in this show that do not feel weighed down by the burden of the various kinds of anxiety that seem to buzz about here so frenziedly, ranging from the fact of being a painter at all, to the horrible uncertainties surrounding the very idea of the human condition in a nasty, predatory world such as this one.
In fact, they are marvelously, toe-tappingly celebratory, and they come the closest that this show ever does to the great idea that being alive in this world, as we casually contemplate each other flouncing around in the local corner store, might be pleasurable and neighborly and more than a tad sexy.
Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millennium continues at Whitechapel Gallery (77-82 Whitechapel High Street, London, England) through May 10.
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