Every couple of months I do a marathon tour of Bushwick art galleries. Afterwards, I go home, get really drunk,and try to place the work of those artists I encounter on either side of the fine line that separates formalism from straight up grandma painting. Just because you are young and creative doesn’t save you from being a Sunday painter. We, as a culture, still have a lot to learn and I’m afraid that often times we take for granted the potential of painting so blinded are we by the light of the digital. Those who do make physical objects today are sometimes in danger of retreating so far into their own medium as to remove themselves from the conversation. I recently went to objects in the mirror are closer than they appear, an exhibition of six contemporary painters and sculptors at Chelsea’s Kravets/Webhy Gallery, and I was reminded of the tricky balance that painters today must maintain. The gallery press release explains:
“In objects in the mirror are closer than they appear, the artists present a wide range of abstract painting and sculpture that engage with depth and perspective.”
While the work on display certainly relate to one another in formal terms the artists seem also united by their use of painting as a form of reference. David Pappaceno’s “BillStickJunkTick” (2012) is a mashup of Willem de Kooning’s famous women overlaid with the artist’s own depiction of a red female figure. The canvas is unified by swatches of red tartan plaid. Rested comfortably in the bosom of art history I can’t help but feel that Pappaceno’s voice seems a bit weak. I tend to have a hard time with work that is so overtly dependent on that of others. As a rule it is true that in order to look to the future we are best served to keep the past in mind but there is a point where history can bury you. It is punchy, aggressive, and well crafted. I just can’t ignore the voice in the back of my head that wonders, “Isn’t there something more interesting to think about than de Kooning?” Nevertheless there is something freeing about the painting as if the artist just doesn’t really give a shit (in a good way). “It is also impressive that Pappaceno isn’t limited to Abstract Expressionist stylings but is somewhat of a virtuoso of appropriating the history of painting technique. He can quote the Baroque as easily as the Modern. Solid art chops, brah.
Across the gallery Steve Harding gives us a large drippy figure, washed to oblivion. “Reclining Nude” (2012) is painterly and abstract but with definite figurative, descriptive presence. This is a story written in glyphs that have been worn to the point of being unintelligible but they still contain an obvious presence. I’m not sure that this vocabulary is “new” in any real sense but I don’t think that necessarily matters. There is a sense of rebellion but also of self awareness. Whether or not this painting presents us with something “new” it appeals to that unknowable quantity of golden sludge that exists somewhere deep in the gut.
At the front of the gallery, to the right of the entrance, Emily Weiner’s small diptych presents what the press release refers to as a “investigation of an old masters style portrait” on one panel and an “investigation of its parts “on the other. Honestly, I appreciate the aesthetic but I don’t get it. I thought we had gotten beyond this kind of thing. It remind of some of those more recent Julian Schnabel paintings that are too smart for their own good. I can’t shake the feeling that history is being used as a crutch rather than as a starting point.
Then there’s Deshawn Dumas’s chiffon and textile construction, “Of the Spectacle” (2012), which seems to immediately run the risk of straying too close to the ironic materiality of artists like Steve Parino. The end result of his clashing, vibrating fabrics is lusty exuberance that is painterly without the paint (or much of it). We get the same emotion, a sense of vulgarity, and a desire to communicate without language. His use of materials like tar and flower, and pretty much anything but paint seems to stress his desire to break free from the preciousness and rarity often associated with painting. A freewheeling use of oddball materials is nothing new, nor is the mesh of textiles and abstraction. Blinky Palermo did it, Sarah Crowner still does. Nevertheless these works seem to possess their own brash self-assuredness. The result is a visual poem written in a familiar vocabulary but printed in a shiny new typeface.
The only sculptor in this exhibition, Devon Costello, presents a series of contorted ceramic pieces that are certainly formalist but lack what I might think of as seriousness. I couldn’t help but think of beach house art — decorative and harmless.
Cheryl Donegan is awesome. She rounds out the exhibition and is an example of an artist who first cut her teeth in the early 1990s as a conceptually driven video and performance artist. Though her practice now encompasses abstract painting she continues to deal with issues like sex and gender especially as they relate to pop culture and art history. Donegan seems to bring the time-based, physical reality of performance to her paintings. Employing an irreverent spray painted lexicon she seems to rupture the regular grid structure of a gingham pattern typically associated with textiles.
The artists in objects in the mirror… all seem fully invested in the physicality and visual language of painted abstraction. There is a common sense of history and an idea that one must start within this context in order to get somewhere. The key here is directionality and momentum. Reference to the past seems increasingly important to those who make physical art objects in our digitized world. Rather than this sort of thing being considered subversive as it might have been when first employed by Richard Prince and his contemporaries; appropriating imagery, techniques, and history is not only standard, but perhaps unavoidable today. Seeing this exhibition has helped me to remember that while it is important to gather strength from history, it is equally important to avoid getting lost in it.
objects in the mirror are closer than they appear continues at Kravets/Wehby Gallery (521 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until January 26.