Sarah Faux, "Crawling Man" (2012). Oil and spray paint on canvas, 42 x 38 inches (all images courtesy of Garis & Hahn)

Sarah Faux, “Crawling Man” (2012). Oil and spray paint on canvas, 42 x 38 inches (all images courtesy of Garis & Hahn)

Two years ago, Sharon Butler came out with “Abstract Painting: The New Casualists,” an essay addressing the “studied, passive-aggressive incompleteness to much of the most interesting abstract work that painters are making today.”

Since then, the New Casualists, as a text and a term, has shown considerable staying power, and on June 20th, Dying on Stage: New Painting in New York, which is described in its press release as “the first large gallery show in New York that brings together a group of artists specifically engaging with this new mode of abstraction,” opened at Garis & Hahn on the Lower East Side.

The show features not only “this new mode of abstraction,” but also a couple of modes of representation. The fluidity between the purely abstract and the somewhat recognizable is evident in Butler’s essay, which mentions several artists (Lauren Luloff, Joe Bradley, Rebecca Morris, Patrick Brennan) whose work contains figurative, botanical or architectural components.

About a third of the works chosen by Kyle Chayka, the curator of Dying on Stage and a former senior editor at Hyperallergic, are overtly representational in ways that recall the distortions of Art Brut and the elegance of late Cubism. Their presence is a reminder that the New Casualists, as defined by Butler, “take a meta approach that refers not just to earlier art historical styles, but back to the process of painting itself.”

In this regard, the New Casualists are very Old School, not that there’s anything wrong with that:

By reassessing basic elements like color, composition, and balance, based on 1920s-vintage Bauhaus principles taught in every 2-D foundations course, the new painters are exploring uncharted territory. They are looking for unexpected outcomes rather than handsome results.

Ariel Dill, "We Broke Our Noses on the Door" (2013). Oil on canvas, 48 x 36 inches

Ariel Dill, “Glyph” (2013). Oil on canvas, 48 x 36 inches. Courtesy Southfirst Gallery, Brooklyn.

In the case of Dying on Stage, the artists’ uncomplicated approach to their media makes for a very strong show. While there are no digital manipulations or inkjet printouts in the house, the unexpected makes an appearance in the form of Tatiana Berg’s geometric hybrids — painted canvas-and-wood constructions she calls “tents.”

The five-sided “Wide Sargasso Tent” (2013), covered with swirls and slashes of pale yellow, pink and ochre paint, is mounted on the wall, while the Pop-inflected “Stripe Tent” and “Megan Draper Tent” (both 2013) sit on the floor. These scrupulously fitted-together works, along with Berg’s shaped canvas, “Little Boat” (2013), differ markedly from most of the other pieces in the show, which place a premium on spontaneity from start to finish.

The exhibition spreads twenty-eight works by five artists over two floors, which affords a generous serving from each participant as well as a broad and nuanced context for their interrelationships. Overall, the art of this crop of New Casualists is a mite less casual than the ones cited by Butler, who are characterized by “their abrupt shifts, their crosscurrents, and their purposeful lack of formal cohesion.”

While the formal cohesion of some of the works is wobbly, none of them fly apart and most evince a striking degree of rigor. Discipline is not superimposed, as in the grid-based abstractions of yesteryear; instead it proceeds from an intuitive sense of stability that lands the best work at a checkpoint between doing too little and going too far.

The paintings of Clare Grill, especially the ring-like “Game” and the triangular “Pearl” (both 2012), exemplify this most clearly, with meandering spots and strokes that seem to be caught, as if in a spider’s web, at their peak level of tension.

Clare Grill, "Static" (2012). Oil on linen, 33 x 40 inches

Clare Grill, “Static” (2012). Oil on linen, 33 x 40 inches.

Grill’s “Static” (2012) is particularly free-form, but its dark blots on a light ground, resembling stars on an inverted sky map, are anchored by the cruciform impression of the canvas’s crossbars. It is impossible to tell from looking at it whether this hint of geometric structure is intentional or the result of repeatedly working the surface.

But it called to mind the experimental paintings from the 1960s and ‘70s by Carla Accardi, whose transparent sicofoil surfaces allow a clear view of the stretcher bars beneath. The work in this show, however, veers away from commenting on the art object and focuses on the elemental experience of pigment interacting with pigment.

Interestingly enough, a different artist in Dying on Stage, Ariel Dill, seems to be channeling another of Accardi’s techniques, which is to apply paint to a clear surface wrapped over an opaque one, creating an extremely shallow but impactful sensation of depth.

Two of Dill’s paintings, “Walk” and “Walk 2” (both 2012) use acrylic, Mylar and yarn on canvas. The calligraphic strokes of paint on the Mylar act as a counterpoint to the pigment and texture of the canvas, while the yarn wraps around the paintings’ edges like a minimalist frame. The yarn looks as if it’s there as a preventative measure, lest the wriggling worms of paint slide off the surface and slither down the wall.

Another, larger painting by Dill, “Glyph” (2013), manages to present the same kind of layered effect found in the two “Walk” paintings but without the benefit of Mylar. Instead, she contrasts hard-edged biomorphic shapes, whose colors lie on the orange side of the spectrum, with blurry swirls from the blue end. The crowded-together forms and grating colors are harsh and jangly, but they are also kinetic and mesmerizing.

Kristina Lee and Sarah Faux make the deepest forays into representation, with mixed results, and it’s tempting to ask whether such attempts strain the limits of the Casualist aesthetic. In other words, is it possible to direct one’s imagery toward recognizable content while remaining, as Butler writes, “more intrigued by the questions and contradictions in art than by any definitive answers”?

Unlike the above-cited Joe Bradley, whose messier, more gestural pictures spawn figurative allusions almost as byproducts of the creative process, the paintings of Lee and Faux seem to insert a definitive figurative idea at a specific point in the proceedings.

This isn’t a criticism but a question about intent. An allegiance to representational cogency separates the work of these artists from the more wide-ranging ventures of their counterparts, including Berg’s trimly built three-dimensional supports. The stringencies of resemblance, even in the most loosely brushed paintings, short-circuit the optical call-and-response that the Casualists count on for their unexpected outcomes.

But like everything else, this work exists on a continuum, and within each of the artist’s contributions there are degrees of informality and improvisation. Lee’s landscapes exhibit a lush, Matisse-like languor that seems to grow organically across the canvas until it is finished off by a scaffolding of graphically outlined leaves.

In contrast, her three Picasso-ish heads, which, like her landscapes, were completed this year, have a locked-down, Synthetic Cubist simplicity; paradoxically, they also feel more spontaneous than the landscapes, as if they were all painted in one wet-on-wet session.

Faux’s pictures look like younger, more liquid cousins of Jean Dubuffet and Jean-Michel Basquiat, fluctuating with greater vicissitude between abstraction and representation than Lee’s work.

The hirsute “Crawling Man” (2012) encroaches on the viewer with a clammy tactility, while the ethereal “Torso” (also 2012), which lists its materials as dye, bleach and oil on canvas, is a veined, truncated, purple-pink trunk sprouting a pair of stylized, blue-nippled breasts. The image brings to mind a sewing pattern as well as — in its color, flatness and texture — Sharon Butler’s own recent work.

In these paintings we can presume that the artists are taking “a meta approach, that refers not just to earlier art historical styles, but back to the process of painting itself.” (It should be noted that Tatiana Berg’s “Face” (1913), a figurative painting that breaks character with her other works, also seems to be referencing Picasso.)

As such, what does the process of reinvestigation say about the notion of freedom that Casualism is supposed to embody?

To what extent does intuition come into play, and where do convention and conditioning intrude? Does reality need to be forced through a cultural filter in order to be understood? Should past frameworks be scavenged for tools to compartmentalize and analyze direct experience?

Is it possible for “studied, passive-aggressive incompleteness” to address complex structures and extra-visual ideas?

Is Casualism’s state of incompleteness, which is the flip side of unfettered freedom (if there is no limit to choice, all choices are necessarily limited), a conclusive metaphor or something we need to get beyond?

In his curatorial statement, Chayka writes:

[The New Casualists] are content to wander freely between abstraction and figuration, pure aesthetics and the real world, discipline and play. […] Their visual vocabulary is nondiscriminatory — taking stock of the endless, sprawling deluge of imagery presented by the Internet, today’s painters churn up their disparate references and influences into a fresh visual argot.

But how much weight will this fresh visual argot be able to carry? What structures will it rely upon in order to avoid dissipation and arbitrariness?

I am reminded, perhaps perversely, of T.S. Eliot’s essay “Reflections on Vers Libre” (1917), which was written two years before the establishment of the Bauhaus and its “1920s-vintage” principles of “color, composition, and balance.”

Eliot enjoins us that:

[…] freedom is only truly freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation. Not to have perceived the simple truth that some artificial limitation is necessary except in moments of the first intensity is, I believe, a capital error […]

Which of these two visions — the unchecked or the purposely restricted — makes more sense for our time? Which is more honest, and which is self-deceiving?

In “The New Casualists,” Butler asks, “If the new casualism resists evaluation on traditional criteria, how should it be judged?”

She provides an answer by way of an Ellsworth Kelly quote:

“I have never been interested in painterliness…putting marks on a canvas. My work is a different way of seeing and making something which has a different use.” A new casualist might well make the same general claim. But while Kelly wants to take the personal out of the equation, the casualist believes that exploring even mundanely subjective perceptions can yield extraordinary insights.

Dying on Stage (which comes from a Bill Murray quote about improv: “You’ve gotta go out there and improvise and you’ve gotta be completely unafraid to die”) is predicated on the belief that “mundanely subjective perceptions can yield extraordinary insights,” and it succeeds within its own boundaries.

While those boundaries are rather narrow, in a broader context Casualism, with its humble anti-heroics, acts as a necessary corrective to the overblown production values that have carried away most of the market’s high end as well as the lion’s share of media attention. Casualism’s importance lies as much in the immediate, restorative transaction between artist and artwork as it does in its philosophical open-endedness.

In that way it resembles the “Vow of Chastity” taken by the Dogme 95 group of mostly Danish directors who resolved to strip filmmaking down to its essentials. Dogme 95 was too limiting to last, ultimately interfering with the creative process it was meant to nurture. Casualism will also run its course, but, like Dogme, its call for directness, spontaneity and self-effacement will leave its mark.

Dying on Stage: New Painting in New York continues at Garis & Hahn (263 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through July 20.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.

22 replies on “The New Casualists Strike Again”

  1. Bestowing a newly-coined catch-all term for trends you can just about rope together is all part of the way critics and writers try to empower themselves and give momentum to art when it looks like it needs a push. I think it’s an illusion though. It’s a kind of cherry-picking confirmation bias, creating movements and tendencies where there are really none at all. You could give this a more suitable different name – such a ‘clutching-at-last-strawism’ or ‘flogging-a-dead-horsism’, but they aren’t as catchy – or or pick out those that don’t fit into this thesis and call them the ‘anti-casualists’. These days, names only stick if the capitalist machinery that surrounds art can find it a useful promotional tool.

    I don’t think painting needs such shoehorned explanation or justification personally. It should be as gratuitous and wilfully uninterested in progress as it wishes to be. The lame rhetoric of historical referencing and context as justification for its continued ‘relevance’ is a pointless promotional strait-jacket masquerading as an inspiration.

    But when, as a writer, you are short of good theories for what you are seeing, I guess anything will do. But if the paintings aren’t saying it, then they aren’t saying it.

    1. Took the words right outta my mouth, Godbluff.

      “Casualism will also run its course” Well… yeah.

    2. Hey Godbluff, I’m Kyle, the curator of the show. I agree that picking out discrete movements and labeling them is a tricky business, and sometimes it does function more as a marketing tactic than a useful critical framework. The show wasn’t meant to necessarily reinforce the label of ‘Casualists’ (hence not including it in the title), but to simply give context to a group of emerging painters, which I think is always useful. The show is not about making a movement, and we gave ample space to each artist to show their individuality. From my perspective, the show is actually about not needing a justification to paint — simply doing it, exploring aesthetics, pursuing the successful gesture.

      I’m curious what your actual response is to the work rather than what you see as the label. Do the paintings not say anything to you?

      (Also just want to add, thank you so much to Thomas for such a sensitive and in-depth review.)

      1. They do say all kinds of things to me. Lots of varied things. I think that’s the point I was making. I would agree there is a lot of this abstract-or-is-it-semi-abstract work about, and it’s open-ended and playful enough to not be one thing or another. It’s as if post-modern self-consciousness has played itself out a little and left a vacuum for a world of doodlers to fill.

        In one sense it really appeals to me, because that absurd pressure to be ‘knowing’ seems to have gone, and it seems to reassert that the purpose of art is not to always to either tow the line or contribute to the canonical progression of ideas that the art market/world so cherishes.

        I get the impression there is an overall purism that you are hinting at with this – or a kind of ‘back-to-basics-yet-again’ feel about it. Other than that I’m just a bit suspicious of marketing ideas as a way of keeping painting commodities ‘viable’. I am aware that art needs to collaborate with all the apparatus around it to even exist as art – there would be no Picasso’s for any of us without the efforts of the Kahnweiler’s of the world – but I just cannot help that those days of doing it in this particular way are over. I suppose seeing this exercise in suggesting a ‘direction’in painting feels a little arbitrary to me. Though of course, I haven’t actually seen it properly, and so am probably being a little too knee-jerk in my reaction. But we all do that from time to time don’t we.

        1. Actually, one thing that a lot of these artworks (I have seen in reproduction so far) do share is a lack of memorability. They are weirdly neither that good nor that bad. There is nothing difficult, challenging or unpleasant about them, but neither is there anything particularly distinctive, striking or pleasing about them. Perhaps they should be called the new ‘Meh-ist’. It looks like a lot of painters in limbo, which maybe sums up this ‘look’. Not that I’m saying the job of the painter is to be good or challenging. I really don’t. I’m a painter in limbo too, so perhaps I’m one of them.

    3. Are you suggesting we don’t try to place ourselves in a historical context or look at broader trends? Life would be so boring if we confined ourselves to the minutiae.

      It is cynical to assume a writer is trying to make sense of trends simply to empower him or herself. Writers and critics have a natural tendency to try and figure things out. It’s actually a big part of their job.

      1. I am not against historical context, but I am cynical against the pressure to justify one’s raison-de-etre through the received-wisdom channels of certain times of artspeak. It’s been part of the crushingly awful ‘personal statement’ trend for several decades now. I’ve watched wave after wave of students and professionals – artists and writers – sit there trying to come up with a ‘good rationale’in a style that appeals to the current wave of art criticism and marketing as they embark upon their careers. I have seen tutors ‘watching the trends’ in order that they can then advise their students with their ‘expert knowledge’ of ‘professional contexts’.

        It’s not that I dont think you can write about art (or dance about architecture), but I do think life get’s boring when you see what might be a highly diverse bunch of artists steamrolled into belonging to one one tendency that has been essentially cherry-picked. I really think these new tags do painters no favours. “Provisional painting’ and ‘New Casualism’ – I mean, come on, why aren’t painters complaining about being lumped in with this? I would be surprised if many saw themselves this way from the onset. I have no problem with being cynical about art writing, marketing and curating at times. It’s all got far too comfortable with itself.

        1. i think you are giving the critic or writer too much power. It is not like a writing becomes historical diction. Like works of art, writings get put out there, experienced, judged and forgotten or adopted. It’s the way you’re being so threatened by this piece that makes it all the more compelling. Are you sure this isn’t relevant?

          1. Threatened? Not at all. I’m just bored with certain lines of labelling and enquiry that surround art. It’s not the art. I’m not saying we can’t conform, but sometimes I would love to see fine art in particular get out of the academy that has been built around it in recent years.

  2. Haven’t seen the show yet, partly because the gallery space is uninviting (though I am not sure I can explain why.) But anyway, I found the points raised in the review really well presented, especially the T.S. Eliot quote: “…freedom is only truly freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation. Not to have perceived the simple truth that some artificial limitation is necessary except in moments of the first intensity is, I believe, a capital error …” Followed by the writer’s question: “Which of these two visions — the unchecked or the purposely restricted — makes more sense for our time? Which is more honest, and which is self-deceiving?” I like Elliot’s notion of “first intensity,” which allows for the quantum sliver of pure chance that does exist. For our time, with all we are learning about the brain and quantum realms, I think “unchecked” is self deceiving and that “purposely restricted” is more honest. It suggests and reflects the creation of games within games, as in parallel universes. It keeps the possibilities open while not leading to chaos.

  3. This is a great article. At the end you go slightly into potential reasons for this trend/ movement/whatever its called. It could be seen as a response to high production value’s of a lot of successful contemporary art but I don’t think casualisms raison d’etre is has much to do with the art world or philosophy. Could it have to do with the high cost of living in neighborhoods that have studios and an “artsy” vibe. Artists have to work haaaard to afford doing their work. A casual approach to art would seem like a natural response when your squeezing in hours between shifts.
    I also think we need to place it in the broader cultural context of how young contemporary work is defining itself (whether or not overtly) We are the first generation of artists to make work in the true internet age, where access to and inundation by media is a given for any urban artist. I see so many shows of young artists that have a WTF sensibility, mixing and matching art theory with digital culture into lush nonsensical explosions. Its great, but like you say, its about questions not answers.
    Maybe the casualist approach to painting is really part of a bigger casual approach to being an individual producer of work. In the age of ultra connectivity its strange to stand out as an artist with a claim to an individual aesthetic, practice and relevance. If we are a population who now has ideas, and images flying through us and between us in real time, 24/7 why put up the walls when we go to the studio?

    1. You make a good point about the possible current raison d’etre of this work…. time, costs, internet. But questioning the studio is a leap for me. (not that leaps are bad) I believe/cling to the “studio”…with its walls…as the laboratory, the incubator, the cave, the womb…for the artist. The studio space is so special and unique, even sacred, in human activities, maybe like the earth compressing carbon into diamonds under heat and pressure deep beneath the surface. The conditions don’t happen elsewhere.

      1. yeah, that’s true. It’s easy to take that for granted.
        I love how everyone has a unique relationship to their studio that develops over the years, usually starting from a hot sexy romance in art school 🙂

  4. A review by a guy, about a guy who used to write for Hyperallergic, who curated a show featuring friends that all went to top tier residencies and MFA programs who are making casual abstraction. Basically the New York art scene in a nutshell, people need to get used to it.

    That this much time and energy was spent writing an article about this kind of work, “new casualism”, etc, is the MOST ridiculous aspect, far beyond viewer’s subjective takes on the work.

    In ’06, it was all about Dana Schutz-y paintings. Then abstract photo was hot. Now, it’s internet (I’m sorry, New Media) art, quirky/intellectual still life photo, and nonchalant abstraction/minimalism. I guess people have to write about something.

    1. I think the term new casualism explains most of the art I’ve seen in the past 3 years more than any other term. It isn’t exactly flattery.
      The internet or new media is a paradigm shift, not just an excuse for terminology.

    2. I don’t have any problem with curators carving out their career by coining new terms and encouraging certain types of dialogue, but I do have a problem with the idea that questioning this whole process is ‘cynical’ in a bad way. The applecart has got very big and way too stable.

      1. What if a curator is coining new terms out of a passion to create engaging and relevant exhibitions?

        1. I think they often are. Curating is a form of expression. But it’s a bit like ‘artist’ DJ’s and the records they play. I think as long as it’s recognised on those terms, so we can see the subjective nature of it all, I don’t have a problem. I know successful art can only be the product of collaboration but I’m wary of some promotional motives and how we describe it. This great article helps to understand my issues.

          1. Thank you, Godbluff for linking this interesting article. It holds a lot of answers as to how the “gobbledy” got so “gooked” or why it seems that I can no longer understand “the English” used in most writing about art.

          2. this link is to the definition of paranoid and anti-intellectualism. please just remember that writers and artists are creative people that need to be able to explore ideas without being judged too harshly.

          3. You really think so? I think critics can be generally pretty harsh and damning themselves at times. They are entitled to it, but it’s not a free lunch any more in my mind. I personally think art and how we discuss and value art could do with another major paradigm shift. I think this article is perfectly intelligent and articulate. I know for an absolute fact that many art students and professional practitioners, as well as art copy writers feel obliged to use certain terminology when ‘locating their praxis’. It’s not that I’m against intellectualism, it’s that art has allowed a lexicon of faux-intellectualism to be constructed around it and sometimes this has far too much say in what goes on. I’ve seen people respond to this pressure in a way that effects their work detrimentally, while others who conform can play the game with it. I’m not a philistine, and neither is the writer of this article. Tell me why it’s so anti-intellectual and paranoid. I think it’s a cheerful and healthy exercise in giving critique to something that doesn’t critique itself fundamentally anymore. It’s become a sort of pseudoscience. Of course art writers won’t care, but if you can honestly read a Saatchi artist blurb, for example, without cringing at times, I’m amazed. You can tell which copywriters feel obliged to express themselves in a certain way and those that don’t too. And that isn’t because some are more intellectual than others. Probably the reverse.

          4. I will never forget a young artist once explaining their work to a group of people he was trying to impress. He declared that, amongst other things, his abstracts confirmed that ‘ reality is the thing that is common to us all’, and that his art is a way of showing this. Whether it did or not no one could possibly say. He then used a Derrida quote, completely inappropriately, missing the whole point of the quote. Luckily no one else knew. A guy bought one so I suppose it worked in that sense. The problem was that it really was a sales pitch because I know that artist was wondering what to say the day before. He was hoping the artspeak would confer weight and interest to his work, and he was right. It just reminds me of people like Deepak Chopra faking his scientific knowledge in front of a scientifically illiterate ‘new-age’ audience. He doesn’t impress me much either.

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