LONDON — A common challenge facing curators of straightforward scholarly exhibitions is the compulsion to prove the influence of artist A on artist or movement B. This often stretches credibility, as select examples are supported by some heavy lifting in the captioning. A Thing for the Mind at commercial gallery Timothy Taylor takes an altogether more creative approach to demonstrating influence, one informed less by strict historical evidence than by the curator’s creative interpretation based on painterly themes and similarities. It takes Philip Guston’s 1978 painting “Story” as a starting point to examine the myriad ways in which elements of this piece — stylistic, symbolic, or thematic — have filtered into the work of 12 select contemporary painters. Viewers may perceive the choice of Guston cynically, as a means of capitalizing on recent public controversy around his work’s exhibition. Yet so studious is the focus on painterly technique, combined with simple yet clear parallels between his and the contemporary artworks, that the show encourages visitors to think laterally about the discipline of painting. The result is a refreshingly genuine take on the theme.
It accomplishes this with succinct explanations that avoid dreaded contemporary art speak, though they occasionally veer into the grandiose. For example, Louise Bonnet’s “Untitled” (2020) is compared to Guston as being “interested in the lessons of cartoons as social satire,” drawing a parallel along this specific line despite the stylistic differences between Guston’s flat linearity and anti-realistic spatial composition and Bonnet’s “rich chiaroscuro evocative of the Old Masters.” The latter remark casually associates Bonnet with one of the most revered periods of art history. Despite this, it works as an entry point for understanding Bonnet’s deliberately grotesque, disturbingly disproportioned humanoid limbs. Likewise, it throws in that George Condo “owes a debt to Cubism; his bulb-eyed figures are layered in a network of fractured geometries, like instruments in a classical orchestra.” Again, the association with an artistic genre (strictly speaking Condo describes his work as “psychological cubism“) coupled with a categorically alternative metaphor audaciously asks viewers to think beyond such genres in finding commonalities. It is an exercise in thinking beyond the usual confines of art historical period and genre, and instead focusing on technique.
Similarly, we are invited to consider work by Walter Price through this technical prism while drawing connections to the mundane objects found in Guston’s work; the curator’s notes state that “the artist uses the brushstroke as a tool to abstract images from the news cycle and everyday life.” Conviction in these explanatory notes starts to waver in abstractions that suggest little or no coherent thought — it is difficult to square Armen Eloyan’s “Untitled” (2022) with the statement that the muddy daubs “adroitly [balance] dark humour with a searing existential vision,” or to see how Daisy Parris’s scrappy paint hatching is underpinned with “profound” words that indicate a “belief in a raw core psyche of shared human emotion.”
Among the established and emerging talent on display, it is Guston’s piece that packs the greatest punch. Guston makes the imagery more visually striking by sticking strictly to variations on red and blue; the bluntness and obtuseness of its iconography is compellingly mysterious, as disembodied fingers, pointing hands, and crude painter’s canvas float monumentally but awkwardly around each other in space. Its painterly surface is tinged with naiveté. What a rare pleasure to see his painting up close, where one can determine from the adulteration of pigment between layers that it was painted alla prima (wet on wet), therefore with a degree of vigor and speed. Considering Guston’s contemporary counterparts in formal rather than thematic terms, George Rouy’s “False Window” (2021) stands out for its range of interesting techniques, from dragging opaque pigments thickly across the surface to letting turpentine-thinned paint split.
A benefit of staging the show at a gallery is perhaps that the curators can take a more creative and personal approach to the subject of influence. By linking genres and styles sideways, the exhibition inspires viewers to think outside the box, as it were. And it is a fantastic state of affairs that a focus on painterly technique is very much alive and well in contemporary art.
A Thing for the Mind continues at Timothy Taylor Gallery (15 Bolton Street, London, England) through August 19. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.