The recent resurgence of interest in contemporary painting has posited the unique object — especially the handcrafted, the slapped-together, and the aggressively tactile — as yin to neo-conceptualism’s yang, a raggedy-edged refutation of the factory-finished, the reproducible, and the overly cerebral.
At Ventana 244, a gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with a tilt toward collaborative projects and artist-curated exhibitions, the painter and 2011 Guggenheim recipient Rick Briggs has put together a show of 14 emphatically handmade works by nine artists, taking the paintings’ buildup of marks and materials as the primary focus.
The exhibition’s title, Let’s Get Physical, comes from the 1980s disco hit by Olivia Newton-John, but don’t hold that against it. In his curatorial statement, Briggs writes that his idea was to bring together “a group of painters who use extra-physical means to make abstract paintings.” What this comes down to is paint-as-paint: how it is applied and what it is applied to.
There are elements of the abject and casual in these paintings, but the show doesn’t settle into a single groove. The works it presents are intensively pored-over objects in which the traditional components of painting — the canvas, stretcher bars and frame (in offerings by Dona Nelson, Maria Walker and Yevgeniya Baras, respectively) — might become the key elements of the piece, or where meaning is invested solely in the physical manipulation of the paint (Briggs, Jackie Saccoccio).
There are also abstractions that hew more closely to classical ideas of shape and composition (Jonathan Allmaier, Chuck Webster, and Russell Tyler), and then there is the indefinable Chris Martin, whose untitled, achromatic contribution is made from oil and acrylic paint, holographic glitter, and a photograph of trees pasted upside-down in the lower left beside a sketchily brushed-in clump of mushrooms.
Alongside his citation of Olivia Newton-John, Briggs throws in a line from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (1945): “The body cannot be compared to the physical object, but rather to the work of art.”
Conflating Merleau-Ponty with the pop tune’s lyrics (“Let me hear your body talk”), Briggs suggests, “perhaps what we really want, as artists, is to SEE the body talk. […] The physicality of these paintings suggests the body: the body in all its corporeality, the body in action, and the body as site of all perception, both conscious and unconscious.”
The selection of artwork makes a persuasive case for Briggs’ body-centric take, especially in the gestural movement found in his own and Saccoccio’s paintings, the labor-intensive compositional structuring of Tyler and Allmaier, and Martin’s dizzying manipulation of material, surface and space.
But turning back to Phenomenology of Perception, it is interesting to note the line directly following the one Briggs cites:
In a painting or in a piece of music, the idea cannot be communicated other than through the arrangement of color or sounds.
And then to read a little further down:
Just as speech does not merely signify through words, but also through accent, tone, gestures, and facial expressions, and just as this supplemental sense reveals not so much the thoughts of the speaker, but rather the source of his thoughts and his fundamental manner of being, so too poetry — while it may be accidentally narrating or signifying — is essentially a modulation of existence.
And then a little further:
A novel, a poem, a painting, and a piece of music are individuals, that is, beings in which expression cannot be distinguished from the expressed, whose sense is only accessible through direct contact, and who send forth their signification without ever leaving their temporal and spatial place. It is in this sense that our body is comparable to the work of art.
The last passage is what Briggs, it would seem, is getting at — the idea that “expression cannot be distinguished from the expressed, whose sense is only accessible through direct contact.” This view casts the artist’s relationship to the artwork as the transfer of physical sensations to the object — the arc of the artist’s hand, the pressure of the brush, the viscosity the paint — which in turn transfers them to the viewer.
If Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts about poetry in the second excerpt were applied to painting, they would supply a succinct appraisal of why we continue to feel connected to it over the centuries, throughout its endless cycles of decline and rebirth.
As a nonverbal means of expression, painting implicitly “reveals not so much the thoughts of the speaker, but rather the source of his thoughts and his fundamental manner of being.” The kind of work found in this show, which avoids “narrating or signifying” almost completely and makes a point of exposing the processes of its construction, is especially redolent of the artists’ “fundamental manner of being”; their instincts, impulses and intelligence are woven into the manifold layers of attack, alteration and resolution.
Through their formal and expressive thoroughness, these paintings, which present the viewer with obdurate abstraction, thingness and even hermeticism, draw us into their orbit not by what is splashed across the surface but by the physical manifestations of their creators’ thoughts, emotions and sense perceptions.
It is that human interaction via a mute, inanimate object which we find so compelling, and which presents us with a “modulation of existence” — defined by Merleau-Ponty as a melding of living ideas and inert matter, with each dependent on the other — the visible residue of the artist’s invisible presence.
Let’s Get Physical continues at Ventana 244 (244 North 6th Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn) through December 20.
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It’s curious that this review, heavy in devotion to Formalism, doesn’t touch upon how this method of looking at art has been received historically. What this show is proposing is actually an intensely conservative mindset that looks back longingly to the ideas of the past, specifically concepts of the artist as ‘genius’ creating through his ‘holy’ touch a precious object that is a vehicle for some transcendental experience for the laity. The myriad rejections, the violent castigations of Greenberg, of Abstract Expressionist ideas found in Neo-Dada, Minimalism, Conceptualism, Pop all might be read as an attempt to tear down as well the ideas proposed, each having engaged in an intense interrogation that is conspicuously absent in this review. Instead, it seems we are to passively believe in reading that the works on display are valuable or meaningful precisely because they hearken back into an era in which mediums still had boundaries, in which the aim of painting was to engage only in painting’s conversation with painting.
It is my opinion that if a work proposes to engage in a dialogue like this that we ask of it why it attempts now to do what has been done before. Why awaken ideas that have been put to bed if not to shed some new light, to contribute something to their discourse that has never been said. If the art we commune with is going to ask so much of us, we must in turn ask the same of it, and so I ask to the author of this piece- do these works actually achieve for you, for us, any of the lofty aspirations ascribed to them through the Mearleu-Ponty’s, the gallery’s, even your own rhetoric?
Anyone familiar with the history of postwar American art is aware of the “castigation” and “interrogation” of Clement Greenberg and Abstract Expressionism by Neo-Dada, Minimalism, Conceptualism and Pop. It’s a conventional academic narrative that has little to do with anything else that was happening in the rest of the world at the time, or with the persistence of painting today as a viable form. The point of the review is that paintings continue to hold meaning not “because they hearken back into an era in which mediums still had boundaries” but because they are objects into which sensory as well as intellectual ideas have been transferred. No more and no less.
I get the sense that the curator is aware of these criticisms an is unsuccessfully attempting to fend them off with the title of the show and rather ineptly and cloyingly trying to combine an essay Merleau-Ponty and lyrics by Oliva Newton John. Where is Jane Fonda and her aerobics? Should a perfomance artist in Jane Fonda workout gear lead a manditory interactive audience participation piece demanding all visitors to do a workout ? It’s not the painting that bothers me but the obnoxious pop culture references that it is defended with, as though painting is not enough on it’s own. (It is!) This is part of a larger trend, as with Suzanne McClelland and her Arnold Scwarzenegger Pumping Iron painting show at Team just recently among others . Make an abstract painting and call it an abstract painting. Disco Sucks !
seems the point is that ideas that are put to bed always wake up of themselves. energy is neither created nor destroyed.
“ideas that have been put to bed”….LOL.
The only thing more tedious than proclamations of ‘THE DEATH of painting’ are proclamations of the “recent resurgence of interest in contemporary painting”….
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