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.