Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Back to the Future at New Langton (SF)

Alert: This exhibit is scheduled to close on 1/24/07.

New Langton Arts’s current exhibit is mostly paintings, and that’s a shock. For an art space that has been so devoted to the conceptual, it feels almost like a breach of decorum. In any case, the choice is deliberate. The guest curator is Pamela Wilson-Ryckman, herself a painter. She deserves kudos for including several artists whose work is normally viewable only in other cities.

The show is called “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” borrowed from the 1966 Sergio Leone film. The title reflects the curator’s intent to show abstract painting in a mood of soured modernity. The curatorial statement suggests a name for this approach: de-transcendentalized modernism. Wilson-Ryckman says that the works “retain a faint trace of modernism’s promise of a utopian future. Yet they reflect neither post-modernism’s celebration of kitsch, nor the current fetish with popular culture (though they are not an explicit rejection of either).”

The show registers its point, but because it includes so few works, it can’t put forth an extended argument. The viewer must take the show as presented, as a set of specific choices. There is notably retro feel to nearly all the work, and I must admit that for an instant I thought: this looks like a re-sale gallery. An unfair impression, which I banished to the far reaches of my mind, not being able to banish it altogether. A more accurate metaphor is that the show often seems like watching good actors in an outdated play.

The most arresting work comes from the three women painters, born from the beginning to the end of the 1960s. Charline von Heyl is a German artist who lives in New York. The show includes one von Heyl painting of intimate size, and another that is towering. In the small one (photo above), there is a representational subtext that seems to flip the Abstract Expressionist manner into the realm of reportage. What you see looks like the aftermath of an explosion in the sky. There are black smears and a worrisome spray of sooty flecks. The most vibrant color is a bad-news orange.

Heyl’s larger painting (photo above) is less crisp and seems to recede. The brownish areas suggest a pair of creatures, human or quasi-human, in an outdoor setting. It could be a satyr’s picnic. But I don’t think the specifics matter. What seems to matter in this smudged representation—if that’s what it is—is the queasy feeling of visual security lost through some uncontrollable slippage. The overworked quality of the painting, which is off-putting, may be its actual subject.

Amy Sillman, also from New York, is represented by just one work, though a sizable one. East Coast critics, including Jerry Saltz, have enthused about her work. The February 2007 issue of Artforum features an 8-page article on Sillman by Boston writer and curator Linda Norden. I found that article to be over-written, verging on nutty. Norden refers to Sillman as “an avatar of a new order of painting.”

Sillman’s canvas at New Langton (photo above) is called “Big Girl.” It looks more structural than anthropomorphic, but there is a vague suggestion of a figure, perhaps seated in a chair. The image could be a large sketch for a sculpture. As usual, Sillman’s style brings to mind art of the Post-War period, in this case Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. While artists often revisit the styles of predecessors, I can’t see any revelations in Sillman’s penchant for doing so. Often, Sillman seems to have absorbed not only the original instance of a style but the devolved versions adopted by secondary artists. There is a staleness that she can't shake. Sillman’s gambit is puzzling, especially as she plays it straight, without irony.

Certain strengths are evident in "Big Girl." You can feel the energy that went into the painting, and the improvisation that created it. The paint handling is confident. But it all seems to lead to a dead end. The energy begins to feel like agitation rather than action. The palette, although seemingly the most up-to-date element, gets tiresome fast. It feels like bright new packaging for for hand-me-downs. The painting's representational elements seem to pull awkwardly at the abstraction. The image seems to be simultaneously flaunting and hiding something, and this registers as evasion rather than as an interesting doubleness.

For me the most engaging works on display were those by Rebecca Morris, who lives in Los Angeles. She’s an artist who hits the mark less often than she should. Fortunately, the two paintings in this show are fairly unhinged, which is her best manner. Both use motifs she has explored in other paintings. She mounts her canvases on deep stretcher bars, so the paintings jut forward from the wall.

The large painting (photo at top) presents a quilt-like mosaic of geometric shapes in a riotous mix of patterns and colors. Some of the segments seem to lie adjacent, some on top of others. Several dark segments read as holes. The whole arrangement seems to swirl in space. The painting’s disorienting nature was given an unconscious tribute at New Langton when the piece was hung the wrong way at the opening of the exhibition (a mistake later rectified).

Some segments of the painting look like throw-away remnants from a painter’s practice, like rags or scraps of paper used to test colors or catch drips. The shapes are all a bit sloppy, the brushwork too. Along the borders of many sections, crude separation lines have been added. The palette includes some pretty colors, but the overall effect is nauseating. It’s a raucous painting, gleefully upending how paintings should behave. But it’s not out of control.

Morris’s smaller painting (photo above) finds other tactics of rebellion. Oval blobs of black and brown paint have been allowed to dry on the surface while the canvas was horizontal. The result is a group of wrinkled shapes that hang onto the bottom half of the canvas like scabs. They bring to mind engine oil, gangrene, and squashed dog turds. The ground layer is an uneven wash of girly pink, soiled with black smears and splatters of black and pink. The overall effect is toxic yet a bit tongue in cheek. Call it ugly fun.

The show includes a concrete sculpture (wall-mounted) by Avery Preesman. It looks like a Sixties grid turned biomorphic (photo above). I kind of like it, but he has done larger works in this vein, and one of those would have served better as his sole representation in this show.
Bay Area artist John Zurier adds a dark note with a series of three black paintings (called “Night”) done using distemper on linen, which yields a silky, stained look. Distemper—a mix of pigment and glue (or casein)—is an ancient technique that caught Zurier’s attention. I asked him if these were his war paintings, and with a surprised look he told me a similar thought had crossed his mind after he saw the paintings hung in the show. The black layer is painted on top of an undercoat that shows through slightly (note the green left edge in the image above). The works are dominated by broad horizontal brush strokes that, to my eye, batten down the surfaces instead of letting them open into more meditative territory.

The remaining works, which I did not find interesting, consisted of two paintings by New York artist Robert Bordo and several ceramic sculptures (on pedestals) by Bay Area artist Annabeth Rosen. A friend tried to argue that Bordo’s paintings are deliberately vacuous—a conceptual strategy. To me they looked reductive and slick, as if designed for book covers.

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