"POST MoDERN," Jan. 15-Feb. 19, 2005, at Greene Naftali Gallery, 526 West 26th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001
"Painting's washed up," Marcel Duchamp is reported to have said in 1912 while viewing the marvels of modern engineering at the Paris Aviation Show. Despite Duchamp's prediction, now more than 90 years old (and improbably cast in lingo that would do Humphrey Bogart proud), we can't bring ourselves actually to take away the artist's canvas, easel and paintbrush. That would be cruel. As for the artists themselves, if painting is dead, needless to say, they're more than happy to drag around the corpse for everyone to see.
So, what is left to find in painting? Quite frankly, in the context of Postmodernism, rather too much. While the constant refinement of Modernist abstraction is now an old story, the pluralism that so happily succeeded it seems increasingly unmoored. The freedom of Postmodern painters is in the advocacy of their caprices. In other words, they get to paint whatever they want however the hell they want, and don't mind us, we'll find a way to stomach it somehow.
Into these choppy waters comes Greene Naftali Gallery, which is presenting recent works by 11 painters under the title "POST MoDERN." Included are works by some of the gallery artists (Jacqueline Humphries, Michael Krebber and Sophie von Hellermann), works by a few market faves (Laura Owens, Dana Schutz), works by some veteran painters (Charline von Heyl, Mary Heilmann, Amy Sillman) and still more by artists who are perhaps less immediately categorized (Henning Bohl, Makiko Kudo and Josh Smith).
Surveying the main gallery space is enough to turn any viewer into Scrooge -- that is, one is immediately assaulted by an onrush of ghosts from painting's past. The spirit of Jackson Pollock animates Mary/Mary (2004-05), an Op composition in blue, metallic silver and electric red by Jacqueline Humphries, while the primary colored contrasting squares of Mary Heilmann's Rosetta Stone II (1978) are reminiscent of a Josef Albers painting.
Josh Smith has grouped five small canvases in a random pattern, all titled Untitled (Palette Painting) (2004) and smeared them with several large plops of paint -- they actually look like multicolored chunks of human feces executed like finger-paints onto the canvas. Hofmann, Guston, Clemente, and Twombly come to mind. If you look closely at the texture there are even tiny indents that resemble anuses -- enter (stage rear) Kippenberger, Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy.
Overall, the paintings in the exhibition seem to have little in common, mixing abstract and representational, minimalist and expressionistic, the comic and the folkloric. One identifiable theme, arguably, is youthful subject matter. The Japanese artist Makiko Kudo -- one of Takashi Murakami's many protégés -- makes highly decorative, storybook-style pictures owing more to classic Japanese woodblocks than to anime -- her style more textured and organic than what would be expected of a painter from Murakami's army of Superflat. Her work here, titled I don't know (2004), shows a girl reclining in a landscape, wearing a dress printed with cherries and surrounded by a variety of exotic birds.
From Laura Owens one can always count on something childish. Untitled (1994) is like ice cream, a sweet substance that melts quickly. Divided on the diagonal into halves that are bubble gum pink and pistachio green, the large (96 x 120 in.) canvas has a painterly impasto in its lower left-hand corner that looks like an actual scoop of mint-chip ice cream topped with cherries and sprinkles. Down the left edge of the canvas is painted a red and white candy stripe, blurred as if it were in motion like a barber's pole.
Something of a poster child for Postmodernist painting, Owens is celebrated for conjoining a range of sources, from folk art and children's illustrations to Rococo landscapes and Chinese scroll paintings. For all this plurality, however, her paintings feel empty. Owens has brilliantly keyed into the centerless, insecure aspect of Postmodernism, the "unbearable lightness of being" that comes from engaging with everything and committing to nothing.
Henning Bohl, a young German artist, touches upon a similar Postmodern conundrum -- once we open the door to other cultures, how do we avoid distorting and perverting their values. In his painting Shogun (2005), Bohl has taken a serene white canvas and applied to its surface a pattern of bamboo, with stalks of dark green aluminum foil and gingerly hovering leaves in pink and green foil. Bohl's delicacy of touch mimics the spiritual process of Japanese scroll paintings.
In the bottom right corner Bohl has inserted black-and-white paper clouds, printed with the faces of the two cross-cultural lovers from the 1968 television mini-series Shogun (which includes a romance between Richard Chamberlain's British buccaneer and Yoko Shimada as his married Japanese tutor). Bohl's painting, while making reference to the japonismé that energized the work of van Gogh and Matisse over a century ago, seems to stress the inevitable artificiality of the enterprise.
Folk art retains a certain aura of authenticity, even in the Postmodernist era, and several younger artists have availed themselves of its techniques. The American painter Dana Schutz is one example of an artist whose imagery and narrative partake of a folkish realm, giving her works an accessibility that also gives them emotional weight. Her painting is confident, combining bright colors with thick brushstrokes, and her characters are captivating -- quirky, crude and cartoony, friendly and familiar, but slightly deranged. In Schutz's Coma (2005), a reclining girl with bulging red eyes and red hair, who looks like a Muppet, is surrounded by ray-like lines in colors running the rainbow's gambit. The smallest work in the show, her painting is succinct and perfect.
The exhibition also offers a few representatives of past trends made current. One example is the German-born New York painter Charline von Heyl, the show's token abstract expressionist. Von Heyl is gritty; her fire can be recognized immediately in her paintings. Defenster 2 (2004) unleashes a fluid tempest in rust-colored paint, an unpleasant hue that signals decay, as though the canvas had been left out in the rain. Hidden among the sweeping painted lines is a pair of pale peach-toned human legs. Barely visible, this remnant of a painted figure makes the work seem fresh. This hidden element, a mysterious shadow, implicates von Heyl as a painter grappling with the desire to paint the representational and finally being overcome by the nihilistic and violent impulse of abstraction.
Sophie von Hellermann, a young painter who is included in the third installment of Charles Saatchi's "Triumph of Painting," also depicts human subjects that have the same anti-presence as the legs in von Heyl's Defenster 2. Overall, Hellermann's Untitled (Wedding) (2003) looks unfinished. Her method is straightforward. She first sets in a wash for the background -- a translucent salmon pink in this work -- and then applies her paint with a mix of staining and loose untrained brushstrokes. The final touches, though sparse, are added in last to give the illusion of detail.
In Untitled (Wedding), the eerie glimmer of a bride etched in vibrant white paint dances next to a bearded groom among an assembly of guests that appear before the viewer like a succession of mirages. There is something dark in her reluctance to give these characters weight. The figures in her paintings are mere imprints of life, as though emblazoned upon the canvas' surface after their live bodies were snatched away in an instant by a nuclear flash of light.
If Hellermann's works are unfinished, Michael Krebber's paintings look as though they were barely started. A former assistant to Martin Kippenberger, the Cologne-born Krebber makes perfectly stretched and primed canvases that bear scant evidence of the artist's touch. He gives the viewer a glimpse of that pristine surface the artist gets to desecrate, or on a more neurotic level, the overwhelming void they are supposed to fill.
In A Ha (2001), Krebber delineates the upper half of a woman's face in the center of the canvas with strategically placed green paint. Krebber pits the white gesso and the painted lines against each other, as if to ask at what point a painting is considered a painting, a question that sardonically parallels the issue of at what point is a fetus considered a human being. The Postmodernist painter is free to ignore formalist problems, which is both the relief and the burden of their freedom. As Krebber says, "I do not believe I can invent something new in painting because whatever I would want to invent already exists."
In the end, all this pluralism takes painting out of the utopian realm of modernist academics and resituates it squarely in the contemporary world. After a century of "progress," painting has been given back to the people (some would say that it has been thrown to the dogs). Though self-absorbed, postmodern painting is anything but aimless. Situated as such, in the end game zone, Postmodernist painters get to live out the proverbial adult lament "if only I knew then what I know now,"--they get to give art a new lease on painting.
NICOLE DAVIS is associate editor of Artnet Magazine.