Ian Whitmore, Feb. 7-Mar. 20, 2004, at Fusebox, 1412 14th Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20005
Joy Garnett, Jan. 15-Feb. 21, 2004, at Debs & Co., 525 W. 26th Street, New York, New York 10001
Two years ago, on the occasion of a flurry of Brice Marden shows, New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl lamented that painting had "lost its starring role in art." So omnipresent were the Star Mediums of the Moment that Schjeldahl didn't even deign to name them -- installation art and large color photographs. Now, room-filling works and c-prints are to Chelsea what strip malls are to suburbia -- they're everywhere.
As those two media approach the saturation point, most c-prints begin to look alike. So too does all that installation art. Works by Thomas Hirschhorn and Jason Rhoades look different, but not that different. After all, who hasn't flippantly used these phrases interchangeably: "Oh yeah, she's kind of like a Thomas Hirschhorn-type;" and "Oh yeah, he's more or less a Jason Rhoades-type."
On the c-print side, the phrase, "Oh what a colorful photograph," has become the kind of safe thing a gallery-goer can say about a photograph because all c-prints are amped with color.
Ever since the Festival of the Chromogenic that was Art Basel Miami Beach, I've found myself all the more attracted to painting. I've become especially aware of an interesting trend: the best painting I've seen lately has been conservative, but rich. It's like an Armani tux that takes its quality from its tailoring and its fabric, not from its daring difference. This conservatism does not necessarily equal regression or even stasis -- it's nice to be reminded that paintings must be great paintings before they can be good art. (By contrast, I have never heard anyone say, "That's damn fine chromogenic printing but ultimately it's not a very interesting work of art.")
I've enjoyed the work of artists who consciously embrace subtle goodness. There's the realist painter Robert Olsen, who treats fluorescent light with the reverence the Impressionists afforded to sunlight. Kim McCarty, recently featured on the cover of New American Painting, makes floaty, vaguely sexy watercolors. Here in Washington, Maggie Michael makes paintings the same way that Jackson Pollock or Helen Frankenthaler did -- by letting paint fall onto a canvas.
Narrative painting is also newly alive and is receiving renewed appreciation. The best example is Lari Pittman's recent Los Angeles show at Regen Projects. Pittman, whose paintings were full of impending terrorism, turned the gallery into a storytelling space where neurotics could go to get their worry on. (That show also prompted one of the best reviews I've read in the last year, by Doug Harvey in LA Weekly.)
Apparently I'm not the only one who is attracted to the return of colored mud. An exhibition of paintings at the Guggenheim Museum from its permanent collection drew more visitors per day than Matthew Barney's womb-lust. To my eye, John Currin's recent mid-career retrospective revealed him as the Ann Coulter of painting: garish, conservative, pseudo-sexy and reactionary, but plenty of painting-hungry critics lapped it up (and Kim Levin even lifted the Village Voice boycott of Currin).
All of the work I've referenced, Currin's especially, shares a simple premise. It is first concerned with being a painting. The end of the '90s were dominated by the School of Gunk and Goo. Think Chris Ofili and Fabian Marcaccio. Now, if not then, that work looks gimmicky. Meet the new painting, same as the old painting. It's full of painterly skill, it emphasizes composition and the history of the medium.
Two recent shows provide strong examples. At Debs & Co. in Chelsea, Joy Garnett showed a body of new figurative paintings that depicted individual urban protestors and rebel activists, apparently from the 1960s and after.
Garnett uses old-fangled painterly techniques to give her work verve. Figures are coiled, about to burst out of the structure forced upon them. In Leap, a man jumping over a fire is barely contained by the top of the canvas. In Molotov, an activist holding a lit Molotov cocktail (a few shmears of paint reveal the cocktail to be in a Pepsi bottle), fills the right half of the canvas. His hips torque, his arm coils, his face scrunches in anger and exertion. He and that bottle are about to exit the painting, stage left.
My favorite painting in the show, Stones, makes use of one of the most-tested painting tricks in the book: the dominant diagonal. (Garnett works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I'd bet she's spent some time there with Degas and Czanne.) A diagonal line splits the canvas, from a stone in the upper left, down the stone-thrower's arm, all the way down to the lower right-hand side of the canvas. On the lower half of the canvas, the stone-thrower's body vibrates with energy. In the upper half, hair flies off the man's head.
There's nothing particularly new in Garnett's paintings. They are based on news photographs, a sly nod to the current dominance of photography as a contemporary, responsive medium. (Think Jeff Wall, Chan Chao or Catherine Opie, for example. Of course from Goya to Picasso, there's a long tradition of painters responding to contemporary life too, we just haven't seen it as much lately.) Garnett's brushwork is strong, gestural, even exciting in paintings like Riot or Stones. I like Garnett's compositions, but I love her brushwork.
Ian Whitmore is a Washington-based painter. His first show, at Fusebox, dazzles. His painting is alive, his colors rich, his work smart. He demonstrates range with a variety of paints, from egg tempera, the second-oldest paint in existence, to the newest, acrylic. In every canvas Whitmore presents paint fights between abstraction and figuration, between pop culture and art history.
Most impressive about Whitmore is the way he mixes references from Catholicism to Freud to fairy tales to breakfast cereal -- and holds it all together. In Doris, a straightforward portrait of Doris Day is on its way to being obscured by an encroaching Ab Ex-style abstraction. In a painting that hangs nearby titled Tug, two dogs are playing tug-of-war with something between their teeth. These visual references to tugs-of-war are repeated several times in Whitmore's show. They raise a question I can't wait to see Whitmore address in future work: Will figuration lose the tug-of-war to the slathers? Or will the fight continue?
One of my favorite examples of Whitmore's creating (and refereeing) a fight between two painting languages is in a painting called Mahler(ish). This painting, more than any in the show, reveals Whitmore's intelligence, wit and mastery of a range of historical influences. Mahler(ish) is a portrait of Gustav Mahler. At least it's kind of a portrait -- just to the right of Gustav's head a frenzied abstract slather of pinkish and red paint threatens Gustav the way kudzu threatens anything in its path.
Why Mahler? Why is Whitmore playing a conventional portrait off against abstraction again? Here's why: One of Mahler's greatest innovations was the use of two different languages in the two halves of his choral-orchestral Eighth Symphony. Actually, Mahler does more than just use two different languages in the Eighth, he uses two languages from two distinctly different cultures from two periods of human history.
Whitmore borrows this idea and uses it in Mahler(ish), by (again) mixing two different painting languages (relative realism and abstract expressionism) from two different periods of painting history (traditional European painting and American post-war abstraction). Oh -- there's one other clever reference in Mahler(ish): "Maler" is the German word for "painter."
While all the references make for smart art, Whitmore's painting style provides plenty of entertainment. It's in his style that Whitmore gives away one secret that is hidden in the midst of the erudite rhymes and puns. Whitmore's style, from the way he lays on paint to the way he tucks representational elements into patches of abstraction, is clearly influenced by the mistress of peek-a-boo painting, Cecily Brown. Fifty-year olds, the folks who comprise Mahler's audience these days, are not influenced by Cecily Brown. Twenty-five year-olds are. Whitmore is 25.
Whitmore's paintings are good enough that I'd fall for them no matter how old he is. I'm especially thrilled he's 25. That bodes well for his having a starring role among the coming generation of artists.