It's happening again. Every few years, like clockwork, some newspaper or magazine trumpets a return to painting. Only the names change. Last fall, Artforum featured a cover story on the new California "formalism." Three months before that, Flash Art ran a cover article called "Painting Epiphany." Count me among the guilty. In 1994, I wrote a survey in Art in America that touched on a year's worth of painting exhibitions in New York galleries to show how much of it was going on: 240 solo painting shows in 85 galleries, or 39.4 percent of all shows. One of my points, then and now -- and one that has been made by plenty of other people -- is painting can never come back because it never left.
So why is the latest incarnation in this perennial resurrection scheme -- Phoebe Hoban's eight page article, "The Mod Squad," in the January 11 issue of New York magazine -- so annoying? It can't just be because I didn't write it. The whole endeavor seems driven by a need for heat or fashion. The piece starts with Timothy Greenfield-Sander's latest version of "The New Irascibles" group portrait of five Mod Squad-ers: Cecily Brown, John Currin, Wayne Gonzales, Inka Essenhigh and Damian Loeb. Currin, at 36, is one of the best known American painters of the decade; Gonzales, 41, has been showing for years; and Brown -- who is also featured in this month's Vogue -- has had a number of exhibitions lately. But what a coincidence -- the article runs concurrent with the solo shows of the two youngest and least known artists in the photo.
Most movements are wider than they are deep; they start as units and tend to be pulled apart as the artists' different characteristics, interests and levels of quality emerge. You've got your Clementes and Kiefers, and then you've got your Chias and Middendorfs. Gradually you come to see the group doesn't have as much in common as you thought. Hoban's "Mod Squad" is an art movement '90s style: it starts out with nothing in common, unless you count representation. Her list feels contrived and skewed.
Hoban, who authored last year's Basquiat bio, writes about painting in the '90s as if it were the '80s. Many of the people she cites as authorities on the return to painting are, in fact, '80s personalities. Sales and faces are the focus, as she reports the recent acquisitions of Charles Saatchi and Don and Mera Rubell. To back them up, she quotes artists like Peter Halley, Jeff Koons and Ross Bleckner, who says that painting has emerged "in the last nine months." The article's opening blurb announces that "painting is finally back in the picture." Well, you think, that depends on what the meaning of the word is is. One thing is certain: painting has been "back" for more than nine months.
Hoban names a lot of names but draws faulty conclusions. For example, she says the "burgeoning interest in painting first began at 1997's Whitney Biennial." Sounds good, but that show had only 12 painters in it, whereas the '95 biennial had 29. But don't blame the artists, blame the messengers.
Incredibly, of the seven artists pictured in the course of the article, six are represented by or are affiliated with either Deitch Projects, Larry Gagosian, or Mary Boone -- herself proclaimed "The New Queen of the Art Scene" on the cover of New York in 1982. These are fine galleries, and there is a lot of painting going on; it's just bad journalism. In Hoban's return to the Larry-and-Mary-ism of yore, you wonder what happened to the rest of the art world. But given her '80s bias, you can see why Hoban might find one or two of these artists so interesting.
Damian Loeb's paintings are little more than Photorealism meets '80s photo appropriation. His work, which has the distinction of being simultaneously sensational and dull, is unable to engage you beyond a first moment of pictorial surprise. A bottom feeder, Loeb is attracted to kitsch and violence, combining images scavenged from art, advertising and the news. The resulting jump-cut narratives are cynical, soulless and unoriginal. Loeb is an illustrator with a facile hand and a "boy" eye for putting chicks into his environments, especially if the women are naked or dying, or better, both.
Resolution features a drab Andrew Wyeth-like landscape with a young, nude, Asian girl -- legs spread, natch -- in the foreground. In Permanent Press, Loeb paints a 1995 Jeff Wall image (Jell-O) of a little girl in a kitchen, then he upstages her with a naked prepubescent young woman ironing. And in Love Story, a group of Santas wait for a subway, oblivious, as a woman -- her skirt pulled up to reveal her panties -- lies bleeding and dying on the platform in front of them.
When Loeb turns from the lurid to world events he's no better. It's hard to imagine anyone looking at Heartland, the Prairie --- an image of two Ku Klux Klanners, one black, the other white, standing in the middle of a road, as seen through a windshield, with an explosion in the rearview mirror -- without cringing at its sledgehammer obviousness. The same could be said of Sunlight Mildness, in which he appropriates a Lauren Greenfield photograph of teenagers cruising in a convertible. Behind them he inserts an African death squad. Other than the fact that they are technically accomplished, Loeb's paintings lack real invention or imagination. He's not surfing; he's slumming.
Inka Essenhigh, who exhibited a closely related group of paintings less than six months ago at Stefan Stux, is better than Loeb, though here she looks like she's in production. The seven new paintings at Deitch look too similar because they all rely on the same formula.
All the works are rendered in shiny, smooth, enamel paint, and look almost like Chinese lacquer-ware by way of Japanimation. The backgrounds are always solid, the colors opaque greens, tans and browns. On each surface, Essenhigh deploys a comic-opera troupe of grotesque, mutated figures that look like ghosts or nomads, or lumpy animals that resemble small appliances. The finished paintings suggest giant bondage sci-fi scenarios by Aubrey Beardsley or Dali.
Sometimes her worldview is dystopian, as in Cosmos, in which a spatula-shaped oasis hovers in a field of peacock blue. In the foreground, one demon creature roasts another one on a spit, while IV tubes attach themselves to dying palm trees. Virgin and Volcano reveals her more sexual side, as a violet flower petal floats on a ground of rich burgundy. A corpulent group of odalisques lounge on one side of the labial leaf, while on the other, a squadron of samurai thugs flex their muscles.
There are still too many undigested references in Essenhigh's work, among them Jim Nutt, Carl Wirsum, Matthew Ritchie and Valerio Adami, but her paintings feel authentic and have a nice, if too standardized, touch. She ought to elevate the decorative aspects of her work to something more physically complicated, clarify the narrative, and maybe learn to say no to the next mainstream magazine that comes along.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for the Village Voice, where this text first appeared.