Serious hipsterism looms in new painting. It isn't hip enough yet. It isn't confident enough about knowing that you know that it knows what doesn't matter. (Hipness is delight in semisecret spiritual shortcuts and amusement at squares who keep going the old, long, wrong ways.) Less movement than mood, the change remains scattered and tentative. It is American, natch. (Europeans can't be hip.) What's American? That chronic question is due for shiny new answers soon.
I have in mind again an eye-opening doctrine, promulgated by Las Vegas art critic Dave Hickey, that painting in America has died as a high museum art and will flourish henceforth as a high popular art like jazz. Painting will no longer oppose mass visual culture but instead will occupy its sophisticated peak -- not campily, as a goof, but normally, as a duty. It will refine standard joys of vernacular spectacle, minus standard insults to one's intelligence.
There are East Coast and West Coast variants of the new right stuff. In "Painting From Another Planet," curated by Los Angeles critic David Pagel, we get uneven samples from out where the sun sets. Some of the 10 painters are or were students of Hickey's at the University of Nevada Las Vegas and participated in a Hickey-curated recent show in Houston, titled "Ultralounge." I didn't see the show. I suspect that it looked terrific. Looking terrific is the ne plus ultra of the new hip painting.
By coincidence, a current show of the veteran process-intensive New York abstract painter David Reed swells the chorus. For many years, Reed has been souping up his familiar, rather decorously baroque mode of wide, sumptuous, wet-in-wet brushstrokes, adding ever hotter color and, with computer-altered video, tacking on references to popular culture -- first at the tony pitch of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (a Reed painting electronically hung in Scottie's bedroom), more recently from the scuzzy fringe of the sub-Miami Vice, color-coordinated TV show called Michael Mann's Crime Story (set in Las Vegas).
At Protetch now, we find Reed up to his elbows in flagrant Ultraloungerie. Middle-sized pictures of drifting or writhing blobs and dollops are infused with sizzling chemical travesties of natural hues: fuschia, cerise, apricot. They are like hallucinations of paintings, made unreal by overripened beauty -- as if meant to be consumed by Rabelaisian hedonists far more ravenous than you or I.
Reed needles our self-consciousness with a video setup that lets us view ourselves and each other viewing one of the paintings, and with a video projection of enhanced Crime Story footage. The trickery makes for philosophical reflection on the way that our minds, in states of pleasure, curl back on themselves with voluptuous self-contemplation. It works because Reed takes pains to provide sure-enough enjoyment that I choose to deem irresistible.
Is there something still a bit forced and artificial about Reed's homage to forced, artificial rapture? There is, and the problem extends to many of Pagel's painters. The game afoot here isn't horseshoes or hand grenades. Close doesn't count. Manifest intention to hit a bull's-eye of delirious abandon can't substitute for actually hitting one. But the character of the intention is so promising that patience seems called for.
At issue is a tough-minded, pragmatic devotion to pleasure that rejects the conceptual agendas of art driven by theory and politics. The result is not stupid. It simply sets the cart of analysis behind the horse of esthetic experience: bliss first, braininess later. The two older West Coast artists most often cited as role models are Ed Ruscha and Lari Pittman.
Three Deitch painters got me swooning immediately.
Ingrid Calame's abstractions of ragged color patches in enamel on aluminum are derived, I'm told, from chance patterns of stains that she find and traces in the world. I believe it, because the work's deracinated, willy-nilly compositions -- nailed down with stroking as careful as Mondrian's -- could not have survived the sensibilities of even the most lyrically free designer. The effect is an unprocessed, wild factuality: gorgeous data that our minds attempt and clownishly fail to make sense of.
Sharon Ellis takes the opposite tack with strenuously deliberated images of greeting card-like seduction that, like roundhouse punches, you see coming a mile away. But just try to ward them off. Her Rorschach-symmetrical Morning offers a pale sunburst amid fluffy clouds set off by yellow flowers on whiplash stems. Many-layered, translucent glazes at once gobble and ooze light. The occasioned experience is almost shockingly satisfactory. Looking, I felt as safe and warm as a babe in arms.
Kurt Kauper's big, varnished portrait of an imaginary opera diva likewise made me feel like more of a pushover than I prefer to think I am. What's a diva? A living woman who ascends to archetypal myth. The myth being what matters most, Kauper opts to start from it and to descend, via nuances of consummate portrait technique, to the woman. You feel that the depicted sacred monster bears a famous name and trails thousands of performance memories and outrageous anecdotes. You just don't know what they are.
Honorable mention is due to, among others, English-born UNLV grad Philip Argent. who says he dreamed of a car with the sinister license plate "METHLAB," the central motif, ever since, of phantasmagorical designs that appropriately suggest jangled, sleepless, neon nights. Then there is the fairly awesome vulgarity of Chris Finley, whose six-foot-square enamel cartoons are shrieking visions of, say, sweating body-builders or drooling, identical-twin matrons advancing homicidally with garden shears. Whew!
I have a regional sort of trouble with this show. It pertains to a tendency of West Coast painting, as against most New York and European kinds, to discount bodily scale in the way that paintings address us. Oddly enough for a part of the world where folks go around sexily tanned and lightly clad, Westerners favor cerebral image over physical object -- the heady over the visceral -- as the basis of our relationship with a canvas. Will a great painter emerge soon who understands and splits this American difference? I'll say yes.
PETER SCHJELDAHL is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.