It Was Never Linear: Recent Painting
by J. Fatima Martins
May 13, 2016
“It Was Never Linear: Recent Painting”
Sheldon Museum of Art
Now on view through July 31, 2016
“Different colors take different lengths of time of decay on the ....”
- Dawn Clements
In this review I spotlight personal favorites - those works that made me pause - in It Was Never Linear, an invitational exhibition of contemporary national painting and drawing. The exhibition is installed in the three-room contemporary gallery space on the second level and within a satellite display area in the ‘library room’ on the first level. In its totality, it’s a smart exhibition, experimental in many ways, and certainly worthy of your attention.
Curated in part by Aaron Holz, Professor of Painting at the University of Nebraska, the exhibition continues “a Sheldon tradition dating back to the 1880s of mounting regular survey exhibitions of recent contemporary art from around the country,” and is intended to be part of a larger acquisition project that will culminate in the show Building a Legacy Collection: A Survey of Invitational Acquisitions.
As with all exhibitions, it’s impossible to comment on every painting. This is how I approached the exhibition: I walked in and quickly took full note of everything in the room and then moved to those works which called to me from across the gallery space. When examining the collection I worked from an intuitive place asking: which works of art will I remember when I leave this room? I was looking for discomposure because I wanted to be entertained.
Intellectually, I approached It Was Never Linear with an instructive gift given to me by the late Norman Geske, former Director of the Sheldon Art Museum. Many years ago, as a young curator, trying to build complex meanings for a particular set of paintings I was deconstructing at the time, Geske reminded me to keep it simple and remember “modern painting is plastic and malleable.” What he was saying is: read it formally first because the narrative could be found within the materials, and then insert your interpretation.
Correct; one way in which we examine and understand painting (and all art) is through its materiality: the process of working the medium, and how the process is the story. Sometimes the painting isn’t talking about culture directly. What it’s doing is instructing us to pay
attention to the properties of the substance itself; to listen visually to the emotive quality of texture and viscosity; to view the act of painting and application of material to a surface as a ‘way of communicating,’ where each mark is a word within a visual sentence, as is done in design.
The problem with this approach is it can be too cold. The formality lacks humanistic passion; there’s too much focus on rules and formula. So how do we fix the formalists? Insert purposeful mistakes and elevate questions over answers. Leave works “unfinished.”
Within this framework we see that the history of painting is a web; it’s not a straight line from antiquity to contemporary time, it’s more like a fractal, expanding and contracting continually with each point connected to a myriad of other transitional points ever in flux. The flux comes from the fact that painting is driven by parallel forces: technology (what production materials are available), and taste (ever shifting aesthetic temporal style, or what’s popular now).
From the curatorial statement the exhibition is organized to challenge as well as acknowledge the art canon as it has developed since the 19th-century, - “the twelve artists featured are testament to a nonlinear view of current art making that more fully embraces complexity in gender, ethnicity and region,” as well as generations; and to dialogue about painting as process celebrating “the vagaries of abstraction in contemporary painting,“ and demonstrate “a primacy of the act of painting over any true representation of form or figure.”
To introduce the theme, the curators installed three diagrammatic oil painting by Loren Munk (Salt Lake City, UT), who goes by the name James Kalm when he uploads YouTube videos about New York exhibitions.
His paintings, History of Art Timeline (2004-2006), Art Matrix: Dada to Bay Area (2013) and Some California Artists (study) (2002) are cheeky pop-culture and commercial urban-kitsch aesthetic compositions with seductive, thick, almost impasto shiny-wet looking surfaces. They
come off as plastic collage. Munk’s determined artificial looking paintings comment on the contrived and commercial nature of the art world.
While Munk sets the story, of the 25-plus works on view, it’s Dawn Clements’ (Woburn, MA) My bed pleins d’odeurs legères (2007), a large-scale, purposely improvisatory unframed drawing in gouache, ballpoint pen and graphite on white paper that leaves the strongest effect on the imagination, especially if you are of a poetic and soulful temperament.
The Clements drawing is a type of domestic still-life where the home is both comfort and confinement. It depicts an arrangement of objects within a room with a window. The composition is a bit surreal and dreamy. The objects depicted include a telephone, drawing material, fruit, teapot, a cup with a yellow liquid inside, a possible magazine, scissors and other ephemera, along with decorative wallpaper pattern.
The grounding or foundational motif is a wrought-iron bedframe. The bed serves as the stage for the composition and containment of objects within the space. The manner in which the artist places each object projects an arbitrary, free-form and journaling tone. Along with the object still-life, Clements writes random partial and fading sentences, thoughts and people’s names throughout the image. The paper substrate is heavy and beautifully dirty. The artist’s hand and process is evident and in full view.
What we know about Clements is that she takes different scenes, some from movies, and brings them together on paper to compose an imaginative situation. My bed pleins d’odeurs legères is a good example of how an artist can harness the organization of formalist rules to break them effectively. The work engages materiality while, at the same time, unleashing emotive rawness and authenticity. It reaches into tradition, appropriating and containing within well-known comforting motifs: the still-life format - reworking it with equal parts awareness and randomness. It’s an excellent work because it engages the viewer by welcoming investigative questions.
Sentences such as “We know exactly what the urge is and it’s located between their legs,” “How to go to heaven not how the heavens go,” and “one day your loved one drifts away...oolalala,” embody private situations. Clements’ has created a composition in full flux with the possibility for continuation and expansion. Because of it’s unfinished look, it projects a type of revelatory or naked intimate emotion. It’s real.
Within it is the “perfectly imperfect”: it’s pretty, it’s ugly, it’s mysterious, it’s obvious, it’s confusing, it’s open, it’s closed off and it’s exactly what we need more of in today’s unnecessarily insecure world. We don’t need more precise, cold dead design, or writing, in museums lecturing us on what is good art; we need oscillation and engagement.
The opposite of Clements’ openness is Josephine Halvorson’s (Brewster, MA) Night Window, August 2-3 (2015). An oil on linen trompe l’oeil type painting of what looks like an old cabinet door painted a forest green frame and sliding lock with a blacked out glass window inside.
At first viewing the work projects pure minimalism. It’s an illusion. Despite its silent look, it’s deeply engaging, asking: what’s inside or behind the door? Halvorson’s work is about the power of simplicity to create tension, a reminder of how complicated it is to appear effortless. If you get up close you see immediately that the deep darkness is a type of engulfing void space waiting to entrap you in paint. Night Window is about the physical and conceptual properties of space, specifically depth. Emptiness contains an abundance of material. The surface shines, just a little, enough to entice you to approach and examine the blackness. It’s wonderfully creepy and beautifully communicative. Holvorson has created loud silence.
Loud pulsating silence, or white noise, is again felt in my next favorite, Untitled (2014-15), enamel on panel, by Michelle Grabner (Oshkosh, WI). There are three Grabner mathematical paintings in the exhibition: two circular black paintings and one square white painting, all excellent. My preference is for Untitled, the square white painting which is of a limited palette: white, black and gray scale. The surface texture in this painting is wonderfully tactile. The image looks like the backside of a square envelope where the paper folds onto itself. The entire space is filled with irregular circular forms placed systematically to give the appearance that they are moving in herd progression from the boarders to the interior. Grabner has created a composition that superbly projects the illusion of radiating circular movement within geometric imprisonment. The four doted almost straight lines direct the eye from the corners of the frame to the central region in which a slight moiré pattern is observable.
A good complement / contrast to Grabner, although not a favorite of mine, is Barbara Takenaga’s (North Platte, NE) dynamic Blue Splash (2013). It’s a gorgeous textural painting dialoguing about pulsation and directional projection into the physical and conceptual idea of the focal point. Takenaga places her ‘splash’ motif at the center of converging lines forcing the question: is the blue pushing out from midpoint, or is it being sucked into a singularity?
Circling back to Clements’ work which tackles fractured intimacy and the appropriation of iconic motifs in what could be a tragicomic interpretation, we look at Robert Bardo (Montreal, Quebec, Canada) and Joyce Pensato (New York, New York) both of whom offer works referencing the figure, more specifically portraiture within a space that also alludes to landscape. Pensato’s black tar looking enamel on linen, Sunset Batman, in an aggressive “street” aesthetic is not necessarily about the fictional superhero, although she has borrowed the famous plastic cartoon bat mask as her subject.
Likewise, Bardo’s Mother is not about a maternal person, although it could be. Both these works are about gesture, line and fluidity (thin versus thick applications) on a horizontal plane. It’s about the plasticity of paint and how to control it. The end. To drive this point home, Bardo also offers Drawing ( after Rear-View) in chalk and charcoal on paper (2014), which is another gestural interpretation of the same form as seen in Mother. These works are intimate because they suggest the face up close as well as seductive because of the highly visceral material surfaces. What this means is: we want to touch them. We want to touch the face of Batman and Mother.
Curator Aaron Holz, has pulled together a clever and engaging exhibition. I also recommend the three paintings by Stanley Whitney (Philadelphia, PA), Red, oil on linen, and Untitled 1 and 2, gouache on paper (2015). Although these are not personal favorites, because I dislike the elementary school colors and general form, they are excellent works conceptually and speak strongly about painting as process and the power of the brush. Likewise, the three different
versions of the cubist derivative Dreamcatcher (2013), each in a different medium - charcoal on paper, acrylic on museum board and acrylic on canvas by JoAnne Carson (New York, NY) are good because they reveal how the same subject can be reworked physically with different materials. While the subject remains the same, the narrative does not, because the materials are not the same. Carson’s work documents that each line and color contains within and projects out differences in energy depending on its physical properties.