Response to Selected Works From
“VITAMIN P: New Perspectives in Painting”
A little less than a decade prior to the first publication of Vitamin P, Hal Foster wrote, "...the horizontal expansion of art has placed an enormous burden on artists and viewers alike: as one moves from project to project, one must learn the discursive breadth as well as the historical depth of many different representations - like an anthropologist who enters a new culture with each new exhibition." (intro, xii). Although Foster was expounding on the shifting sands of postmodern discourse, he may as well have been prophesying the current state of contemporary painting. Indeed, in Vitamin P's very introduction, Barry Schwabsky effectuates this forecast as he sums up, “How can one fulfill the task of the critic...when the range of traditions and references that artists are likely to call on extends so far beyond what a single individual can know? ...(P)erhaps only when one accepts... painting's invitation to direct experience.” (10). The visual feast in this tome, as well as these critics' statements, underscores the pluralism that has arisen in contemporary art in tandem with a dramatic and welcome “return” of painting.
Although painting's last gasp was supposedly heard in the 1960's with the neo-minimalist works of Frank Stella, Barnett Newman and Robert Ryman, echoes of their visuals may still be seen in the works of contemporary painters like Ian Davenport and Markus Döbeli. At first glance, the minimal, non-objective qualities to these works might imply the bluntness of reduction. However, upon closer inspection of surface, techniques are revealed that speak to a broader intentionality. Both artists revel in the very nature of paint as a medium: Davenport uses fully saturated commercial latex (household paint), poured and spread via gravity in a precision set of moves to create his perfectly even, seemingly effortless-looking surfaces. Döbeli, meanwhile, builds up acrylic color to a variety of levels, affecting surface appearance, allowing for a variety of chromatic passages, until the canvas itself becomes the form, reveling in its own physicality. These paintings set up an atmosphere for the viewer; a dialogue which suggests a real presence to the work. They reveal their inherent existence as paintings not through overt signification, but through the artists' technical consideration of paint itself. But, unlike these works' minimalist counterparts of the past, these artworks-as-objects come without the deconstructivist baggage. Paint is not embarrassingly applied as something to be subverted, rather, it is celebrated con brio in its expressive capacity.
In its adoption of a pluralist attitude, painting has seemingly freed itself from the plodding diachroneity of art historical movements. This release has allow for a more synchronic reflection of the contemporary. Mass media has charged our visual input with seemingly unavoidable exteroception. This may have engendered a new level of pictorial semiotics, as postmodern culture now has a lexicon of manufactured images laden with universally understood signification - be they commercial (branding), high art or kitsch.
Johannes Kahrs, Richard Phillips, and Peter Rostofsky are three oil painters who liberally lift from this aforementioned “new vernacular” in full recognition of the charged nature of their recontextualized imagery. Within the teeming center of this neo-vocabulary one will find the the oft-repeated video image; a now-ubiquitous device made fully manifest in the early 1980s via the pop-music video. Kahrs substantiates the known tropes associated with such incessant visuals by distilling them down to their heraldic essences in painted large-scale keyframes. Rostofsky also co-opts the moving image, but delves instead into the cinematic genre, extracting stillframe portrayals of a filmic Sublime, played out in the climactic moments of movies such as 2001 and Contact. Although Phillips' early work was based upon still fashion photography, he has since gravitated towards the moving image as well, finding themes within music videos and popular films that have trendily co-opted the lurid glam of pornography. Phillips executes his controversial work in a re-recontexualization of these charged visuals in a much more graphic manner, juxtaposing titillating female nudes with backgrounds, costumes or other objects that challenge the viewer to confront a now hyper-realized insincerity of manufactured arousal.
Even though the derogatory popularization of kitsch in art was established by Greenberg in 1939, it has undergone – at least in its relation to art – some definitive changes. Morphing out of the Marxist illustration and its antonymous association with the avant-garde, kitsch grew into a realm of acceptance when it became aligned with camp in the postwar period, and then ratified in the 1960's as American high and low culture began to converge. Beyond this, it has been subjected to a full postmodern treatment in the art world, attaining celebrity status through the work of Jeff Koons, and at the same time, it was embraced by an unlikely ally - the Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum - in an attempt to erase the pejoratives aimed at the academic as connected to kitsch.
Currently, kitsch may be once again reinventing itself as representational painting reestablishes itself within the contemporary. The artist-team of Vladimir Dubossarsky and Alexander Vinogradov not only takes pleasure in the flash of color and texture of oil painting, there is an obvious playful quality throughout their highly synthesized works. Some of the usual kitschy subjects are present: the odd celebrity, happy puppies, primary-colored flowerbeds, prancing naked ladies – it's all there. The veritable carnival of images is almost too much to take, but, like a chorus in a pop song, the hook draws one closer - and then, one sees the dark interior beneath all the fun. Dystopia under the fabricated veneer of utopia is nothing new in contemporary society, but Dubossarsky and Vinogradov's awareness of this sociopolitical polarity took hold in Soviet Russia, where a totalitarian state made this disparity an unassailable, stark reality. Juxtaposing the jovial psychedelia with sex, violence, war, and a general sense that “all is not what it seems,” the paintings turn into a cautionary narrative before a captive audience.
The first powerful revolution against representation in painting can be traced back to the turn of the 19th Century with the beginnings of Cubism. Since that time, the craft that was so honored in the Sálon de Paris up until the 1890's fell hugely out of fashion – so much so that it was considered by some to be wholly retrograde by the time postmodernism got into full swing in the 1980's (see: Benjamin Buchloh). It is duly known that a great deal of this kind of criticism was undoubtedly necessary to keep art convergent and conversant with modern society. Nevertheless, the wholesale marginalization of an art form, rendered by critics as unproductive or inept, smacked of the exclusionary failures accorded to the insular tenets of modernism. Buchloh, incisive mind that he is, failed to understand the relevance of the medium, even as he commends the celebrated Gerhard Richter for “cynically acquiesc[ing] to the ineffectuality of painting,” to which Richter inexorably disagrees: “I see there neither tricks nor cynicism nor craftiness... I know for a fact that painting is not ineffectual.” (113).
As it happened, painting did not perish in its languishment, nor did it regress back to its antiquated rhetoric. Rather, thanks to artists like Richter, painting survived and revived, expanding horizontally and adopting a vast melange of global and historical sensibilities, all the while calling upon the lessons of its very history to redefine itself.
Two particular artists in Vitamin P whose representational discourse remains contemporarily relevant are Andrew Grassie and Yishai Judisman. Grassie adopts a literal dialogue with the art world, rendering photographic depictions of gallery spaces (sometimes with the exhibit not fully installed), touching on a variety of genres from old master works to installation art to outdoor shots of minimalist sculpture. In any case, each piece is painstakingly rendered in tempera, a difficult and ancient emulsion of pigment, calling to mind the leviathan that is the history of painting. Through the broad context of the subject matter, the historical medium, not to mention the fact that the source material itself is a reproduction, Grassie fleshes out a satisfyingly extradimensional mimetic approach to representation. Judisman's approach is similarly classical in technique, calling upon the spirits of Velazquez and Hals in his engaging portraiture. However, his visual references are disparate: clowns, the mentally ill, sumo wrestlers, fellow artists. By implying the presence of narrative with the very act of representing these oddly fascinating personae in oil, Judisman opens a dialogue with the viewer, challenging one to enter into a mildly discordant psychological encounter with the subjects. In later works, the artist creates an even more complete, yet complex atmosphere, featuring the works dramatically within thoughtful installations. These involved crossovers within representational painting – and painting in general - speak volumes about its perception of the contemporary and indeed bodes well for a diverse and bounteous future.
List of works cited:
Buchloh, Benjamin and Richter, Gerhard (interview): “Legacies of Painting,” Art Talk: The Early 80s. Ed. Jeanne Siegel. New York: Da Capo Press, 1988. 111-118. Print
Foster, Hal. Return of the Real. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996. Introduction. Print
Schwabsky, Barry. “Painting as Art?” Vitamin P. Ed. Valerie Breuvart. New York: Phaidon, 2007. 6-10. Print