What sets New Image Painting at Shane Campbell Gallery apart from this year’s other sleepy season closers is not the work selected, which is a standard collection of represented artists and friends of the gallery, but rather an unusually confrontational framing within painting’s past and present history. As the curator’s statement explains, New Image Painting offers a “platform from which to critique the prevalence of anemic abstraction and algorithm art, styles that have become almost anonymous in their distancing of authorship and their soulless execution.” This strength of language comes as a surprise from a corner of the art world that is occupied by comfortably established artists, but the conflicts behind New Image Painting are worth getting into.
The past two years have seen the sudden return of painting to the heart of contemporary art’s popular discourse. While most recent painting has drifted toward a formalist abstraction that offers almost nothing to talk or write about, that very emptiness has recently become notable, as the new demand for these young, meaningless abstractions continues to redefine huge segments of the contemporary art market. The term for this art is still being sorted out, but Walter Robinson’s “zombie formalism” seems to have stuck. Lucien Smith, Oscar Murillo, and Parker Ito are often invoked for condemnation, though it must be remembered that even these are the most interesting members of a very large group.
This is, no doubt, the “anemic abstraction and algorithm art” against which stands the brave New Image Painting, itself named after the confrontational exhibition in whose spirit it follows. In 1978, the Whitney Museum of American Art opened New Image Painting, a show intended to historicize a thread of abstract expression—explored most notably by Philip Guston—which used an imaginative play of simple signs or cartoons augmented by the expressive power of paint. Along with ‘Bad’ Painting at the New Museum that same year, the Whitney’s exhibition is remembered for opening a new front in painting’s struggle for a place in postmodern art.
The radicalism of these two exhibitions can only be seen against the polished cool of contemporary art in the late 1970s, when the wildness of painting’s mid-century triumph had settled into a masculine, minimal, and conceptual fixed rhythm. By contrast, the artists in the Whitney’s New Image Painting and the New Museum’s ‘Bad’ Painting risked expression and claimed new territory in the surreal collage of imagery that had come to signify irrelevant painting. The works subverted the precise minimal and conceptual achievements expected from a work of art, refocusing attention instead on the visual fascination paint can offer to unremarkable subjects and implausible images. Many of these artists, like Susan Rothenberg and Julian Schnabel, would continue the practice through to the 21st century, making the Guston-esque play between abstraction and wonky depiction one of the few active threads of serious painting to survive today.
Openly inheriting this tradition, the artists in New Image Painting give an overall impression of light humor and serious use of paint, with simplistic pictures belying a complexity of composition and color. John McAllister’s Might Mingle Lusterlike (2014) smashes an entire color range into a narrow band of hot salmons and lilacs, giving a windowsill still life a psychedelic sheen. Nick Schutzenhofer’s series of untitled paintings from 2014 follow a common motif in the exhibition by relying heavily on line. His works on paper are ostensibly scenes of figures in landscape, though this linework and its all-over wandering discourage the squinting necessary to make out the action. Likewise, William J. Obrien’s drawn marks might warble into hands and faces, but their worth is in their balance, density, and free play.
The majority of the works in New Image Painting require a sense of humor to get past an initial hit of awkwardness, but when subjects are more clearly painted, such as in Henry Taylor’s Where Are my Brothers Keepers (2008) or Sean Landers’ Around the World Alone (Boy Skipper – Dawn) (2011), the jokes tend to fall flat. Mark Grotjan’s Untitled (TBC Flower Face 435) (2000) is an unquestionably lame painting, and Torey Thornton’s You’re In (2014) is worse. The scattered signs and winking un-seriousness of Friedrich Kunath remain as undeveloped as ever, and We Go Back Home to See Who We Were (2014) and A Chord that Cannot Resolve (Lexapro) (2008) both come across as unambitious in design rather than clever or mysterious. Ann Craven’s three nearly identical Bird with Pussy Willow paintings (all 2012) get a better laugh while also hinting at something more.
Highlights of the show include Jonas Wood’s M. S. F. Fish Pot #1 and M. S. F. Fish Pot #2 (both 2014), for their unusual rendering and re-rendering of a flower pot’s picture and pattern, and Tyson Reeder’s Canal St. (2012), which carves a single storefront scene into two different paintings yet deftly balances both. The small, quiet, and excellent figurative paintings by Lilly Ludlow, all untitled and from 2014, are a surprising nod to figuration in early modernism.
I hesitate to praise or complain too much, however. As paintings, the works in New Image Painting are mostly okay, with an acceptable form of badness and, at worst, a level of visual annoyance that definitely won’t confront anyone on anything important. They’re nice paintings that look unusual in a familiar way, but it’s precisely this conventional rebellion that makes me question, or even resent, the way this exhibition is framed by its curators. As works of culture, the paintings in New Image Painting are a little thin—perhaps not as thin as the “zombie abstraction” works by Murillo or Ito, but hardly complex or ambitious in any cultural sense. I’d hate to think that the art world’s newly vocal frustration over vapid abstractions would devolve so quickly into competing aesthetics among blue-chip painters. Yes, we deserve better than rehashed formalism, but ultimately we deserve better than New Image Painting, too.
So while New Image Painting may not change much in the tastes of an art market that prefers its signifiers empty and flexible, the fact remains that the exhibition’s authors—its curators and, presumably, its artists—are taking the problems of the market seriously as a cultural force. That’s a good discussion to have, even in a show that doesn’t do much with it.
New Image Painting is on view at Shane Campbell Gallery through October 4, 2014.