The premise seems simple: A painter’s painter curates an exhibition comprising one work each from 118 painters. The breadth of the offering covers the full gamut of the medium and, as a result, creates a beautiful crisis for the genre of painting—and that’s because there isn’t a lick of paint in the most painterly concerned of painting shows.
For (detail), artist–curator Andrew Bracey asked each of the artists to contribute a detail of one of their works, to be enlarged and exhibited in a montage of photographic detail. The show could be seen as a virtual offering that feels familiar, in which images occur one after the other with a curatorial rhythm. Visually, it’s perfectly realized—the images play off of each other without any one image dominating, because to emphasize individual moments that pop or come together would work against what’s actually being presented. The irony of this situation is that it’s exactly the kind of show that has been painfully needed for a long time, but now that it’s arrived, it’s hard to know what to do with it.
For Transition Gallery, the show presents a modernist exhibition with each of the works offered as a 68.5-centimeter (27-inch) square, scaled to neatly fit the white-cube gallery. Usually, a detail will offer insight or a clearer understanding of its subject. This show offers no such aid. By design, the individual pieces cannot provide any real insight into their respective source work, as they are detached from the very subject they purport to examine. This is strictly detail about detail. Conceptually, it pushes well beyond Peter Halley’s argument of a thing being so hyper-modern that it becomes postmodern. One is left to wonder: Is this a meta-painting show—a show so much about painting that it no longer can be about painting?
Consider a conceptual parallel in painting’s history from twenty years ago: San Francisco’s “Mission School” moment, when well-educated art-school kids rejected the institution and copied an aesthetic that seemed more genuine in its unschooled gestures of folk art and graffiti. This established a shifting point where the source was still present but the facsimile itself became a standard and its own measure of authenticity. When this happens, it embodies Heidegger’s device of sous rature—a thing that is no longer needed yet the facsimile would be incomplete without it. The early artists of the Mission School were chasing after a romanticized and impossible ideal. Once their aesthetic was pigeonholed in the art world, their facsimile became a new standard—its own thing unto itself—and hence, a source that other artists then imitated. The source and the facsimile each create new, separate-but-linked identities for each other.
For (detail), the whole framework of what constitutes a painting show is questioned in a sous rature moment: The facsimile in each square panel has become its own standard, and the artwork to be considered can no longer be viewed solely as painting. If this is correct, it’s highly disturbing. Surely the history of painting is greater than the sum of it material parts. Could it be that the construct of painting is so confined that it cannot transcend its medium? The answer–shockingly–is yes it can’t. What Bracey positions with (detail) is to offer a painting show so obsessed with the specifics of painting that it attempts to expand the medium beyond its normally pedantic, prescriptive framework. What the viewer is then left with is the question of what to do with a facsimile of painting that needs to be considered on its own terms.
(detail) is on view at Transition Gallery through October 12, 2014.