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.