7 Painters

Ground Floor

Installation view, 7 Painters, Greene Naftali, New York, 2019

Charline von Heyl, A Dauphin Sat Down to Dine on Dust (Alone in a Field of Wheat), 2018 (d)

Installation view, 7 Painters, Greene Naftali, New York, 2019

Painting, Over and Over
by Kari Rittenbach

The artist has to consider how to make society want his work or accept his nonsense as language, communication.
–Kathy Acker, 19841

It has become common—perhaps obligatory—for the art critic to lament the death of painting every three to five years or so, a rate accelerated from that of the same cycle in the latter part of the twentieth century, during those decades in which the post-medium character of contemporary art was theoretically articulated.2 Some recent casualties in New York City include, for example, the Bowery School, which in the immediate post-9/11 years consolidated a cool-machismo-on-canvas that culturally echoed the cowboy terror of Bush II; and later, a guileless “zombie”-formalism, the short-circuited implosion of which has been linked to the investment crisis following the 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers (with a consequentially devastating effect on the US petite bourgeoisie). Certain strategies and effects seem to return with each of painting’s presumed revivals, including those Rosalind Krauss noted twenty years ago in relation to the specific failure of modernist abstraction—its substitution of idealism for pure autonomy achieved through essences, that is, materials, deliberate marks, and demonstrations of individual genius:

"The paradox was that this autonomy had proved chimerical, and that abstract art’s very modes of production—its paintings being executed in serial runs, for example—seemed to carry the imprint of the industrially produced commodity object, internalizing within the field of the work its own status as interchangeable and thus as pure exchange value.”3

By now, painting’s unresolved inner conflict with its potential status as pure exchange value, and not only the contingencies of its “defunct” medium—in tension with the latest technologies of the light-based digital image (having since replaced the photograph as a primary foil)— determines the self-reflexivity, or indeed criticality, of any work summoning the discipline’s historical mantle. Yet plenty of what presently appears as “painting” fails to make this claim; instead performing as ideal post-conceptual content for viral dissemination through stacked social-media streams, exclusively accessed from a slew of keyed-in, bezel-free screens, and cultivating an appropriated aura that owes as much to filters, fluorescent lighting, and liquid crystal display as any actual artistry. Such are the new, flattened conditions of exhibition, in the broadest sense, where “painting” manifests spectacularly out-of-scale—in hand—in parallel with, if not consumed by, digital images seductively generated by special interest and alternative information feeds, by too-intimate strangers, disaffected peers, and global conglomerates catfishing as mutual friends. Beyond the ideology of the white cube: the heterotopia of Instagram.

Installation view, 7 Painters, Greene Naftali, New York, 2019

If once exerted counter to language, the “dumb” physical and emotional dimensions of the painterly gesture—its visual attributes—presumably enhanced in high-resolution, are instead badly translated (denuded) into fleeting clusters of brilliant pixels, as swiftly admired as forgotten. For complex as well as quiet surfaces, the rate of exchange is poor. This contemporary coding of the visual by the virtual also effects a new idiom; the relation is neither that of modernist repression, nor does it urge a postmodern eruption of discourse.4 Instead there is mutual distrust between the mark and its assigned meaning, which circulate inextricably yet independently from a support, or any “inherent qualities.”5

Consider the current fashion for literalism, tacked-on via long-form accessible disclaimer— [Image Description: A cat naps in a box of kumquats.]—which amounts to glib objectification; suppressing any ambiguity in the image through dispassionate naming, and refuting the power of the non-linguistic under the banner of brute equivalence.6 These flat and feckless terms have since entered contemporary art, too, yielding technically correct statements on canvases and installations in releases that read rather like legal waivers, expunging liability from any and every flash of color. The feature article on a promising painter published in a major art magazine does not elaborate process or materials, but itemizes an exemplary image as artificial intelligence might—“a curtseying young girl dressed as Snow White from the 1937 Disney cartoon . . . her head is slightly bowed . . . her furrowed brow seems to suggest worry…”7—as if depth and composition, or its lack, were superfluous to the picture. This defensible, dematerialized reading of the canvas (or panel? Or paper?) takes its subject strictly at surface value in a misapprehension of Krauss’s essential characteristics, and in a manner parodied by Kathy Acker more than three decades ago: “A woman who looks like a skull is eating soup. The spoon she’s holding faces downward to a wooden bowl as if she’s so gaga she can’t quite manage to hold it.”8 Despite the proliferation of devices and the interminable demand for “views,” looking— and the range of possible perspectives it implies (askance, analytical, desiring)—remains a woefully under-examined human quality. How do we exploit it?

Installation view, 7 Painters, Greene Naftali, New York, 2019

Michaela Eichwald, Untitled, 2019 (b)

Illusionism, or seeing what isn’t there, has always been a trick of painting, from the velvet curtain to the receding horizon, the false drop shadow or concrete rendering of the Albertinian “window.”a Though realism’s themes have slid from muddied nineteenth-century earthbound forms to economically linked logistics entities,b its exercise still partially relies on thick piles of pigment. The binary division between abstraction and figuration—perhaps the greatest narrative of American art in the twentieth century, rivaling the rift between 0 and 1—no longer applies when boundaries between media but also between disciplines, between art and its other (kitsch), erode under the uninspired, calculating machinic gaze. After these terms, how should a painting be seen: as pigment applied selectively to the mild undulations of a well prepared surface?c Or: quasi-heraldic emblems traced through pointed confetti and questionably tendered coin, all commingling in a studiously anxious flaxen swirl?d If— independently from art, or film, or theater, or fiction—the subject’s psychic and bodily integrity are currently under siege by neoliberal capitalism, how can painting productively reassert a demented “language” against the temptation to merely receive the monolithic label as such, and move on? Any critical practice of painting today seeks first of all to engage a living audience (the lone viewer preferable to a thousand noncommittal “likes”), and second, to instrumentalize the medium itself as a convention—a set of tools—rather than produce any finished “representative” picture. Taken together, this amounts to a preemption of failure, and an admission that our worldview is only ever partial, fragmented, and hardly informatic.9 The modernist ambition to finally demystify the mechanics of painting has since proven specious, merely episodic.

Installation view, 7 Painters, Greene Naftali, New York, 2019

Nicole Eisenman, Witch Head, 2018 (c)

Nicole Eisenman, Witch Head, 2018 (c)

Nicole Eisenman, Witch Head, 2018 (c)

Nicole Eisenman, Witch Head, 2018 (c)

The most fundamental questions of the last decade, then, have been whether painting in fact risks unmediated perusal, if not analysis; and strangely enough, whether its “image” in fact commands, or in some way orders, three-dimensional space.10 What more can it reflexively congeal? Against the technocratic regime of vision, of total penetration and deterministic modeling, critical painting today circulates poorly, traffics in the dirty materiality of the real, somehow exposes its author/subject, and remains haunted by history. It proposes a surface— well-wrought and worked-up, or meticulously sanded-down—that in any case has the effect, whether all at once, or rather slowly, yet surely, of throwing the viewer back onto her own body. The visceral impact of such painting—the chalky color brushed deliberately over raw canvas and sealed in a tightly tiled pattern;e the almost imperceptible impressions in thick oil pressed through a phantom gridded stencil;f the greenish gray-black smear buffered aimlessly across a lacquered metal panel in taxi-cab yellowg—encourages substantive reading, perhaps more so when it explicitly resists figuration. Renato Poggioli has described the turn away from imitation as a kind of “deformative representation”—a poetic opposition to the merely nonrepresentational.11 The acute awareness of form and facture implied here is viewing rendered sensate, not necessarily sensational; it is an abstraction that points toward materiality in the same way a sudden injury makes one hyperconscious of moving through the most banal urban spaces, painfully susceptible to unexpected ruts and bumps.

Laura Owens, Untitled, 2019 (a)

Chris Ofili, Juicings, 2018 (e)

Laura Owens, Untitled, 2019 (a)

Chris Ofili, Juicings, 2018 (e)

Put more precisely, the decayed contemporary viewing apparatus described above indicates the general condition of context collapse, a direct effect of advanced digital telecommunications and the troubling destabilization of both space (here) and time (now). This predicament amounts to the allegorical removal of the frame, without which formal correspondences are made relative, and less easily perceived. It also reflects—in reverse—the very emergence of semiotics as Meyer Schapiro speculated to have occurred in the Bronze Age:

"It might have come about through the use of these artifacts [polished tools] as sign bearing objects. The inventive imagination recognized their value as grounds, and in time gave to pictures and writing on smoothed and symmetrical supports a corresponding regularity of direction, spacing and grouping, in harmony with the form of the object . . . Through the closure and smoothness of the prepared picture surface . . . the image acquired a definite space of its own, in contrast to the prehistoric wall paintings and reliefs; these had to compete with the noise-like accidents and irregularities of a ground which was no less articulated than the sign and could intrude upon it.”12

Lately, as art has assimilated almost every genre and technique, painting can certainly be understood as a somewhat coherent approach—one freed, through mediation (reproduction in this catalogue, and elsewhere, online), from the ground of academic discourse, if not the exhibition gallery, while remaining legible in its unconventional medium-specificity; and unremitting demands on both time and space. Its lack of immediate relevance to the transcendent, dematerialized situation of the twenty-first century has ensured its quiet survival as a precise socio-cultural symbolic form.13 A bearer of meaning or memory, a gessoed surface upon which layers of color are washed, loaded, scratched away, poured: collected, over and over.

Albert Oehlen, Untitled, 2019 (g)

And Over

We might now consider the death-cycle of painting first alluded to as inevitable, recognizing in its expiration an inherent and vital feedback system. Individual paintings may be destroyed, deaccessioned, or abandoned as concern periodically wanes. Yet if this perpetual recurrence can be seen as tracing a loop, then painting’s relation to advanced technology may also be re-construed via temporal and not only retinal vectors. Digital production in sound and film at the end of the twentieth century often made allegorical use of the loop’s aesthetics to appreciate the end of progress and modernist linearity, for example, in the “natural tendency of techno to aim . . . at a kind of hypnotic permanence that drowns bodies and minds in the same flux of perception and sensation.”14

If the loop confers on the rave “the character of eternity,” we can imagine a concise synthetic theme gradually expanding through repetition and perhaps, the aid of psychotropic drugs. Yet this infinite development—in fact, a deferral of ends—is also what T. J. Clark recognized as a key attribute of American painting after 1945: “Vulgarity . . . turned out to be a way of keeping the corpse of painting hideously alive.”15 Why assume there is beauty in eternity? The endlessness of the present argues otherwise.

For Clark, the earnest “lyric” of Abstract Expressionist painting is both its worst (embarrassing, unserious, most obscene) and best quality, namely when “it grasps most fully the conditions of representation—the technical and social conditions—of its historical moment.”16 Yet these “conditions of representation” have little to do with personal identity (even acknowledging the white, male, mostly Protestant demographic uniformity of the feted AbEx artists) and they mean even less to reflect an idealized audience or perfect subject. (Poggioli’s “deformative representation” is again instructive here.) Nevertheless today, “conditions of representation” might refer to the problem of the invented image under the condition of total context collapse: paranoia, alienation, the degradation of postwar international diplomacy, and actually-existing social relations. Press Start to Continue in 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . Game Over.

Jacqueline Humphries, ☁️ ), 2019 (f)

Seven, Plus or Minus Two

Of particular concern here are the seven paintings and single sculpture assembled in the ground floor gallery of Greene Naftali, New York during the summer of 2019. Seven is an auspicious number: one more than a half-dozen, certainly odd, the largest single-digit prime integer (i.e., indivisible). It designates a group small enough to only be separated into two unequal portions. In a scientific paper published in 1956, psychologist George Miller argued that the short-term memory can, on average, process seven different items of information, a now commonly understood “data-rate limit” for human cognition, often exploited in commercially driven user-experience (interface) design.17 That study perhaps reinforces the mythic coincidence of the sum from ancient times and across cultures, especially when serving as a mnemonic device: seven sages, seven days of the week, seven deadly sins, seven seas, Seven Samurai, seven lost cities of gold. Even the seven-year span concentrated in the anti history painting, L'Atelier du peintre. Allégorie réelle déterminant une phase de sept années de ma vie artistique et morale, 1855, which proposed a self-reflexive “window” onto Gustave Courbet’s “artistic and moral life,” was seen by the jurists of the Salon of 1855 (who summarily rejected it) as having already “had a disastrous effect on French art.”18 Seven is enough to have been too much; yet in this case, the effect on the world—on art—is all the more significant for originating from the painting atelier.

The frank title of the exhibition Seven Painters parodies the trend for uncontestable categorical statements in art, politics, and real life, while the installation of selected (synthetic) canvases, plaster busts and/or Alubond panels insinuates painting’s endgame—extensively outlined above—in the present. Born between 1954 and 1970, the artists Albert Oehlen, Jacqueline Humphries, Charline von Heyl, Nicole Eisenman, Michaela Eichwald, Chris Ofili, and Laura Owens share as many differences as they do chance commonalities, and furthermore form no singular, stable group. Each is represented here by at most two works, emblematic of a particular painterly approach but by no means definitive for any. Where an emphasis on tactility may be evident, so too a brutal play on figuration, a jolt of color, and a boldly suggested—later effaced—trace or outline may be compared or contrasted in physical proximity, a respectful side-by-side. The emergence of this particular cohort prior to and through the 1990s, as personal computing and its imaging technologies proliferated, does qualify the method of masking and surface layering to which each is strikingly attuned—having produced some of the earliest artworks responding (and not succumbing) to coded graphic effects, and having incorporated notions of “digital layering” into apparently conventional (both labored and printed) compositions. At the same time, whether in Cologne, New York, Los Angeles, or London, the artistic contexts in which these seven painters emerged were particularly social, even diabolically so; and the performative action of painting at that time established a loose network of sympathetic relations comprising a small, symbolically and discursively interactive world. The highly developed aesthetic language in this critical lexicon is expressed in multiple tongues also receptive to change over time—as a function of the role painting “is called upon to fulfil in the society which uses it."19

To constellate an analogous group of younger painters—infected by a precarious new economy, omnipresent digital media, and an expressionistically restricted new idiom—would yield an exhibition as informed by these seven as by punk rock, gothic horror, Nickelodeon, and self-exploitation, but infinitely more wary of painting’s semantic drift. Without waxing nostalgic for another era, nor expecting painting to achieve certain “pure” objectives, the group of seven whose marks are translated here still tend to methodically push the medium—towards “nonsense,” towards sensuousness, and indeed, certain death—all the while re-imagining and delicately reformulating our view onto this chaotic historical moment.

Installation view, 7 Painters, Greene Naftali, New York, 2019

1 Kathy Acker, “Realism for the Cause of Future Revolution,” in Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, ed. Brian Wallis (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), 34.

2 “The specific mediums—painting, sculpture, drawing—had vested their claims to purity in being autonomous, which is to say that in their declaration of being about nothing but their own essence, they were necessarily disengaged from everything outside their frames.” Rosalind Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999), 11.

3 Rosalind Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea, 11. Although seeking to expand Greenberg’s definition of medium in relation to the work of Marcel Broodthaers, Krauss’s statement also supports an expanded notion of painting. Consequently, the canon itself is endlessly subject to re-interpretation and re-appropriation, today. The painter Amy Sillman has opined: “[AbEx] detractors would have it that the whole kit and caboodle is nothing but bad politics steel-welded around a chassis of machismo—that the paint stroke, the very use of the arm, is equivalent to a phallic spurt.” See Sillman, “Ab-Ex and Disco Balls: In Defense of Abstract Expressionism II,” Artforum 49, no. 10 (Summer 2011): 321.

4 See Craig Owens, “Earthwords,” in Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture, eds. Scott Bryson, Barbara Kruger, Lynne Tillman, and Jane Weinstock (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 45. Unlike the spatial and discursive displacements of postmodernism, code can be understood to “fix” or determine set relationships.

5 “Once the medium can no longer be delimited, then no qualities can be inherent to it.” Isabelle Graw, “The Value of Painting: Notes on Unspecificity, Indexicality, and Highly Valuable Quasi-Persons,” in Thinking through Painting: Reflexivity and Agency Beyond the Canvas (Berlin: Sterberg Press, 2012), 48. This characterization, which Graw conflates with a painting’s vitality, or quasi personhood, also brings to mind Robert Musil’s mathematician, Ulrich: “He is gifted, strong-willed, open-minded, fearless, tenacious, dashing, circumspect—why quibble, suppose we grant him all those qualities—yet he has none of them! They have made him what he is, they have set his course for him, and yet they don't belong to him.” Musil, The Man without Qualities, trans. Sophie Wilkins, ed. Burton Pike (New York: Knopf, 1995), 63.

6 “[W]hat that . . . may be / Thou shalt behold, so here 'tis not narrated.” Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Inferno [1320], trans. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow [1867], ed. Dennis McCarthy, Canto XIV, 4–6 (New York: Columbia Institute for Learning Technologies, 1997), www.gutenberg.org/files/1001/1001-h/1001-h.htm.

7 Andrew Durbin, “What’s Keeping Us Here?,” Frieze 203 (May 2019): 156.

8 Acker, “Realism for the Cause of Future Revolution,” 34. On Francisco Goya’s Two Old People Eating Soup (Witch and Wizard) (Dos Brujos), 1820–1823.

9 “Because it seems the image is happiest when it learns to transform its own collapsings into a new way of dancing or seeing. . . . [It] is a question of dislocating painting’s means from its ends, its gestures from any efficient or programmatic result.” John Kelsey, “Big Joy Time,” in Rich Texts: Selected Writing for Art (Berlin: Sternberg Press), 40–41.

10 In particular, the noted conundrum of painting “beside itself.”

11 Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Gerald Fitzgerald (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), 179. See especially the chapter “Aesthetics and Poetics,” 174–208.

12 Meyer Schapiro, “On Some Problems in the Semiotics of Visual Art: Field and Vehicle in Image-Signs,” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, 6, no. 1 (1972–1973): 9.

13 “The act of painting, as a historic form of production, may indeed be obsolete in a culture overflowing with media imagery, but painting as such continues to play a leading role in determining how we experience and think about art at all, irrespective of whether we reject or admire contemporary painting.” Helmut Draxler, “Painting as Apparatus: Twelve Theses,” Texte zur Kunst 77 (March 2010): 109.

14 Jean-Yves Leloup, “Digital Magma: From the Utopia of Rave Parties to the iPod Generation,” trans. Paul Buck and Catherine Petit (New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2010), 76.

15 T. J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 390.

16 “By ‘lyric’ . . . I mean those metaphors of agency, mastery, and self-centeredness that enforce our acceptance of the work as the expression of a single subject.” Clark, Farewell to an Idea, 401

17 George Miller, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information,” Psychological Review 101, no. 2 (March 1956): 81–97.

18 Gustave Courbet, Letter to Champfleury, January 1855, quoted in Margaret Armbrust Seibert, “A Political and a Pictorial Tradition Used in Gustave Courbet's Real Allegory,” The Art Bulletin, 65, no. 2 (June 1983): 311. 19 John Lyons, Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 43.

19 John Lyons, Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 43.



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