New Mirrors surveyed the state of current painting through the work of seven New York-based artists. In particular, this exhibition positioned painting as a way of thinking about perception in the age of digitization, information and instantaneity.
Painting continues to re-invent itself with each new movement, each technological advance that threatens its existence. The history of this ancient language in the West, like the history of wars, is one of innovations trumping obsolete technologies and strategies; therefore, it is a narrative marked by small deaths that clear the way for “the new.” The artists in this show engaged in what painter Benin Ford refered to as a “critical recovery” of past methodologies and techniques, revisiting certain failures, triumphs and lost moments in painting’s history.
Ever since the advent of photography, it has become necessary to look at how painters are animating their practices in the information age – an environment that seems particularly untenable for painting. But rather than lingering over aspects of the current cultural moment that might limit painting’s impact—the speed of information, social networking, digitization, out-sourcing, reproduction technologies and dematerialization—many young artists today concern themselves with theoretical inquiries into the logistics of painting: images, symbols, gestures, colors, materiality and texture. While considering the possibilities of these lingering issues, they also think about how new technologies and social dynamics influence perception of the visual field. The artists in this exhibition did this with an eye towards innovation – dragging the corpse of painting to the limits of legibility with processes that mirrored a philosopher’s probing, discursive thinking.
Curated by Associate Curator Herb Tam.
Kadar Brock, Jesse Chapman, Mira Dancy, Benin Ford, Alison Fox, Julia San Martin, Andy Piedilato
For Kadar Brock, painting is an imperfect machine that repeats accidents. His towering, totem-like paintings are filled with a diamond motif that looks vaguely primitive, but is actually formed from a mirrored sideways checkmark. In different works, this pattern disappears and deforms the space of the paintings. His totems remind me of painting’s role in rituals, and that in religious contexts, they can be a bridge from the material world to transcendence. Brock’s work acknowledges hope for painting’s transformative purpose while also bluntly testing the day-to-day logistics of the painting process. They project an ultimate reality outside of the physical world. And staring up at their patterns, or having them impose themselves on my physical space, forces me to think into infinity past the limits of references and standards into a world without them or anything else.
Jesse Chapman’s works seem to be built from the scraps of forgotten models of painting. Cross-hatching and other devices simultaneously formulate and conceal images. His paintings recall and re-invent an enigmatic reality, a space in which we only see fragments of narratives. Like the minute details that constantly repeat in the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Chapman’s obsessive investigation of sound holes, beds, faces, oars and other disparate things causes their abstraction and envelops them in a mystifying tension. His forms are painted into being. They exist within the mechanics of painting, quietly challenging the conditions of their own construction. Under constant scrutiny of Chapman’s process, his subjects lose shape and transform into figures that allow us to see a painted comprehension of his world.
Consolidating various streams of consciousness, Mira Dancy infuses the gesture, subjects and conventions of painting with her own abstract graffiti. Her process involves questions about how painting might emerge from what is visible and what is conceivable. In pictures that can be called neither abstract nor figurative, Dancy exposes the mechanics of how a painting is generated. Forms disguised as language stand in for traces of thought. The resulting paintings are tenuous images that challenge the line between tackiness and sophistication, undercutting any idea of quality. What remains is a line of thinking manifested as an image. Dancy’s paintings may be seen as activations of ideas that are fixed in language. She writes:
While paintings as objects possibly attest to the susceptibility of the human psyche to fixate on particular things (an inclination to subject oneself to a total saturation of inertia), the act of painting is involved in the simplest sort of unhinging of ideas from their fixity. Painting is a means of action – of shaking off inertia.
As television becomes a reminder of a more passive experience of media, struggling to keep the viewership it had long ago taken for granted, we may begin to finally come to terms with the images it has burned into our collective unconscious. Benin Ford commits painting to consider the construction of images of African-Americans on TV, the forum on which America’s struggle with racial inequality has played out. In 1991, the beating that Rodney King absorbed from the LAPD was telecast on TV, setting off international fury, and later, riots that enveloped South Central Los Angeles. Ford, however, resists these more incendiary events, and paints stills of well-known TV programs like Roots and Good Times in order to test these images’ ability (and painting’s) to convey black identity in a fictional space. He turns photorealism’s deliberate, unemotive rendering of a picture into a photorealism that questions how we see ourselves and how that correlates to the way in which we are depicted.
Alison Fox rescues discarded and forgotten fabrics – dying, staining and dripping them with paint and ink to nurture a surface that in the end seems more found than made, more encouraged than punished. Her paintings are restored into existence by a series of treatments, and they prompt thinking about ethical painting practices that incorporate recycling and healing with an ease that verges on nonchalance. Fox’s work evolves like film photography as images and accidents emerge in baths of chemicals. Painting processes that require control and aggression are dismissed for the idea of a liberated painting, one allowed to be come into the world under its own conditions.
Painting as architecture. Architecture as film. Its flat, mirrored surfaces project the life around it. If painting occupies any place in this equation, it would be in the cracks and crevices of visuality. Andy Piedilato’s work shows the structure of the visual world in disrepair. In flurries of activity on monumental canvases, he paints brick walls, horses, rakes, and other seemingly unrelated material crashing into each other. The walls he paints are destroyed and rebuilt, exposing the logic that much expressive painting is equal to the cycle of urban planning. A painting is haphazardly built up like some new factory city in China, poorly planned with its own careless reason, and in its wake is the rubble of a dignified culture. Forms are annihilated to make room for the new, which is always temporary and therefore built for obsolescence.
Julia San Martin
Julia San Martin’s anonymous landscapes force themselves into the unclaimed space between us and them. Space is the subject as San Martin draws out the psychic charge of empty, featureless fields with high horizon lines and a murky, dark palette. Her work relates to geography’s study of land structures, but instead of dealing with the physical world, San Martin maps the deep recesses of the inner-mind as it exists in the claustrophobia, danger and grit of a crowded city. These urban geologic conditions play out in her process, through which current and timeless moments share space – a consolidation of time that can also be found in the trashy funk that stews on the subway tracks. San Martin paints the voids in our collective field of vision with a viscerality that seems unearthed from below street level.
Painting in a Transparent World
by Herb Tam
Bit by bit our world is being revealed to us; dismantling the walls of isolation, we see a new kind of mirror. As usual, architecture tells the story. Look around at the new buildings forging your slick, angular metropolis. On these buildings, you can see through to the middle-class luxuries that most aspire to, melding with the sky above and the drug store below. Architecture, though, is only a metaphor for what its drywalls cannot contain: a determined will towards transparency.
Transparency is a state of being that is articulated in the possibilities of the digital, allowing us to dematerialize information and distribute ourselves over the vast field of the internet to become broadcasters of our updated, shifting identity. This is the new mirror of transparency, one in which we are constantly exposed to each other and to our own image. This field expands limitlessly through collective authorship, becoming a place of possibility for the suspension of standards, authenticity, logic, creativity, time and space. It is a community of oppositions just like our great metropolis.
It is here that painting finally dismisses rumors of its irrelevance and becomes a part of an ideology of transparency, an ideology that requires the logistics of painting to be exposed. Painting has embraced transparency, looking out at the world we live in and looking in at what painting fundamentally is to this world. Thus the logistics of painting (its images, symbols, gestures, colors, materiality and texture) are being exposed for what they are and what they can do within a field of visuality that suspends the hierarchies of our hard-earned standards, authenticity, logic and creativity. Artists do this while consciously or subconsciously reflecting on painting’s past, its high points and lost moments.
At each peak in the advance of technology, painting records its effects on how we see. Painting is a live forum in which perception is constantly scrutinized. For example, take the dramatic effect of photography on painting. The impressionists and post-impressionists working in the latter half of the 19th century took painting to the streets and fields to capture the fleeting nature of light, picking up on the science behind the new technological wonder of photography. They painted with unblended splotches of color that together formed an image of a cathedral or the lounging middle-class in a riverside park. These were the snapshots of their time, capturing and elevating the banal. These artists internalized the tiny pixels that made up a photograph and assigned them to the task of painting. And, relieved of its task to record reality, painting began its task of mourning (as articulated by art historian Yve-Alain Bois). In other words, painting began to obsess about materializing its own end as it was being liberated by photography from depicting reality. Cubism and a turn towards abstraction (which had existed for centuries in the arts and crafts of African, Asian, Persian and South American cultures) soon followed in painting. Works like Alexander Rodchenko’s monochrome triptychs or the black canvases of Ad Reinhardt began to literally visualize what the end of painting might look like.
But purity has long given way to the dystopia of a polluted present. And through it all, painting remains a way to think outside of language about the nature and conditions of our visual experience. It is at once about the possibilities and limits of that experience. Painting proceeds now in a field of transparency, arbitrating between standards of good and bad, right and wrong, beauty and vulgarity, abstract and figurative, etc. The artists in this show take positions between these polarities as starting points for revealing what painting can be in a transparent world.