January 18, 2016

The Meme Search

My exhibition at Hionas Gallery this January in NYC tenders the proposition that painting can be thought in sculptural terms and sculpture in painterly terms. I was careful to say that the sculptural pieces in the show only knock on the door politely of the world of sculpture, that I cannot yet wrap myself in the mantle of this medium since I have as yet only produced a small handful examples of it. Indeed, I see the sculptural work in the gallery as a lens to see what I have focused on in my painting. I have in effect exploited what I consider a hither-to forgotten aspect of painting's "pull down menu", painting with the body of paint on par with other well known aspects such as color, line and tonality. Why do I think the embodiment of paint has been forgotten? Together with the spread of the meme of the "death of painting" in the previous era, painting had also subordinated itself to a flattening towards an incorporeal "pure" visuality. You can blame Greenberg. You can blame the conceptual imperative. But it happened nonetheless. It had an immense, if not forlorn, perhaps even a zombie-like impact. I feel that to make art today, one has to push back against this.

I would be less than honest if I didn't admit that I hope that this show could launch a new meme. (After all, temerity is an occupational hazard for an artist.) Every art exhibition is to some extent an argument in proposition. I want to use the aspect of sculpture to illuminate painting and I naturally I want the thought to go viral. The brainstorming is in progress. You can choose a name that appeals to you:

Meat and Mass(prompted by Jaccie Saccoccio's comment in a recent ArtSpace article), Phat Painting, Fleshy Art, Animist Art, Negentropic Art (I touched upon this in a recent blogpost Ps: "My natural ardor for painting doubled down in graduate school when I was informed that painting was dead and to persist with it was folly. So I rebelliously embraced affirmation and sought to evoke the life within paint")...

None so far have rung my bell, so my meme search continues.

When a prominent critic in the NYC art world tentatively suggested on the occasion of a visit to my show that "sculpture is the new painting" (I'm withholding the attribution since he has yet to fully commit to this formulation), I was elated to know that I wasn't alone. Evidently, the idea is floating in the ether. Alternatively, I have seen a couple of pings in social media in a skeptical response to the suggestion that sculpture is the new painting. Fair enough. We should be cautious about meme formation. These people say that this has been done before in the work of artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella. A list like this could be large, but only because its address is not as narrow as the precise spot on which I am trying to focus. Let's take a closer look at these two artists in terms of sculpture illuminating painting, and let's add Robert Ryman to this short list if only just because I want to.

Rauschenberg's famous Combines slewed between painting and sculpture. He was working in the thrall of the new license that gave access to a whole multitude of media that sprang from the transition of modernism to postmodernism. By my formulation, the former tried to touch G-d through material means and the latter flipped the imperative. They instead pointed to everyday life via conceptual means. Sol LeWitt was the first to pluck the fruit of the postmodern tree (pure conceptuality, art as a set of instructions), but Rauschenberg was famously preoccupied with exercising the newfound freedom to romp through the multitude of media that proliferated in his era. Freedom of movement was Rauschenberg's priority. My priority is the lensing of the medium of sculpture onto painting.

Frank Stella wrote a famous book announcing his manifesto about Working Space. He championed pictorial space in order to rejuvenate what he saw (in the mid-80's) as abstraction gone moribund. Personally, I found his idea hard to take to heart. If illusionistic space is the glory of painting -evidently he thought that abstraction had flattened space and brought about a dead end- then making it literal in three dimensional physical space removes it from the special limitations of the two dimensions that gave illusionistic space its charge in the first place. To be sure, I found his current survey at the new Whitney museum to be wonderful and inspiring, but not because of his famous thesis. If Stella attempted to use sculpture as a lens to see painting, one could say that he ground painting into dust in the process. His most recent artwork especially shows that he has emerged completely shorn of painting into the sculptor's realm.

I however, am less enamored with pictorial illusion as the prime definition of painting*. Instead, I settle on two aspects that I think encompass the medium: distinctions drawn and distinctions blurred. Painting can be seen as an outgrowth of drawing. I recall now all of the paintings throughout the ages where one can still see the pencil lines between pools of color. Paintings can begin with drawing or they can result in drawing but finally drawing is inscribed both literally and figuratively in painting. Paint is also liquid. It flows. Paint oozes, floods, drips, streams, pours, dribbles, scumbles, glides across distinctions drawn. Painting is fundamentally marked by the property of fluids. Fluidity is wild. Floods and waves are a form of power. Like the tides, only forces as powerful and present as a moon can master the motion of fluids. Facture is a word that is defined by the quality of paint handling. I am asserting that this quality can be charted by distinctions drawn and blurred.

When I think of Robert Ryman's work, I think of exploded axonometrics. A term common in architectural contexts, the exploded axon is a method of making clear the component parts of a complicated object. Ryman famously made all of the component parts of a painting eligible for aesthetic disposition, from paint-qua-paint on the surface to all of the elements of the support behind, and even to the method of mounting all of this to a wall. Like Stella, Ryman has a survey exhibition up currently in NYC this season, at the DIA Art Foundation, Chelsea. What I see in this show is how Ryman has settled over the years more on paint-qua-paint and less on painting as an exploded axonometric. I am compelled to note parenthetically that for me his axon paintings tend to recall Donald Judd's work and so I wonder about the nature of any cross influences. For the segment of his oeuvre that treats all components of a painting, through the parts of the support, down to the brackets on the wall... there is little of the ooze and flow to these elements that are natural to paint that he has taken the liberty to exploit. All components keep their place in all arrangements: brackets stay on the wall and don't appear to rival or displace the daubs of paint on the surface of his constructions. Supports still support but only support. Every component serves paint-qua-paint and there are no trading places. So it was no surprise to see that he had arrived at what is obviously an overriding concern. The accompanying catalog notes that he considered that the color white encompassed all color, and so his facture stays focused on the one color which for him was all color. The singularity of his ambition is not at all like the duality of lensing that I have mentioned above. Not at all.

I have yet to come up with a list of contemporary artists who are similarly focused on the life and embodiment of painting. Part of the reason is that no one likes to be drafted into a meme crusade, and I don't want to step on toes. There are others out there, to be sure. If the meme grows, it must do so naturally, unforced, animated and lively on its own terms.

* To elaborate, I place pictorial illusion -figuration as well as spatialization- in a continuum with abstraction. I wrote about this here, here,, and here.

Posted by Dennis at January 18, 2016 4:51 PM

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