The State of Painting

Steve Mumford's watercolors from Iraq are, paradoxically, the most topical and the most stylistically out of sync works in the show, which might explain their placement on the walls of the hallway near the staff offices. An impressive corridor of images that Winslow Homer or John Singer Sergeant could have painted shows us details from our occupation of Iraq.

Part IV of "Greater New York' in Five Parts

The show starts off with Cheyney Thompson’s life-sized painting of a New York magazine kiosk next to the ticket booth. The too-many periodicals, bad news in every sense, lie around under the fashion mags, skin mags, and porn mags pinned up in condescending order. The snackies brightly frame the absent vendor. Plain old bottled water and Spanish-language papers hide near the bottom, where the realistic ground meets the real one and you realize, taking off your jacket and putting on your little white sticker, that you are in for some art.

Painting has been both dead and back for a little while now, and Greater New York is no exception. Painting hangs out with harsh videos, miniature amusement park rides, and big photos of failed politicians. When the artists resort to painting, they seem in particular to need its elevated discourse, its easy combinations of recognized languages, or, above all, its inherent stillness. Many of the paintings seem simply to wish not to keep going, which, if they were sentences or pop songs, would be expected of them. As it is, they can get away with a pose. Their audience, however, is less still and moves swiftly toward the café.

The wall paintings in the show seem to be the most in on the joke. Both Gardar Einarsson and Matthew Brannon provided the walls at PS1 with mute black shapes. Einarsson’s TOTAL REVOLUTION grafitto, hand-painted in a drippy Halloween font, is the most giddily cynical piece of painting in the show and matches, in its extreme reserve, Brannon’s tall and sleek silhouettes of knives, arranged mainly to illustrate their own cutting title, The Never that Goes on Forever. Both artists’ pieces are meticulous, surgically cleaving their ironic lessers with …irony.

If Kristin Baker’s paintings are less sharp, they are similarly airtight. A technique whereby transparent shards of paint are compiled to resemble flying shards of metal has been taken as far as it will go: car crashes. To be sure, these pictures possess an impressively resolved and mysterious surface, but there isn’t enough there, even with the smoky transparencies and well-paced arrangements, for the paintings to bear the weight of their own convoluted titles. Dan Kopp’s dark and airy fantasy paintings similarly depend on a resolved surface, and the cycle repeats: you are seduced and impressed by the resolution, then disappointed when you imagine what has been excluded, then bothered by the system and its pretensions. With Kopp and Baker, one hopes the technical competence and knack for setting a seductive mood will give them the confidence to tell riskier stories in future pictures.

As for the many other painters who aspire to a kind of unassailable veneer of painted attitude (wallpapery explosions, creamy computers, and lots of stripes), one hopes they liven things up in the future with some failure, which might shake the art scene out of the manipulative notion that a perfect style descends upon young painters from heaven, along with their MFAs, in their impressionable twenties. Ena Swansea, who has been showing around New York since the ‘80s, serves as a counterexample in this regard, having slowly built up a language that is sturdy and flexible and doesn’t ever feel like a trick. Her devilish track runner spins around the center of the painting in such a strange way that you wonder, What is it, and what in the hell is it doing? I returned to it several times, thinking its gray torsion might reveal its meaning to me. No such luck. Yet I kept wanting to look at it, so it won me over.

Into the Woods

Despite its urban title, Greater New York is full of forests. Benjamin Butler has a minty picture of a clump of trees; Anna Conway a nicely composed image of men prostrate and drinking from a tree-bound geometric reservoir. Chie Fueki painted a kind of deer in the cosmic headlights with her trademark constellations of miniscule dots, and Dominic McGill’s winding paper mural ends up in the woods, where we might encounter meticulously rendered wood-panel cabins or armed bands of hyper detailed werewolves. These pictures are flanked by sculptures of rotted logs with disco lights, gigantic upside-down mushrooms, and tepees on the beach. Add to this a Brancusi and the beanstalk, sundry rickety retro vehicles, and four flying suitcases, and one theme of the show becomes a kind of woodsy, psychedelic escapism. Instead of taking bitter medicine in the wake of 9-11, people appear to have taken shrooms.

With their brightly mixed feelings, Dana Schutz’s two paintings seem prepared to confront the situation. The wall-sized Presentation shows a jerry-rigged surgical procedure in the woods: an enormous and contorted patient is poised over a hole in the ground flanked by weeds. A crowd of onlookers in seasick colors hovers above. Are they curious? The horizon line is very high, and the earth seems imminent. Pastel bright, this woeful scene.

Presentation has been compared to similarly themed paintings by Rembrandt and Ensor, which speaks to Schutz’s stature at the moment and to a shared subject matter, but misses the important characteristics that distinguish her paintings: the blank stares, her particular light, the absence of anatomical fact. Schutz always gives us a kind of psychological body, a neurotic body. When her patient is cut open, you do not see a liver, or glistening muscles, but instead more medium-thick paint in summarizing swoops. The onlookers are not happy, but it would be hard to name their emotions. Lost, maybe, or just blank. They are neither Rembrandt’s doctors, enraptured in a moment of glowing recognition, nor Ensor’s weirdoes, performing some bizarre ritual in precise costumes. Schutz’s crowd just floats and stares. Are they medicated?

A second, much smaller painting called Poisoned Man offers some clues. It is, you realize from the title, a portrait of Victor Yuschenko. It doesn’t look very much like him. He looks more like the other characters she paints: chunky, anti-heroic, beady-eyed. One can’t help but wonder, did this man survive nearly fatal amounts of dioxins while leading Ukraine to democracy only to wind up immortalized in a portrait that renders him a neurotic American?

As her fame attests, Schutz’s thick paint solidly hits certain aspects of our shared life. Her people binge and cringe, they look dazed, they slouch, and they hope, in their stupor, that the amputation helps. Although distinct, they look like each other in their mass-produced plastic hues. And it’s fair, we think, to stereotype them—they’ve done it to themselves, after all. But Schutz’s style of painting is itself in danger of descending into stereotype. The paint sometimes moves without questioning and loses its life. The palettecan look self-justifying, rather than evocative or just right. One occasionallywants Schutz to slow down, to paint less and repaint more. At that point, something like what happened in Ukraine might really enter the reach of her expressive powers, rather than being included by her style alone.

Painting the State

The single most important event since Greater New York 2000 was, of course, 9-11. It is therefore confounding that “Optimism and Optionism,” the title of the essay from the 2000 catalogue, could just as well describe the art in 2005. You would not know from the paintings that the city had suffered as it has. Nate Lowman’s Paper Airplane, a painting of a $20 bill folded to look like buildings in flames, is the only picture of the towers. While it does make us notice our response to the attacks, its strategy is too remote to constitute a view of post 9-11 New York. It might have done better accompanied by other topical pictures, but these were extremely scarce. It is impossible to say whether this is a curatorial or artistic lapse; or whether nobody has digested our situation fully enough to make something both direct and worth showing. In any case, it seems important to note this general absence while approaching the few paintings that do somehow encircle the event.

Jules de Balincourt maps our ignorance by painting the US upside down, with our brightly colored states sneakily out of place. Next to it, a small painting projects a red-white-and-blue United We Stood. The crisscrossing searchlights and the shift of tense cast us back into the days immediately following 9-11, when propaganda replaced our real camaraderie. The picture wants badly to be a t-shirt. As a whole, Balincourt’s painting
s are very witty and charming, very conversational and very versed, but their studied primitivism sometimes stiffens them into something posed. When he resembles Ed Ruscha and American folk painting, one wishes he would take from them a little less and take them on a little more. When he starts to resemble Breughel, the reverse is true.

Steve Mumford’s watercolors from Iraq are, paradoxically, the most topical and the most stylistically out of synch works in the show, which might explain their placement on the walls of the third-floor hallway, near the staff offices. An impressive corridor of images that Winslow Homer or John Singer Sergeant could have painted shows us details from our occupation of Iraq. A building’s layers of architecture scarred by fighting, soldiers with camcorders videotaping the Miller Lite Catfight Girls, intimate moments before and after skirmishes on patrol. Informative stickers provide captions for the events, and while it gets called a journal, it is really journalism of the public variety. Although the captions are clearly written in his voice, we don’t learn Mumford’s private thoughts, and the pictures conscientiously aim for description over expression. Some of them have in fact been painted from photos he took, and all of them possess the cropping and delivery of detail to which photography has accustomed us. The most efficient way to describe these pictures would be as painted photojournalism, which raises a question: Why paint them?

Photography is faster and more accurate, and has a reputation, at least, for impartiality. The camera’s mechanical lens automatically records countless details, giving photos that informative feeling we now unwittingly associate with the real. That’s why, unlike paintings, photographs are said to “document” an event. Mumford’s project is certainly documentary, so why the inefficient means? One would also think it far less conspicuous and intrusive to snap a photo than to pull out a watercolor set at, say, a tense meeting with an occupied village’s leaders. And doesn’t the production of an art object, especially a pauncy watercolor, somehow exploit the event? Wouldn’t the reality of the situation be better recorded by a simple digital camera? As it turns out: No.

The surprises here are many. Firstly, Mumford has made very quick paintings that do not lack information. They depend on the same captions photos do, and the fact that he selects detail with a human eye actually adds to the feeling of verisimilitude. Picture after picture, we notice how carefully he records everything from the screens on the control panel of a tank to the clouds on the desert’s horizon, so we come to trust his style. We see the situations in which he manages to paint, and we notice how unthreatening a set of watercolors is compared to a camera. The army might not have granted him such access if he had planned to exhibit photos, and his various subjects may have been more distracted by a piece of technology than they were by his silent eyes. The fact that he’s “just a painter” effectively puts him undercover, and his talented memory allows him to notice things first and record them later, organizing them, as he has, to best relate the story. The intimacy, both of the situations he paints and of his brush on the paper, is something we haven’t seen from this war. Big media and government censorship have prepared an environment of sanitized news whereby on-site watercolor painting becomes a startling window on our foreign policy. And the art world, with its giddy market and professionalizing MFA programs, has fostered fail-proof and sophisticated methods to address the contemporary world which can only be outdone by a plein-air painter, of all people.

So while Steve Mumford’s paintings can in no way compete with the digital photos from Abu Ghraib in terms of historical importance or even visual power, they will, I think, be remembered longer than most of the pictures in Greater New York. And while I have reservations about a reporter who deems it necessary to tell us, in one caption, that the Catfight Girls were enthusiastically received by the soldiers (as if a chilly reception were even conceivable), I cannot but express admiration for a painter willing to put himself in the middle of a war the rest of us are effectively forgetting. And while there are many, many observations (some of them severely critical) to make about each picture and the points of view Mumford insists on taking, perhaps the best thing to notice is that a retrograde painter with a Baghdad address made the work which, in the long run, will be seen as having the most to do with life here in New York City.

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