Seven Kinds of Wrong

Ashley Bickerton Seascape- Floating Costume to Drift for Eternity I (Armani Suit) 1991

AB: “Yes, desire is everywhere present in my paintings. I’m interested in the liberating aspect of being totally untethered, let loose in the worst possible environments. My favorite artists are always women that do things that are so wrong: Kara Walker, Laurel Nakadate. I like things to be seven kinds of wrong. If they are seven kinds of wrong, sometimes the wrongs neutralize themselves, and the whole thing becomes — –
EN: Familiar?
Ashley Bickerton in Conversation with Emily Nathan, May 17, 2011.

It’s not easy to like Ashley Bickerton’s work. From the start he’s taken on the art and culture of our fin de siècle much like Goya, Daumier, Hogarth and Grosz did in their times. Ashley’s works are acerbic, filled with Baroque imagery and over the top visual excess. It would be easy to stand back and take pot shots, but he doesn’t spare himself this critique. From his 80s and 90s portrait boxes customized with the logos and images of NeoLiberal consumer products right up to the ridiculous 21st Century blue man artist in a Westernized island “paradise” Bickerton makes sure to show us that he too is complicit. I can’t help myself. I’m fascinated.    

Ashley Bickerton Red Scooter 2009

“Working in an increasingly figurative and self-reflective mode, the artist used himself, his family, fellow expats, and prostitutes as models for hyper-realistic paintings, which depicted an increasingly acerbic view of humanity. Bickerton parodied do-gooding society types, contrived and idealized self and family portraiture, western fantasies of island expat life, and the mythological role of the artist. This led to the creation of bizarre, composite alter egos, such as Blue Man and Snake-Headed Man, as well as a tongue-in-cheek version of himself in the likeness of Paul Gauguin. In seeking further freedom to create his maximalist compositions, Bickerton began staging elaborate sets, painting directly onto people and objects that he would photograph and digitally alter. Local, artisinally-crafted frames, inlaid with mother of pearl and hand-carved coconut shells, complete these complex satires.” Flag Foundation Press Release for Bickerton Retrospective, September 2017.


Elaine Sturtevant Exhibition at Thaddeus Ropac 2018

“Through the lens of her investigation into notions of authorship and aesthetics, she examined the relation between original and origins. By ‘pushing the limits of resemblance’, Sturtevant’s repetitions of works by other artists articulate a tension between the source image and the resulting artwork, which she created from memory. According to Peter Eleey, curator of Sturtevant: Double Trouble at MoMA in 2014, ‘she was not a copyist, plagiarist, parodist, forger, or imitator, but was rather a kind of actionist, who adopted style as her medium in order to investigate aspects of art’s making, circulation, consumption, and canonisation’.” Release for Elaine Sturtevant’s show at Thaddeus Ropac, 2018.

Elaine Sturtevant was the original. And that’s said without irony. Before the corporate battles over ownership, copyright and appropriation Sturtevant tore through the Art World asking bigger questions about what things mean, how they work in the world and why we value such things. She repeated things to show us things, to get at their meaning. The more pernicious questions her works raise are about artists’ styles and authenticity. Does repetition, reproduction and manufacture change our notions of originality? If an artist produces the same imagery in different colors or different sizes does this process change that imagery, call into question its meaning and authenticity? When is a fake not a fake? Sturtevant’s repetitions ask – what is art?

Sturtevant Warhol Flowers 1964-65

“So you can’t just have objects and put them in; they don’t work.  And especially with my work, that could be very dangerous, because it would look like individual pieces.  So the power behind that is that it always has to be presented as a totality, not as individual pieces, otherwise, it wrecks; they’re gone, you know?  So it’s the same way with – [I’m] practically never, ever, in group shows because it’s just a piece hanging out… And it’s amazing how artists don’t seem to know how to take care of their work.  They just hang it and it looks terrible and it doesn’t do anything.  Particularly now, if you go to Gagosian with some of those big paintings, it’s just painting, painting, painting; there’s no dynamics going on, you know.” Elaine Sturtevant in conversation with Michael Lobel, July 25-26, 2007.


Caravaggio Judith Beheading Holofernes 1598-99

“The eye is peremptory in its judgments. It decides what to see and why. Each of our glances is as much exclusion as inclusion. We select, editorialize, and enhance. Our idea of the pretty is a limited notion that cannot possibly apply to earth’s metamorphic underworld, a cataclysmic realm of chthonian violence. We choose not to see this violence on our daily strolls. Every time we say nature is beautiful, we are saying a prayer, fingering our worry beads.” Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae, 1990.

What is meaning in painting? It’s a question that Michael Zahn, Paul Corio and I were discussing the other night. How does a painting become visually compelling if it strives for a particular narrative structure or a particular style or a particular vision? Or must the painting forego all of this search for meaning and just “appear”? How does a painting impart meaning? Can it? Is meaning the artist’s responsibility or the viewer’s? Does “beauty” play a part in this and if so how? Further is it “ugliness” or “beauty” which draws us in, fascinates us? The questions surrounding meaning proliferated throughout our discussion. We moved through the old masters all the way to our current dilemma concerning the meanings and possibilities of abstract painting here at the end of the Modern era. Pollock who made beautiful paintings said that Greenberg never understood what his paintings were about. “Technique is a means of arriving at a statement,” said Jackson Pollock. So what statement or meaning did Jackson ascribe to those beautiful paintings? Are these paintings simply decorative works, comfortable armchairs for the exhausted business person? Or do they hint at something more? It was a wonderfully impassioned and curious conversation to have at a local watering hole sitting across from the barflies and playboys.

Barnett Newman Eve 1950

“The problem [an artist’s intention] is not limited to Newman’s case but is pervasive in the field of art history, where there has been for some time a tendency to focus on the viewer or beholder as the source of meaning, at the expense of the author (one thinks of Roland Barthes’s crucial essay of 1967, “The Death of the Author,” as partly inaugurating this shift). What seems to matter is not what the author or artist intended some text or painting to mean but what kinds of experiences a text or painting creates for the reader or viewer. And because, from this point of view, meaning is found in the individual’s particular experience, what also begins to matter is who that individual is and where or when it is that he or she encounters the work. Which is to say that the meaning of the artwork becomes a matter of identity and context rather than authorial intention.” Footnote 8 in Michael Schreyach’s Barnett Newman’s Sense of Space, 2013.


Barbara Kruger Your Body is a Battleground 1989

I’m not saying that something should be unreadable. I’m saying that it should be readable, but it should suggest different meanings or that it should give a meaning. I’m saying that what we have now is about meaninglessness, through its familiarity, accessibility, not through its obscurity. Whereas Modernism, or what I take it to be (you’ve used the word), was meaningless to people because of its inaccessibility. What the media have done today is make a thing meaningless through its accessibility. And what I’m interested in is taking that accessibility and making meaning. I’m interested in dealing with complexity, yes. But not necessarily to the end of any romance with the obscure. Barbara Kruger in conversation with W.J. T. Mitchell, 1991.

Barbara Kruger has been dealing with conceptual issues regarding imagery and abstraction all through her career – What do images do? What can we expect from them? What can they mean? What she understands is that even Modernism has been captured, represented and made into  consumerist imagery. And this kind of consumerist Modernism is ubiquitous in the 21st Century. But Kruger engages it, twists it, makes this culture into a strong visual critique of our passive acceptance of Modern institutional power.

“Being socialized within similar constructs of myth and desire, it is not surprising that most people are comforted by popular depictions. Sometimes these images emerge as “semblances of beauty;” as confluences of desirous points. They seem to locate themselves in a kind of free zone, offering dispensations from the mundane particularities of everyday life; tickets to a sort of unrelenting terrain of gorgeousness and glamour expenditure. If you and I think that we are not susceptible to these images and stereotypes than we are sadly deluded. But to have some understanding of the machinations of power in culture and to still joyously entertain these emblems as kitschy divinities is even more ridiculous. And for women it’s an extreme form of masochism.” Barbara Kruger in conversation with Richard Prince, Bomb, April 1, 1982,

Fractured Reality

Velasquez Las Meninas 1656

“The best painting has often been an invitation to imaginatively “roam around”, albeit with the reality-check of the passage across and through the medium itself always held in close conjunction. (It is noticeable in some landscape painting how physically arresting a divergence from the norm of horizontality can be – see Pissarro again with The Climb, Rue de la Côte-du-Jalet, Pontoise, or Constable’s Deadham Vale, or the big Rubens View of Het Steen in the Early Morning, all of which establish horizontal spaces only to upset them with the physical jolt of a change of level or incline). It might be reasonably argued that figurative painting since the early Renaissance has rarely benefited from flattening of any description – think of Velazquez’s Las Meninas, full of vertical planes, yes, and yet primarily dependent upon the horizontal interaction and separation of its players and us for its structure and meaning.”  Robin Greenwood on Abstract Sculpture and Painting, 2009-10.

Robin Greenwood alludes to fractures of space in his discussion of horizontal and vertical planes in Velasquez’s great painting while George Hofmann in part 2 of his essay on Fractured Space discusses confronting our nostalgia for harmony, balance and familiarity at the end of the Modern era. Both artists are trying to break with the continuing Modernist stranglehold on how we make, see and experience abstraction in this new century.  

Édouard Manet A Bar at the Folies-Bergère 1882 

“The other point is a more elusive one: the prettiness that was a legacy of 19th century painting still echoes in painting today – the desire for harmony in composition (Renaissance) and even the appeal, through the everyday-ness of the subject in Impressionism, still hangs on as a guiding idea and an unspoken foundation of art. People still make paintings that appeal, that are composed to balance, to be attractive, etc. We all do!… But to shift the base of composition away from this is difficult, because it involves going against a long tide of what we believe to be right. I still find that wish resonating within me, and know that it is so ingrained as to be almost unerasable.” George Hofmann in Part 2 of Fractured Space, 2011.

Baroque Reality

Caravaggio The Crucifixion of St Andrew 1607

“What shocked people in his lifetime was Caravaggio’s unrelenting realism. Contemporaries complained that his Mary Magdalene looked like the girl next door drying her hair alone at home on her night in. The church that had commissioned his ”Death of the Virgin” locked it away, presumably because death was all too obviously the end for the beautiful sensuous girl laid out in her tight-fitting red dress at the center of the composition with not so much as a redeeming cherub or a heavenly sunbeam in sight. The model was in any case easily recognisable as a local whore.” Hilary Spurling’s review of M the Man Who Would Become Caravaggio, March 5, 2000.

Baroque architecture was filled with melting decorative embellishments and wild illusionistic geometries. Baroque music contained complicated compositions and complex flourishes of sound. Baroque painting and sculpture took a slightly different path. Though dramatic and theatrical like the other arts of the time the visual arts were also guided by hyper-realistic portrayals of figures, spaces and light. Baroque painting was “hot” as McLuhan described media – rich in sensory information, tight compositions and spotlit realism. And this new hot “reality” differentiated Baroque painting from the cooler theoretical processes, elongated spaces and surreal compositions of the Mannerist era. 

Frank Stella The Pequod Meets The Rachel 1988

“Stella conceived of his abstract “figures” above all as a means of creating and articulating a viable new space, one that could compensate non-figurative painting for the space choked out of it by medium-oriented painters in the decades following Abstract Expressionism. “The crisis of abstraction,”Stella insists,”followed from its having become mired in the sense of its own materiality, the sense that the materials  of painting could and should dictate its nature. That’s not enough, and the belief that it was was killing painting.” William Rubin writing on Frank Stella’s MOMA retrospective, 1987

Abstract Reality

Mark Rothko Black on Maroon 1958

“Our presentation of these myths, however, must be in our own terms, which are at once more primitive and more modern than the myths themselves—more primitive because we seek the primeval and atavistic roots of the idea rather than their graceful classical versions; more modern than the myths themselves because we must redescribe their implications through our own experience. Those who think that the world of today is more gentle and graceful than the primeval and predatory passions from which these myths spring, are either not aware of reality or do not wish to see it in art. The myth holds us, therefore, not through its romantic flavor, not through the remembrance of the beauty of some bygone age, not through the possibilities of fantasy, but because it expresses to us something real and existing in ourselves, as it was to those who first stumbled upon the symbols to give them life.” Mark Rothko interviewed on WNYC radio, October 13, 1943.

Reality is something we do not control. It is fleshy, capricious and unexpected. We battle and live through these things every day. Yet we’re surprised by their insistence when they show up in our systems, our programs, our markets, our societies and even our painting. When Facebook goes down or Theresa May’s BREXIT deal falls flat or the stock markets collapse we are dumbfounded. We don’t understand when we encounter the desert of the real.

David Reed Painting Painting 1975 Exhibition 2017

 “When Reed saw he couldn’t strictly do what he wanted to do, what he thought he was doing, it liberated him from reality. The works that immediately followed he begins to play with the painting’s materiality, with the relation of the image to its literal conditions. In some works, the stroke begins on one side and ends on the other, making us imagine that the paintings are round somehow, a continuous circle rather than a straight line — an unusual type of three–dimensional illusionism. Then Reed began to play with the stroke itself, nailing brushes together in order to make huge brushstrokes in several paintings of 1980.” Katy Siegel on David Reed 2001.

Lens Reality

Gerhard Richter Man Shot Down 1 1988

“But the history of history painting is itself a history of the withdrawal of a subject from painting’s ability to represent, a withdrawal that ultimately generated the modernist notion of aesthetic autonomy. In this development, forms of traditional representation were divided into, on the one hand, a referential function based on resemblance (a function that photography would increasingly and more convincingly assume beginning in the mid-nineteenth century) and, on the other, the complementary formation, that of a liberation of painterly means, whose lasting and only triumph was to become the systematic negation of the functions of representation. In their refusal either to give up painting for photography tout court or to accept the supposed lucidity of photography’s focused gaze, Richter’s photopaintings have consistently opposed the universal presence of that gaze and its ubiquitous instrumentalization of the look.” Benjamin Buchloh on Gerhard Richter’s October 18, 1977.

In the early 2000s cell phones began to be built specifically to disseminate photographic imagery over the internet. This seemingly harmless byproduct of the digital revolution has changed our culture, our society and our reality. Many of the Abstract Mannerists took note of these changes and began to examine how they made their work. But for the most part they continued to concentrate on painting and reproduction processes while ignoring the deluge of photographic imagery and what it might mean. Painters have yet to confront this new world of images preferring instead to keep abstraction Modernist in structure, theory and critique. 

David Reed Painting #650 2003–16

“Today there is nothing magical about using a smart-phone equipped with multiple filters and other digital enhancers to generate “selfies” that are capable of being instantly published to millions of similar hand-held devices all over the world via social media and other online platforms. In the history of human communication, has a medium ever evolved this quickly?  – No wonder we don’t understand. It is the very effortless proficiency with which photographs are made, reproduced and circulated in contemporary life that ought to raise philosophical questions about what it is we are doing, because if you really look at a photograph, you’re bound to ask yourself at some point what it is you are seeing.” Carl Kandutsch on Todd Hido’s photography.


Luc Tuymans John Playfair, 2014

“We can paint by following a certain movement, we can also develop our individual style – which, in my opinion, is rather dangerous – but the most important thing is the meaning that we create in our works. Everyone can use the possibilities offered by today’s technologies to create their own images and meanings. Because, in my opinion, art cannot be created from art. It is created from reality. The reality in which we live, the reality that has been created by history. They are connected.” Luc Tuymans in conversation with Elīna Čivle-Üye, November 7, 2013.

Can Abstraction be real? Can it be reality? What would such a thing look like? How would it act as a painting? For Luc Tuymans reality comes from the imagery that washes over us. It can be found in the processes, productions and manufactured reality of programs.

“I had a fascination with that time period, because I had clearly made a decision not to make art for art’s sake. I wasn’t interested in slotting into a tradition of modernism or postmodernism — to try to position myself in such a way was not an option. The only option was to work from the real, and to look at a time period that was close to mine, historically, and which was decisive. Apart from the autobiographical element, it’s also one of the periods when Europe lost its powers. With the idea of the Holocaust comes a psychological breakdown. Those elements were culminating, and had to culminate in a lot of imagery.” Luc Tuymans in conversation with Jason Farago, October 29, 2018.


Thomas Houseago Baby 2009

“The danger here is less that this art promotes an illusory autonomy or cynically concedes to the market than that it reveals the discourse of art as now consisting of nothing but the market. Needless to say the collecting class, largely unexposed to the critique of modernism and still driven by humanistic myths of creation, celebrates any return to the promise of an autonomous, self-possessed maker yielding highly aestheticized products through mostly Intuitive means. For this generally older demographic, the return to modernism is perceived as combining the street cred of a younger generation with a vetted inoffensiveness that closely echoes the classics of the past century. So a Thomas Houseago sculpture may invoke the primitivist heroics of Picasso while a “face painting” by Mark Grotjahn can echo Klee or Poussette-Dart.” David Geers, Neo-Modern, October, March 2012.

Jacob Kassay Installation at Gallerie Art Concept Paris 2011

Zombie Formalism is part of our cultural world and the artists who embody this kind of Mannerism have become favorites of the contemporary art market. But what is it exactly? What is its purpose? Is this particular strain of Modernist Mannerism, Process Abstraction or whatever you want to call it, a separate movement, a speculative bubble aimed at hungry collectors, or does it embody our 21st Century zeitgeist? Maybe it’s all three. Either way these Abstract Mannerist works beautify and make elegant the contentious theoretics and disruptive innovations of the Modern Era. 

“Nowadays we see endless arrays of decorous, medium-size, handsome, harmless paintings. It’s rendered mainly in black, white, gray, or, more recently, violet or blue. Much of it entails transfer techniques, silkscreening, stenciling, assemblage, collage, a little spray painting or scraping and the like. There might be some smooshy blocks of color or stripes or other obvious open-form abstraction or geometric motif. A few painters are doing the same thing but with brighter colors, larger areas of paint, hints of gesture, or even drips. All this work has readymade references to preapproved, mostly male painters like Albert Oehlen, Christopher Wool, Michael Krebber, Wade Guyton, Laura Owens, and Sergej Jensen, or to the Minimalism or Pop movements, and of course it all calls up Warhol, Richter, Kippenberger, or Prince.” Jerry Saltz on Neo-Mannerism, October 10, 2013.

Lucien Smith Two Sides of the Same Coin 2012

“…it is one thing to attempt meaning and fail; it is totally different to assume failure and couch your work in a feigned sense of futility. Or not to allow any meaning at all as the Zombie Formalists assert. But what kind of meaning do you want? The work of the modernist has a positive meaning with its faith in science and a clear sense of the subject/self or its reversion to the chthonic symbolism of the pagan. But isn’t the irony of this irony that somewhere once upon a time there was a kind of painting that was authoritative for this new eternity of weak painting to exist at all. In its insistence on irony it keeps blocking any chance of a new language of time and space. It is a kind of negative religion, a negative eternity from which we can’t escape with its own rituals that any good MFA student can learn.” Martin Muger on Zombie Formalism, May 23, 2015.