In our first post on the Academy we showed a similar use of painting techniques and photo appropriation by three contemporary artists; Koons, Oehlen and Walker. All three were appropriating “public” imagery and then attacking that imagery with “paint” using brush strokes or hammy drawing to add levels of meaning to the appropriated image. This technique produces a kind of abstract figuration that attempts to layer social or political context over the “found” image ground. It’s fairly common in the painting world, the progenitors are Duchamp and Warhol. However, this academic technique is not limited to a random encounter of images and/or the meanings those images may imply. Appropriated layering has proliferated across all types of painting. Postmodernism rules painting’s theoretical roost, so to speak. In this post we’ll be discussing a POMO abstractionist that I admire to make and establish this point. Here abstract painting follows closely to the rules set by the POMO image appropriators, only more emphasis is placed on the layering of physical gesturing and the idea of painterly technique itself.
“I become more interested in ‘how to paint’ than ‘what to paint’.” The statement points to where he stands in his engagement with the history of images and the position of painting. For more than 25 years he has related to the changing state of reproduction: to the processes of picture making in all cultural realms, as well as to art’s recent and more distant histories. “Revealed in Reproduction” Bettina Funcke
Christopher Wool is one of the best POMO “abstract” painters working today. His work embodies all the principles of appropriation and contextual layering that POMO aspires too. His paintings are also exemplary of the current Academy of Paint. I am not a fan of Wool’s earlier word work which plays wholly into late 80s conceptual practices. Those word paintings look dated and stuck in time. However, his painting work beginning in the mid 90s consolidates and institutionalizes the Warholian painting practices we previously discussed in Overheads and Screenshots. Additionally, Wool’s work limits his critique to Abstract Expressionism through Pop, and as such he has maintained abstract painting’s unyielding connection to American Post-War painting in general and Greenbergian theoretics in the specific. He is the last strong Mannerist of importance in this line, and someone whose work we should all be reacting against.
“This body of work combines an array of painterly techniques, including spray paint, silkscreen, poured and rolled paint. Wool mixes these techniques into combinations that conflate printing and painting. In some works, painterly gestures upon closer inspection are actually silkscreened patterns, which Wool then exhibits paradoxically against paintings containing the original action. In others, Wool layers patterns on top of one another and then erases them with sign paint. Press Release 2001 Luhring Augustine”
Let’s have a look at how the process works. Wool begins his paintings with denial, erasing the image or the stroke. This denial is an emphatic first act, not one of vision, but tied to reproduction and opticality. Now I’m making this distinction because reproduction has become the academic starting point for ALL “progressive” art over the last 40 years. Reproduction is looking without seeing, it is a tacit acceptance of optical information, it is repetition. Wool’s first pass is either through the reproduction (the pattern, the photo silk screen) or the “found” stroke (usually in the form of a sprayed “graffiti” line). He stays within the monochrome, most likely black and white, in order to reduce visual excess, to stay on point so to speak. He then creates “layers of process” which suss out meaning through the act of painting. For Wool this meaning is exemplified in what is best described as a series of denials. First he denies the visual (which requires memory and dialog), then he denies color (which creates tension and complexity), then he denies imagery (scrubbing and/or covering the reproduction). You could almost look at this like it’s an aesthetic Ponzi scheme where the first tranche of investment is fed by the subsequent erasure of the latter investments, leaving nothing but a vast pool of vanished visual capital and endless denials of painterly culpability.
What is left on the surface of Wool’s paintings are the reworkings of that very surface and hence the meaning of the painting is tied to the actions on the surface. He doesn’t create an image, doesn’t create a space, doesn’t move color, nor does he discuss anything outside the very acts of reproduction and painterly process themselves. The solipsism of these works is stunning. The final work is not about looking or seeing, but about tracking the physical nature of his process, and then determining how that process continues to push the surface forward. He is a Savonarola of painting, his work an effective Postmodern critique of the late 50s surface stain abstractions so favored by Clement Greenberg. Those artists, like Motherwell and Frankenthaler, pushed the watery paint into the canvas, splashing or brushing to create painterly effects and advance a decadent aesthetic of flaccid beauty. They remained tied to Pollock’s idea of the natural, that nature flowed through the artist and wound up “expressed” on the surface of the canvas. For Wool, alive today in a world of reproduction and the post-human, the focus of painting is found in the anti-natural or in the process of determining one’s existence in the face of the power of reproduction. The graffiti that customizes that reproduction, or in turn, the graffiti that becomes the customized image determine the surface. His is a “hard man” posture, one that accepts the limits of his pointed two prong attack. As a good friend once said about Wool’s work, “It’s as if Andy Warhol took steroids and turned butch.”
It’s also interesting that the various articles on the Luhring website and the photos on his web site are – for the most part – in black and white. Even when presenting visions of his studio life he denies us access to the technicolor of Oz. The tornado has yet to touch down, and Wool remains in hard scrabble Kansas where there is nothing but black and white work and survival. And truth be told, these are paintings about survival, about denying “excess” in order to make it through this endless 21st century challenge to the legitimacy of both painting and abstraction. Like chemo-therapy these works destroy the host to kill the metastasis. Now there are many abstractionists working today that do emphasize color, but their theoretical approach to meaning is not far different from the approach taken by Christopher Wool or Richard Prince or Warhol for that matter. The abstract, especially American Abstraction, does not have the liability nor the history of imagery. It’s emphasis has always been on tools, process and materials. Which brings us up from the depths straight to the surface. The continual comfort of Greenberg’s surface and side, the destruction of “natural” imagery and the endless emphasis on process are all hard at work, desperate to keep abstraction afloat.
In Postmodern America some would argue that Wool’s work doesn’t fall into the category of Popular Culture simply because there are no images outside of the painting itself. But it is the mechanics of the painting, the “How” of it that puts Wool’s work squarely in the Postmodern Pop realm. Our continuing discussion on Pop Culture has it’s fun elements, things we like, things that mean something to us, but what we want to point out is “the man behind the curtain.” To understand how something works is to understand what it does, what it means and the limitations it has. Wool’s focus on the process of denial is no different in scope than American Idol’s audition process. I shall leave the intracacies of that discussion up to you. The truth is we have other ideas about abstraction and its future, and we’ve elucidated some of those ideas in our other series. We believe it’s time to do away with the Postmodern academy, along with the reactionaries of Modernism that keep us hemmed in to the previous century. In the meantime we have a few strong Mannerist painters, like Wool, to challenge us and to react against. For the POMOs stuck in Kansas – the tornado is about to touch down!