Popular Culture: Academy of Paint

I recently came across these images by three well known artists. All seem to be working the same ground in the same way. This is Postmodernism at its zenith. And it is what continues to stop painting’s advancement in its tracks. Albert Oehlen‘s painting is from a show at Max Hetzler’s Gallery. Where, incidentally, there is also a show of Jeff Koons‘ recent paintings. I only bring this up because of our last post which featured a short discussion of Kelley Walker. We mentioned the checklist of the academic tropes that continue to plague painting and they are the basis of his painting. Once I saw these other jpegs I thought that the similarities between Walker’s work and these works were just too close to not deal with the issue in some small fashion.

1036.0.html.jpgAll of the images use computers and lens based pictorial information. In Oehlen’s painting it’s advertising, in Koon’s painting it’s erotic images that have been downloaded, printed and then blown up again to reveal the dot printing. Walker’s painting is from a men’s lifestyle magazine cover. Each of the lens based images becomes a ground for the “painting” that steps into the foreground. This technique using the materiality of “paint” has been the fall back position for many years now – otherwise known as the “overlay.” now this technique is a particularly insidious part of Postmodern practice because the overlay gives the work an appearance of depth. Not in a visual sense, but in the sense of meaning. The overlay becomes a critique of the meaning of the image providing a context for the image to be understood in a different light. The problem with this technique is that it is the preferred choice when customizing an image, in other words, it is an academic stylistic device.


There are two parts in this process to determine the context. First the ground/image carries some form of public consumer meaning framing the conversation for the artist. The second part is the “painterly” critique – smearing the image – drawing attention to certain parts of the ground or trying to connect the meaning of the ground to the meaning of the “expressive” smears.
These examples use classic Postmodern techniques. A program is chosen, the artist then customizes the discussion of that program like chat show hosts. The ground is a question taste, choice. Just as one would choose any product and define oneself through that product. The defining self, the subjective is then seen through the painterly critique.

Here are bits of the press releases.
Oehlen: In his recent paintings, Oehlen’s use of irritating advertising posters through the combination and overlapping of their terms and themes is carried to an extreme. One poster, which is supposed to connote luxury and seduce to Christmas shopping, disappears under the word hur€ (whor€); another, an advertisement for English Courses offered by the British Council in Spain is subtitled with the French word merde (shit) – isn’t swearing the first thing you learn in a foreign language?
However, those who would only see a simple condemnation of consumer frenzy or European language amalgamations fall for Albert Oehlen’s scheme. Figurative elements rub against each other and are processed until they lose their contextual meaning and become pure form. Hereby, the pictorial flow is not lost. On the contrary – Oehlen’s reduction of colour and form bring out the different dynamics combined on the canvas. Quick dashes of colour that are decelerated by milky taints emphasize the complexity of each painting.

Koons: Koons’ paintings convey a bursting energy and declarative precision. He uses film stills, photographs and other print-related images; collages and manipulates them together digitally, before achieving the final composition by inserting abstract and figurative elements. The image is accurately and elaborately painted onto the canvas while Koons takes crucial care of every detail.
The titles, together with the roughly pixelated background and abstract linear motifs of the exhibited paintings are part of the Koonsian erotic cosmos. References to art history can always be met in Koons’ work: from baroque painting to Marcel Duchamp or as in this body of work, Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World.

Walker: Using the cover of African-American lads’ mag King, Kelley Walker gives consumerist response to media provocation. Succumbing to the temptations of Hollywood beauty Regina Hall, Walker offers his enduring lust in the form of lewd and raunchy ‘splatter painting’. Drawing ironic entendres from the humorous Pollock reference, Walker’s expressionism is actually made from squirting popular brands of toothpaste over the image, then scanning it into his computer. Raising complex issues of race, gender, body image, and representation, Walker offers one abject product to counter another, rendering them both infinitely more appealing.

Each of these artists are intent on creating new contexts for the imagery that drives consumer culture through the lens based electronic world. Every image, every pixel is part and parcel of the digitization of consumer society and the proliferation of that programming. And like that programming these images give an illusion of choice or personal involvement as if the image has been crafted specifically for the chooser. This is how desire is created in the advertising world. It is a desire for the image, desire to make the image, the product, part of one’s life. The Postmodernist must maintain his distance from the image, from the meaning of the image in order to continue to desire that image. It is the distance that makes the context. In Oehlen’s case he wants to remove meaning from the advertisements in order to create a context for a traditional formal scene. Koons wants to connect the found imagery to art historical models eroticizing and elevating the ground as high art. Walker hopes to do something similar adding a political/cultural critique. What remains is the image and the subjective “expressionism” of the artist. And it’s the “expressionism” that defines the subjective critique. Pouring, smearing, dripping, gooping, you name it – the fall back position is the fluid, the seminal, the exposure of the mechanical workings that created the image. In order to personalize, subjectivize the critique the artists “wear” the image, they use it, they express themselves through it. It’s this use-value of the image, the appropriation of that image that gives the work the illusion of a personal style (…it is mine because I chose it.) This is nothing more than the shoppers mentality ingrained in post-industrial consumer society. Ultimately this POMO strategy is the difference between desire and passion, between distanced critique and physical involvement, between the societal and the personal. It is part and parcel of Postmodern theoretics.

Painting is stuck dealing with these issues, and it has been since the 1960s – see our post on Overheads and Screenshots. The Academy of Paint continues…

One thought on “Popular Culture: Academy of Paint

  1. Very nice compacted ! The mix of mediums is always visually interesting, but as you say it, it does not much to add to painting on first hand. I do not remember, if I found Oehlen’s new work via your blog, but I posted about it roughly the same time at December 1st http://artclubcaucasus.blogspot.com/2008/12/albert-oehlen-has-very-cool-show-at-max.html

    The technique is long known as you say right, like Max Ernst used different layers of styles, the collage stuff, Picabia etcetera. I bought in 1991 on the Amsterdam Bazaar an old small realistic landscape and had it 2 month in my studio in the Rietveld and one evening painted in 15 minutes a rough expressive but very flat WWI German soldier on it, and it worked so well, that my teachers had been amazed by this little work. (Have no photo online, need to photograph it in Berlin) and for myself it was a real discovery. (which I did not follow for a long time)

    Now we have all the new vector graphic techniques, which make it so easy to crunch together 5 pieces in an hour. Why are now so many artists using that style of Oehlen, Koons and Co ? By the way it was widely developed by the folks of Deviant Art and fecalface 10 years ago and just entered the art main stream now. I think because of the contrast of an individual statement (like of an doubtful brush stroke by some shiny artist) and between the over-individual statements like the generated pictures by the media world, who seem to be more “true” in our artificial cyber-eyes, than some stupid painting by a person working in an old media. For me (I am a painter) it goes even so far, that every true painting turns to me immediately into Kitsch and I can look onto it only via certain filters. It was the case with the Turner prize works of Tomma Abts, that I found it a waste of time to paint them, digitally made they would have been much more honest… and much brighter. I think the future is the Digital image, it gets the light from behind, from the screen, is clean and pure and simple and concept, like a window in a Gothic church, but lacks all that personal brush stroke individuality, what is somehow out of time. Probably I was not very clear, would like to know the English language on the level you do. Best regards Hans, you are one of my favorite blogs !

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