Art is just about the furthest thing from mind these days. Looking at painting – usually a favorite thing to do – has become a task rather than a joy. When looking at the torrents of art online – it becomes quickly apparent that artists continue to employ the strategies, ideas and outcomes of the past – in different hands, by different means and in different languages – to be sure – yet it feels like just more of the samo-samo. Could be the lockdown, the social distancing and/or the daily infernal sameness of time and space weighing into the mix – or it may just be the end of something. Have yet to decide. Still there have been a few bright spots in this moment – a bit of fun and life showing up.
Everyone online was hyped up by Amy Sillman’s show and this show was indeed a lot of fun. Amy’s work is wonderfully off-kilter and distinctly painterly – lots of refined clumsy drawing (a most attractive thing at the moment) – but in truth there was nothing in the show that would change your mind about her work – or for that matter – contemporary painting in general. Look, it’s difficult for painting in this century – and I get that. In the last one – the 20th – painting set itself a grand task which was to break down the histories and theoretics of our understanding of Art. No small thing that – and much of that work was bold, brash, controversial and always weird and frightening – even to the practitioners of the art. But that’s all over now. 21st century paintings are more like apps – they are programmed to work with Modernism’s operating system – or as my old man used to say – we’re just polishing the brass.
I’ve always admired painters willing to risk being seriously and thoughtfully silly – and Amy’s work fits that bill. The just released book of her collected writings is filled with that kind of humor (like her paintings) – one of the favorites – a letter to her friend Jackie explaining why she broke up with abstraction. “I kicked A out of my studio this summer, and afterwards I felt really good. I had this amazing fling, don’t tell anyone, but I had this fling with this face, and I don’t know, that was the straw that tipped the iceberg and I just went with it.” [Amy Sillman Faux Pas 2020] – a straw and an iceberg – wonderful.
Good friends Mike Zahn and Paul Corio made their presence known during this COVID autumn as well. Paul’s show was at McKenzie Fine Arts – and because it was an “in person” show – viewing restrictions were involved. And those restrictions seemed to play up Paul’s work – systems working within systems to combat something fucked up. The AbOp structures are classic (stretching back to the Roman Empire) and his color feels decadent and surreal – like DeChirico. The painting “Pecan Pattie” (in the photo above on the right) nicely disturbs one’s expectations with its subtle and strange color variations, slightly clunky illusionistic patterning and the way the ground shifts from top to bottom. This image never settles in – the same way the pandemic keeps changing and morphing before our eyes.
James Kalm has a nice video walk through and commentary of Paul’s show which you might find interesting!
James describes this shifting of expectations in Paul’s work – “I think one of the the interesting things about the way that Paul went for one of his compositional ideas (of using the horse racing [system]) is that when you’re working with [a] pretty strict geometric system… if you don’t somehow introduce some kind of chance or spontaneous something in there… it can get pretty boring, pretty fast.” Sounds like a sound bit of whiskey philosophy…
Mike did an online exhibition which is not only timely, but extremely smart. It was perceptively reviewed by Seph Rodney – “The show is both meta and melancholy. I could be there. And so sadly looking at the life I might have, someone could ask me what’s wrong. “Nothing,” I would say, reflexively, to stave off my own grief. Zahn projects these images to outsource his own desolation. “No. I’m not crying,” he seems to say. “You’re crying.”” Mike bypasses our expectations of art and painting – value judgments such as good or bad – what’s real – what isn’t. The captured image within the image of an empty gallery which traffics in images undermines the codes and constructs of not only the images presented, but the conveyors of these images – the electronic and economic systems set up to present those images, the critiques engendered by those presentations as well as the social expectations and implications built into these systems. Everything is shifting – up for grabs… We see this existential drama unfolding all throughout the art world these days – from the auction houses right through to the artists’ studios. Once we disappear the scene, the system, the city and the reason that those things exist – what’s left? Mike’s contemplating the answer as he prepares a text – everything – nothing.
Another thing that has been extremely enjoyable has been Matthew Collings intimate and semi-fictional art history drawings on Instagram. These drawings have been brilliant – to say the least – and in the time of lockdown a welcome distraction from the everyday grind. There are so many things to love about these images – the cartoonish satire, the formal elements, the portraiture, and particularly, the clouds of filterless cigarette smoke – it’s hard to pin down exactly why they’re good – and that’s probably why they are good. He’s managed to be both engaging and inventive in presenting our art history favorites as they engage in hubris and anxiety, love and hate, and the requisite sex, drugs and rock & roll. I highly recommend you check these out – and if you have the cash – these drawings are on sale through the #artistsupportpledge. Wonderful Matthew!
I disagree about the times – painting is more and more interesting because it gives us a window in a restricted time. Instagram is replete with gestural abstract work better than its antecedents – better color, more honest gesture in a lot of cases – that at the very least show tremendous energy in art in the world. Look at the work that someone named Alexander Jackert puts up – constant finds, constantly interesting.
At the same time, Mike Zahn – who is a seer – is so revealing – every show he has makes you think, every show is a revelation. I am sure there is agony behind these – but what he shows us is so resolved, and yet so energizing, that we don’t see the torment. That is masterful.
Hi George – can’t dispute the fact that the energy is there or that there’s better color or even honest gestures. What’s missing is the questioning – which is the truly interesting part.
When you saw something had changed and felt that change – your work changed as well – you broke with your antecedents. You could have continued on – but you turned everything inside out – And that’s truly brave and exciting! Better or colorful gestural painting is fine – it has its place – but it remains out of time – deeply rooted in the Modern era in which it was first conceived. Amy comes at that problem of “time” from a different perspective – from a different place of origin – which makes her work off-kilter and suspicious – like there’s something slightly wrong with it – and that’s where we are – that’s how the world feels at this moment.
This is from Amy’s love note to all of us:
“The world’s ground was shifting, so I started concentrating on the fields behind the figures — patterns, plaids, and confusing figure-to-grounds, a purposefully destabilized signal-to-noise ratio. And eventually it was the process of improvisation itself that seemed the most timely and urgent. I was thinking about a quote by Fred Moten, “improvisation is making nothing out of something.” In this sense “nothing” is a good thing, it means you’re in a hole, on the brink of change, and you have to listen, to pay attention. Improvising is a process that comes from within and that proposes a without, a nowhere that is everywhere. The hard questions continue (how to keep making paintings at all, if the world can possibly be rebuilt, and how) but I hope there’s an alchemy in there, a use, in keeping on working with the motion between the known and an abstract (but felt) unknown.”
These are similar thoughts and questions that Mike’s work makes real or unreal. Todo y Nada – ground or figure – what is or isn’t. And I dare say this was a similar process of questioning that you engaged with a decade or so ago.
As for Mike – well – we both have great regard for his work and the way his mind works.