Fear of Painting

Exhibition Dates: September 8 – October 3, 1992
Opening Reception: Saturday, September 8 from 6–8 pm
Gallery Location: 136 Prince Street, New York, NY 10012
Hours: Monday–Saturday, 10 am–5 pm
Contact Info: 212.966.4017

The Arthur Roger Gallery is pleased to present Fear of Painting, an exhibition of work featuring Lee Gordon, Deborah Kass, Lari Pittman, Alexis Rockman, Megan Williams, Jane Hammond, Marilla Palmer, Archie Rand, David Sandlin, and Sue Williams. The exhibition will be on view at Arthur Roger, located at 136 Prince Street, from September 8 – October 3, 1992. The gallery will host an opening reception on Saturday, September 8 from 6-8 pm.

In recent years, painting has become, like religion and politics, one of the subjects that ought not to be brought up at a polite dinner party. Feelings both for and against certain kinds – in some cases, all kinds – of painting seem to run so strongly, and often with such little relationship to rational argument, that painting itself sometimes seems the culprit for so many raised voices and bruised feelings. Hopefully, more reasonable moments find us reminding ourselves that painting is not, cannot be responsible for such excess of feeling. The fault, rather, lies in its opposite: the fear of what painting might become.

Like most fears, this one is diabolically self-obfuscating: were we to admit to ourselves just how nervous painting makes us, there would be an immediate rush to embrace it as a symbol of  the unthinkable, a badge that identifies its wearer as a quintessential outcast. Although such a position has already become part of the official doctrine of abstract painting, it has not yet touched on the problems of figuration, and for very good (or at least understandable) reason. As most viewers will recall, the transition from the ’70s to the ’80s was marked by a tilt towards simple images and figures, with strong emphasis on visually maintaining the characteristics inherent in the process and materials. The early to mid-’80s, by contrast, saw painting run to excess, with gestural extremes played out against a kind of pseudo-nihilist barrage of misdirected ambiguity. This phase was followed, of course, by the purge of direct sensation in art altogether, with every sensual reaction becoming immediately suspect, every itch for meaning a half-concealed attempt to subvert someone else to one’s will.

In fits and starts, we have reached a stage in the early ’90s when we feel we definitely want something else from the figure, but we are too sick of being told how we feel about it to be able to form a new opinion, much less ask for something unexpected from it. In the best of all possible worlds, we would want to have our need to seek sensual gratification from art overlooked in the name of tolerance – just so long as we are energetically chastised for it at the same time. Perhaps it is the conflicted desire for an anti-expressionist, post-neo-conceptual figuration which has opened up the back door of the art world to several of the artists in the present exhibition. I stress the air of illegitimacy implicit to this phenomenon because if there is any single factor shared by such a diverse group of artist, it is the fact that only a few short years ago, any one of them might have been referred to as making the sort of statement that was simply incapable of being viewed or understood by the art community as a whole.

As implied above, part of the explanation for the sudden accessibility of such work has a great deal to do with what has been repressed in art during the past few years. The pathos-infected role-playing in Lee Gordon’s paintings, for example, has always had an appeal to those who are specifically interested in confusing gender roles, yet such identity shuffling has only recently appeared symptomatic of the rest of the art world’s identity crisis. Likewise with Jane Hammond’s de-centered attack on the problem of painterly style, in which she has refused to allow herself to be bound to a single set of pictorial criteria, preferring instead to mix themes and genres at will. Such an approach might have seemed stubbornly eccentric at first reading: now it seems like one of the few strategies that allows its author to handle a breadth of conflicting issues, while not courting the sense of impersonality ascribed to, for example, in the work of David Salle.

An equally all-embracing attack on style is implicit in the work of Deborah Kass, whose paintings combine a searing indictment of both social and art historical norms of masculinity with a playful sense of how painting gains in strength by being used to undermine itself. Likewise with the graphic cartoonism favored by Sue Williams, in which the viewer is trapped between laughing and crying over the artist’s treatment of one of the world’s gravest problems: the violence toward and subjugation of women. A note of ambiguity is also sounded in the work of David Sandlin, in which the topic of public morality is skewered with a precision that can only be attributed to someone who has really tried to understand the impulse that leads people to try and blot out their own (and everybody else’s) sense of individuality. In Archie Rand’s loopy brand of encyclopedism, homage is paid to the kind of world-view that would attempt to know something about everything – the main difference being found in the artist’s need to superimpose an ersatz order over even the most mundane and inscrutable subject matter.

‘Something of everything’ would also seem to be one of the premises in Lari Pittman’s paintings, which combine a psychologically charged iconography and obsessive rendering of motifs with a range of cranked-up colors that is almost blinding in its intensity. A somewhat more sugary palette is exploited in the compact drawings of Megan Williams, which often satirize rituals of male violence with a cartoonish sense of exaggerated bluster. In Marilla Palmer’s atmospheric paintings, a surreal comedy is acted out between different modes of representation, each one trying to make itself felt without tilting the pictorial balance. Finally, in Alexis Rockman’s skewed interpretations of natural order, a kind of nostalgia shows through for a time when the cultural framework of knowledge demanded nothing more than the mating of one thought with its opposite – a possibility which the artist deftly overturns in his elaborate depictions of inter-species couplings.

Taken together, this group of artists do not constitute a movement so much as a merging together of various individual approaches, to form a frontal assult on contemporary painting’s self-induced funereality. The self within the natural and social order: this is the most vulnerable point in post-modernism’s considerable theoretical armor, and therefore the threshold for re-working the mechanism of style to reclaim those remnants of shock value which still adhere to the artist/viewer relationship. Reflecting both the social and creative yearning to cast off the yoke of critical representation, this work gets at the heart of the dread which invariable accompanies the art world’s periodic stripping away of illusions, thus proving once and for all that there is nothing to paint but fear itself.