Painter, Painter, now on view at the Walker Art Center through October 27, 2013, includes a selection of living artists responding to the materiality and open-endedness of the medium of painting, as well as the fluidity of the role of artist as painter. Operating as painters creating new work in a time of unlimited ontologies, we see these artists gathered in the exhibition for the thoughtful ways in which their practice holds strong footing in studio-based activities, demonstrates backwards-glancing at historical movements, and shows a continued interest in the material possibilities for painting, often incorporating the jargon of adjacent disciplines; all of whom produce objects with an proclivity for the genre of Abstraction. This exhibition presents an acute, though diverse, edit of broader tendencies that pivot and reshape frameworks for painting practice.
In her seminal 1979 essay, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” Rosalind Krauss posits that, “practice is not defined in relation to a given medium…but rather in relation to the logical operations on a set of cultural terms, for which any medium…might be used.” Krauss opened up the possibility for artists – in this case, painters – to perform operations, as practice, on the collectively held idea of what constitutes “painting.” The resulting broad guidelines about what the medium is and can be, coupled with what philosopher Arthur C. Danto described as “pluralism” (i.e. the idea that no kind of output is more ‘true,’ or advanced, than another) left the terminology of painting gaping and unwieldy decades ago. It is important to note this history, as it has given artists legroom to reply, and the opportunity to reply to one-another’s replies, for some time. It is also important to note that these conversations, while historical, have been advancing for years; a discussion of “painting” is not being re-opened in 2013 — dialogue within and about the medium was never closed. This past June, New York Times critic Roberta Smith reviewed string of five exhibitions opening in Chelsea, noting the dominance of artists “examining the ways painting can merge with sculpture or conceptual art and yield pictorial hybrids that may not even involve paint; others are more focused on the medium’s traditional forms.”
In other words, these tendencies for painters are synchronic, and are representative of interests occurring nationally, internationally and locally. Positioning Painter Painter in a contemporary art museum in the Midwest is as relevant to that ongoing conversation as it would be if the exhibition were showing in a gallery in New York, if not more so; situated here, the exhbition bears witness to and charts the prominence of these currents, the immediacy of these practices and the proximity of these activities: the exhibition is here and this work is also occurring here. The Midwest is part of this conversation.
As evidence, note the following artists, all of whom are working and living in the state of Minnesota and who offer thoughtful contributions to the growing dialogue on the expanded conditions of painting though material, surface and process. Aside from pictorial strategies or abstraction of subject, abstraction is also employed as descriptive device, stretching and abstracting the medium itself – reducing, distilling and providing partial information about the practice of painting.
Smith’s practice takes conceptual coordinates as departure points for the insoluble conundrum of painting itself, seeking the possibilities – formal, conceptual and material – that occur between those coordinates, not necessarily the shortest distance. In Softside, the artist’s most recent exhibition at David Petersen Gallery, Smith selects security blankets and self-help books as his cues, taking the territory between the two as his starting point. Wooden planks suck up coppered salt like a pacifying thumb, and blankets dangle, coated in paint and varnish, serving as guides for improvements to self, and painting. These materials, though symbolic for self-help, are also corrupted from the most rudimentary painting supplies: wooden stretchers and woven substrates.
Tapola’s practice has long oscillated between painting and sculpture, abstraction and figuration, often resulting in hybrids of both. Humorous and wise, his work often jabs at art historical precedents, bargains with tropes, and juxtaposes idiosyncrasies of painting’s material qualities and capabilities. Balancing the acts of looking and toying, Tapola’s practice centers on the revealed intention behind the process of art-making and the expansive terrain between image and object. Destroying, repurposing and piling traditional supports, applying gorgeous paint handling to wonky refuse materials, nesting picture-hosting contraptions and color-coated detritus — all of it resides together in non-hierarchical installations: Tapola builds and dismantles the value system around painting’s objecthood.
Bertog’s practice leverages our trust in text as signifier; her work dissociates written language’s ability to communicate through abstract gestures, cursive mark-making, and word and character-shaped forms, as well as their obfuscation. She works in layers, painting over texts and letters, allowing the language of painting itself to be the communicator by leaning on its material qualities as a means of conveyance. Sometimes her surfaces take the form of the rectangular canvas, but other times the artist crops, cuts and reduces her canvas to silhouettes of utterances. Though language is central to her concepts and forms, Bertog’s work is equally interested in miscommunication – for Bertog, abstraction preoccupies, and her texts become secondary to painting’s materiality and the non-literal qualities of picture-making.
McCready arrives at wall-hanging objects via a background in sculpture, and her most recent body of work emerges from the exciting territory of three-dimensional strategies that conflate within the mien of painting. Her works are produced from swaths of cloth, leather, and vinyl, pulled and stapled over sculptural forms — some plinths, others more like the rectangular praxis of easel painting. Their lush material surfaces – from loose and folded to taught and pinched – reenact the motions of prepping a canvas, or suggest the pliability of a thick impasto. Her post-minimal objects, surfaces and unconventional mark-marking explore spatial concepts and the blur the mannerisms of both painting and sculpture.
Functioning as both objects and studio performances, Yaeger’s conglomerations of ascetic, unassuming materials depart from the picture-plane. Sculptural in form and experienced in situ, these arrangements suggest the painting process in its most fundamental, essential state. Some are wall-fixed and others floor-resting, the self-contained, pithy interactions among ordinary, Home Depot-variety materials address painting as an act of construction, as well as art object. Distilled elements from painting, including structural elements like stretchers, or the relationships between local and applied color, operate loosely in space – sometimes literally hanging – creating sculptural references to the geometries and gestures of abstract compositions usually found on canvas.