State of Paint

Joseph Montgomery at MassMOCA

The provocations and ideas about the state of paint are plentiful in Jed Perl‘s recent essay in the New Republic, The Rectangular Canvas is Dead: Richard Diebenkorn and the problems of modern painting.* Using the occasion of the Richard Diebenkorn show, The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966 to unify his discussion (a show that is in its last day at the De Young Museum in San Francisco before heading to the Palm Springs Art Museum, October 26-February 16 where I will see it later this year,) Perl continues to court the controversial, the curmudgeonly and the insightful. But I’ve been thinking about the essay all week.

Perl starts by referencing a show of very small paintings—many only two inches on a side—by a young painter named Eleanor Ray. He describes her work as bringing a “tightly controlled painterly panache to her itsy-bitsy glimpses of the view through a window.”

The sizes of the panels…suggest a reverse hubris, a pride in how much she can do with so little. There is something about Ray’s hunkered-down facility that strikes me as symptomatic of a fearfulness that overtakes all too many serious painters today. As much as I worry about the power of the trashmeisters who now dominate so many of our galleries and museums, I worry more about an atmosphere that makes it so difficult for painters who are actually engaged with the possibilities of brushes and pigments to feel free.

He has a point, and it is one I can nod with some acknowledgment. But he doesn’t stop there. He takes these issues—of tiny works and of Ray’s “reverse hubris”—into another valence:

Eleanor Ray is in her mid-twenties. That is a time in artists’ lives when they ought to be trying things out, unafraid to make a bad painting. The best artists—the greatest artists—are not afraid to fail. As for Ray, instead of allowing herself to experiment, she remains armored inside her minuscule vignettes. Why this should be I can’t say for sure. But I have a theory. I wonder if Ray, coming of age at a time when painting is said by so many to be dead or dying, believes that the best she can do as a painter is keep a few tiny embers alive…The trouble is that the sizes of the paintings are designed to wrap up any unresolved conflicts in a perfect little package. You cannot really access these paintings. They’re so damn small that they feel as if they’re in lockdown. There is a sensibility here, but it is imprisoned. Whatever interesting conflicts and contradictions the subjects might provoke have been squared away without ever really being addressed.

Painting, which for centuries reigned supreme among the visual arts, has fallen from grace. I am quite sure that Eleanor Ray is aware of this. Every serious painter is…Ray is not alone in going into a defensive posture. With her lyrical painterly postcards, she strikes me as too willing to accept the idea that what has vanished in recent years, perhaps never to return, is painting as an expansive and foundational value or idea—as something worth boldly working for. There is no fight in her work. Behind the elegance of her effects, I sense the sadness of defeat. She is much too young for that.

I didn’t see Ray’s show, but Perl is addressing a larger set of issues than just this one body of work. A big part of his criticism is related to size and scale. Small does not have to stand for fearfulness, a lack of fight, a giving in to defeat. It has been my experience that small format work can achieve the “expansive and foundational value or idea” right alongside the supersized installation, and one of the best places to see that demonstrated right now is at MassMOCA.

Most visitors are coming to MassMOCA to see work by high visibility artists: Xu Bing‘s massive Phoenix and the installations by Anselm Kiefer in the newly opened Hall Foundation building. Both Xu Bing and Kiefer are international art stars, and they use scale to speak boldly about contemporary issues including social and political injustice, over industrialization, the death of values and tradition.

But the epic and larger-than-life is after all just one approach. Also on view at MassMOCA are works more intimately sized but also compelling, fearless and brave. Joseph Montgomery‘s Five Sets Five Reps is wall assemblages have a muscularity all their own while also exuding a playful inventiveness. These pieces are exciting and feel like they could climb right off the wall and into your body. Life’s Work features the singular works of Tom Phillips and Johnny Carrera. Philips’ visual transmogrification of a Victorian novel, Humument, is a tour de force of intimacy, playful seduction and mastery. Both Philips and Montgomery are fabulously gifted artists, and I spent more time with their works because they were so complex and compelling.

For years on Slow Muse I have advocated for the both/and. This is not just a liberal pluralism that can be dismissed for its unwillingness to make distinctions. My both/and is actually its own kind of subversion, but a subversion nonetheless.

* Thank you to friend and Slow Muse reader Tim Rice for bringing this essay to my attention. His upcoming show at Don Soker Gallery in San Francisco opens in October 5.

Tom Philips

Tom Philips

Tom Philips

Installation view of Tom Philips’ Humument

Joseph Montgomery

Joseph Montgomery

Joseph Montgomery

Installation view of Joseph Montgomery’s Five Sets Five Reps

9 Replies to “State of Paint”

  1. Hurrah for small work! I thought Perl’s opening to his essay was mean spirited and unnecessarily harsh toward a young artist, and basically wrong headed. Thanks for the introduction to these two interesting artists.

  2. I agree with both/and. Yesterday I saw a stunning exhibition in Edinburgh, Scotland of Peter Doig’s huge canvasses. But I also love Tom Philips work – especially A Humument.
    Large paintings can allow for laziness in the observer because they fill even the peripheral vision, but small paintings require attention, focus, consideration. It is easier to splash for attention with a less good painting if it is big. But small paintings have to be good: they demand that we actively close out the rest of the world around them. They demand that we think about them.
    But critics need to say something to earn their living, and I guess, like large paintings they want to grab any bit of our view.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Olga, thanks so much for your insightful additions to this topic. And I agree with your assessment of the work a small piece requires. And glad you are a Tom Phillips fan–this was my first exposure and I was stunned with delight.

  3. deborahbarlow says:

    Altoon, I would love to see your works light up the space at MassMOCA. The wattage they put out is defying. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Thanks Deborah for these thoughtful connections about the Jed Perl essay. I found so much in his piece that resonates. Having just viewed the Diebenkorn show for the third time in SF, I feel energized and challenged again about painting.

  5. Thank you for this great post! I wonder; maybe there also is a parallel to this in fiction, in long- and short-prose, where longer prose has a higher star than shorter texts, even if some of the worlds best literature is written in only a few lines – ?

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      That’s an interesting analogy Sigrun. It also has some of the gender bias often found regarding epic scaled visual art (most of them are male). Thanks for your comment, a useful expansion of the ideas.

      1. agree about the gender point, well worth studying.

    2. I was thinking along the same lines, Sigrun. Tiny poems are historically less celebrated in Western culture (unless perhaps we count “fragments” of Sappho or Catullus, etc).

      In the East, there are–in addition to epics–very small poems (haiku, tanka, and some of the “miniature” Chinese and Indonesian forms)…and some of them are more famous than the longer poems.

      I like Deborah’s observation that “both/and is actually its own kind of subversion.” A subversion of rigid black/white body/mind thinking that remains so dominant.

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