More PaintingsMarch 13, 2012
I love the ABBA song “Waterloo” for a lot of reasons, but one of its greatest virtues is how beautifully it demonstrates an artist’s ability to appropriate historical catastrophe in order to express the most present, quotidian pain. The 158 years that separated the Battle of Waterloo and the writing of “Waterloo” were obviously sufficient to enable an innocuous appropriation in pop music. And yet, the song emerged in a precarious social context: “Waterloo” was a top-ten hit in the United States in 1974, when the U.S. was about to surrender in its imperialist war effort in Southeast Asia. So ABBA’s intervention is not only a bit of play with a historical signifier (Waterloo), translated from the martial to the erotic, it also proposes a new model for considering art and history.
More Paintings announces its intention. The show is profoundly about painting in a number of senses. One tactilely feels the commitment on the part of the three artists—Erin Allen, Keith Boadwee, and Isaac Gray, who paint under the moniker, Club Paint—upon viewing the paintings, which vary from one another as much in color and depth as in affect. Primarily the works show a deep relationship with the tradition of Western painting, even as they approach that tradition with a risky level of irreverence.
The signifiers that Club Paint appropriate from the history of painting in More Paintings are not entirely classical. Alongside the many iterations of the nude and the still life (La Brea Tar Pits, 2011), modern and postmodern forms are cited explicitly (“action painting” in Vienna Action, 2011) and suggestively (1980s figure painting in Relational Aesthetics, 2011). Club Paint’s commitment to the tradition of painting is total, including not only the splendors but also the nightmares of Western painting. The works could easily be read as ferociously misogynist, racist, or brutally irresponsible in a time of worldwide political turbulence. And, like the Nordic shock of “Waterloo,” Club Paint’s response to these problems seems to be the provocative and slippery proposition that absolute irreverence is a viable intervention of the conventional engagement with tradition and history.
The ambiguity of this engagement is keyed by the very first painting hanging in the gallery: the brilliant French Revolution (2011). In this work, a poodle drags what appears to be a painting in its jaws, ripping apart the tradition within an image that embodies it. The scribbled quality of the dog’s hair is a counterpoint to both the tradition of sharply rendered poodles that live inside the frames of European paintings and also to the creatures themselves, whose impeccable grooming has become
a cliché. French Revolution singularly performs what all of the paintings in More Paintings achieve in relation to canonical figurative representation: half bark, half bite.
Neither of these paintings approaches the sadistic racial violence of Conspiracy Theory (2011). This painting is difficult to encounter—in part because Conspiracy Theory, like much of the show, is not a straightforward representation of a familiar scene (even a scene of violence that has become familiar). The sex being depicted in Conspiracy Theory is too fucked-up to bear; it refuses to accept politically correct or responsible demands and instead places a new set of demands on its viewer. In this way, Conspiracy Theory is reminiscent of the terrible rape scene in Sam Peckinpah’s film, Straw Dogs (1971), a calculated and measured conflation of violence and masochistic pleasure that, finally, absolutely implicates the viewer who engages the image. The declaration of absolute irreverence as a form of redemption for such violence might not be sufficient for many viewers.
But not every painting in More Paintings provokes such discomfort. La Brea Tar Pits is a rich reiteration of the still-life tradition: on a placid canvas, a gentle (but menacing!) dinosaur rips into a basket of fruit. Emo Painting (2010) shows a skull atop a pillar contemplating its image in a mirror. The eye socket of its mirror image, however, squirts dark—and presumably woeful and fabulously pathetic—lines into the simulacral space. Just as this exhibition brings together the appalling and the hilarious in a shared system relating to the many pictorial gestures of canonical painting, it also shows a range of emotions.
Although Club Paint’s approach risks total irreverence—an irreverence that constitutes a disobedience to liberal political correctness and the whole tradition of Western painting—there are occasionally moments of old-fashioned sympathy and real tenderness in More Paintings. Nobody Loves You When You Are Old And Gay (2011), for instance, has a couple of beautifully cheap jokes, but there is a real loneliness in the composition and an all-too-human heart in what is, paradoxically, not obviously a human body.
There’s a real girl singing “Waterloo.” She’s just about to surrender to her libidinal urges. She doesn’t care about Napoleon, the Bourbon restoration, or the historical vicissitudes of Revanchist regime change. Her palette, like Club Paint’s, is vast enough to include almost everything—even what the three artist collaborators know all too well they should never show. Surrender to its logic or not; there’s no denying that More Paintings raises the stakes of painting.