Painting ExpandedMay 6, 2013
On Saturday, April 13, 2013, ten artists representing a range of painterly approaches and hailing from Los Angeles, New York, and the Bay Area gathered in San Francisco to take the pulse of a practice that is denigrated as often as it is celebrated. Linda Geary and James Gobel (the chair and associate chair, respectively, of California College of the Arts’ painting program) organized the symposium, which was attended by a large, enthusiastic audience, and introduced it with the stated intention to address issues of practice and theory as well as matters of material, form, and context that seem urgent in contemporary painting. They addressed neither the specter of Rosalind Krauss invoked by the title of the day’s proceedings nor the legitimation of painting after the advent of conceptualism, paving the way instead for an exemplary range of perspectives linking painting to both life and art. The subsequent ten-minute presentations by each of the invited artists set the stage for two roundtable discussions in which shared concerns and interests quickly coalesced.
Any unease caused by the prospect of one hundred minutes of painterly presentation was instantly dispelled by the Los Angeles–based practitioner Tom LaDuke’s high-octane, confessional exposé of the “humiliation” of painterly practice. With deadpan drollery, LaDuke raced through a gamut of concerns, from abject life to brutish death, presenting images of paintings that veered from the photorealistic to the abstract and of extraordinarily painstaking, lifelike sculptures. He candidly voiced the angst of striving to sustain a hermetic studio-based existence, of imbuing painting with conceptual and metaphysical validity, of being stuck with oneself and one’s compulsive behaviors, and of constantly seeking the means to short-circuiting one’s predilections in pursuit of an innovative artistic practice that retains urgency for both practitioner and viewer. In situating the development of his art directly alongside his life experiences, and in expressing doubt and desperation, LaDuke placed painting firmly at the center of a sentient artistic practice. In a way, he said it all.
The other presentations in the morning’s session were as impassioned, although more traditional in form and content. Another painter based in L.A., Lecia Dole-Recio earnestly focused on the importance of Jasper Johns’s catenary works to her practice and the related process by which she constructs her “queer formalist” paintings, as she describes them. Mary Weatherford, also of L.A., transported the audience to the culturally bereft location of Bakersfield, where she recently completed a series of abstract paintings incorporating neon tubes in homage to the city’s nocturnal signage. The San Francisco–born Mary Heilmann, perhaps the most unashamedly painterly of the lineup and the most established, at least in terms of her market, surveyed her current exhibition at the Neues Museum in Nuremberg, providing a few insights into her particular brand of transcendental color-based abstraction along the way. Bookending the morning presentations with a return to a more analytical approach, the New York–based Meleko Mokgosi situated his most recent body of work—Pax Kaffraria: Sikhuselo Sembumbulu, a series of large-scale paintings meditating on a nineteenth-century gesture of resistance in his native Botswana—somewhere between Western postcolonial discourse and what he described as a more popular version of narrativity, or the conditions of presenting narrative peculiar to his native country.
An artist’s interest in the viewer—the flipside of (often) working in isolation—emerged in the presentations and was concretized further in the subsequent discussion. Heilmann used the term relational aesthetics to describe this connection, provoking an astute question from the audience about what this might mean to each of the practitioners. It became clear that an extension of Duchamp’s notion that a viewer completes the work was at stake, together with a concomitant desire on the behalf of an artist to offer up an intuitive, visceral experience for a viewer. Intersubjectivity thus becomes a way of shifting the energy and focus from the making to the presentation of something that is ambivalent in order to allow viewers to pose questions or give answers. This ambivalence is clearly also of importance to artists in terms of sustaining their interest in their work, of keeping it fresh and progressive. LaDuke’s suggestion that mistakes can catalyze new developments was consequently embraced by the group and was interestingly counterbalanced by Mokgosi’s research-based practice, which can consume up to eight months of planning and experimentation before he even applies paint to canvas.
The afternoon session was initiated by Dushko Petrovich, an artist known for co-publishing Paper Monument as much as, or perhaps even more than, for his paintings. Petrovich’s expanded practice, which also involves curating, is invested in giving the greater community of art makers a platform for sharing resources and is intriguingly at odds with his ravishingly elliptical, monochrome flower paintings. The only self-confessed non-painter in the lineup, the local artist Vincent Fecteau followed Petrovich with a series of photographs of paintings in domestic environments from interior decoration and architecture magazines to explore issues of context and reproduction. Keltie Ferris spoke next about the relationship of the city—the vernacular of store windows, graffiti, and streets (specifically the short stretch of Brooklyn she walks daily from coffee shop to studio)—to her abstract paintings. In contrast to the specificity of her references, Ferris expressed some of the most expansive ambitions for her paintings, in terms of their effect on viewers and the most unabashed pleasure she takes in making them.
Another artist based in New York, Keith Mayerson had apparently arrived a few hours earlier. An overdose of caffeine may have been partly responsible for the dizzyingly rapid delivery of his paean to New York, to life as part of a committed gay couple, and to his upcoming exhibition, while his semiotics studies at Brown University doubtlessly accounted for the theory that heavily freighted his presentation. Amy Bessone brought the proceedings to a soothing close, relocating us back in L.A. and describing the logistics of juggling her family’s needs with her studio practice and the way in which even the subject of her work has been impacted by motherhood. In their respective ways, Mayerson and Bessone brought a personal slant to the proceedings, offering their domestic values as much as their practices.
The elephant in the room came trumpeting onto the stage in the roundtable following this session, goaded by Petrovich’s claims that he did not enjoy painting, that he was not at all sure why he did it, and that he was uncertain whether or not he could classify himself as a painter. Touched on in many of the presentations and responses, the weird anachronism of being a painter with a studio practice ostensibly divorced from life augmented Ferris’s self-professed delight in the pleasure of painting. Petrovich’s doubts catalyzed a discussion about the presumed death of painting and the attempts to justify it as a contemporary practice. The discussion seemed urgent but was not entirely threatening to the group, whose various responses indicated confidence about the continued life of painting.
None of the views espoused were particularly new or radical. And as there was insufficient time to push past the points raised, the discussions encapsulated the many previous conversations, exhibitions, and articles that have continued to assess or advertise any number of perceived crises and opportunities in painting. That said, the multiplicity of perspectives and practices presented argued that painting can participate in a broader discussion about art while expanding its discipline-specific history and repertoire. Acknowledging certain nagging doubts and situating them within a bigger artistic project does add up to something and can create a space—somewhere between canvas and viewer—that affords specific experiences and encounters. A painter’s agency, then, could lie in inhabiting these doubts, in multiplying and amplifying them to productive ends. It would seem also that surrendering to a process, a series of marks, or a technical exploration can constitute a valid artistic practice, one that takes a long-term approach, comprises repetition and variation, develops gradually, and aims at a greater embedment in the world through materials and work.
What emerged ultimately was an exciting, richly hued portrait of a field open to possibility. The performatory vignettes of artists and their work and the ensuing discussions reflected a vital medium happily engaged in topical questions. Long may it live.
Full Disclosure: Leigh Markopoulos is the chair of the graduate program in curatorial practice at the California College of the Arts.
“Painting Expanded” took place at the California College of the Arts, in San Francisco, on April 13, 2013.