Painters Read Paintings
By Jen Caruso
In the overview text to Painter Painter, the Walker Art Center’s first group show on painting in twelve years, the co-curators, Eric Crosby and Bartholomew Ryan, ask us to consider “what is at stake for a new generation committed to the medium.” What are painters, specifically, young painters, saying about the work? As an educator and a critic, I think about the context of this exhibition as a way to open up a discursive space, a conversation between the artists in the show and their peers—young, contemporary painters. To that end, I invited some of my students from the MFA program at MCAD to help me read these paintings. I wanted to listen to them as they described how they identified with the works in the show, as painters engaged themselves in the process of making.
I first meet with Ashely Peifer, a second year MFA student, at the library. We find a quiet corner, and she enthuses about the Painter Painter show: “It’s so open-ended. You can walk around the exhibition and there’s metal and wood that is a painting, apparently. And there’s Katy’s [Katy Moran] collages. And there’s these lovely small paintings by Lesley Vance. And then, there’s these tubes, that are prints, scattered throughout. They aren’t putting any boundaries on it.”
She is quick to address the difficulty in finding group exhibitions devoted to contemporary painting. “For the Walker to have a show called Painter Painter that has two of my favorite painters in it is thrilling, and I love that people are thinking about it, talking about it.” This listening and talking is itself a generative process that has spilled over from the work, beginning with the opening day talk, “Painting in the Present Tense.” Musing on that conversation, Ashely considers, “It seems like painting absorbs whatever is thrown at it. People say it’s dead and that there is nothing else you can do with it. But painters keep painting and things keep happening. It’s not a timeline that is ending. It will always be there. When Jan Verwoert talked about the crabwalk, and when he talked about the reverberation, that was eye-opening for me. It just refined what I’m dealing with in my own work.”
Verwoert’s “crabwalk” describes painting’s lateral relationship to other fields of cultural production, pop music, advertising, or design. As an art student, Ashely explains that it is important for her to see a focused group of her contemporaries, to situate herself in a group whose work either reflects her own experience, or challenges her expectations.
Like the work of Fergus Feehily. “I was really surprised by those, and I spent a long time with them. I couldn’t figure out why they were in these thrift store frames and why they were so quick. I’m still trying to wrap my head around those. But I enjoyed them. Oh, and obviously, Molly [Zuckerman-Hartung].”
Ashely describes her own painting as, at some level, “reflecting the fragmentation and speed of everyday life.” This is why she likes the work of Katy Moran. “She will use pictures from her cell phone or magazine clippings, anything that interests her and just paint them loosely into her painting to reflect that frenzied experience we all have in today’s culture—the primacy of the digital image, and that everything is accessible at all times.” I remember that last year part of her process included abstracting landscapes from popular Instagram images. She pauses to consider this further. “Last year I was thinking positively about digital images and how we can just remix things. But now I’m sick of the digital and being chained to my laptop scrolling through Pinterest.” She laughs. “I do have three different Tumblrs. But one is an archive of images of my past homes and places that are meaningful to me. And sometimes I’ll reference them. But usually, now, I start painting places from memory. I’m nostalgic for real place, now.”
At the Painter Painter show, I stop before Sarah Crowner’s luscious fabric triptych, Ciseaux Rideaux and admire the way the acid lemon, buff, hot pink, and other fashion colors begin a dialogue with my dress. I greet Trevor Knott and Dani Marie Wagner, two more MFA students who will take me through the show. Trevor describes himself as a painter whose work is engaged very much in questions of process, performance, and ritualized experience. Dani is also a painter whose work engages thematically with questions of gender identity, embodiment, and representation. I want them to show me how painters read paintings.
Trevor immediately makes for a diptych by Matt Connors, Second Divot (articulated) for Candy. “This is a piece that really works. It feels like this is a real process piece. It doesn’t have any pretentious qualities to it. For example, they are on the floor, because you don’t hang screens on the wall. He’s also using process color—cyan, magenta.” In contrast, the marks on Fergus Feehily’s The Ship feel too contrived and hesitant. The dense and sickly coiling wetness of Dominik Sittig’s painting has similar references to studio practices. Trevor: “I just love that combination of process color and the look of the ink in the studio. I love that all that nasty ink that you never use can go into something beautiful like this. Printmakers see this all the time, and they toss it out.” Dani shares that, for a time, she also tried to find ways to use up her leftover paint. The two speak of ways that each has tried to get rid of old works, by cutting them apart, or by excavating old canvas, shredding and ripping.
Dani finds an example in Molly Zuckerman-Hartung’s, The Necessary (Blushing for Now). She points out the exposed staples that attach old canvases to new. “I always think of bodies when I think of painting. This makes it vulnerable. There’s something honest about not denying the existence of a past attempt.” This raw vulnerability spills onto the floor, a net of shredded drop-cloths that forms part of The Failure of Contingency, Molly’s sculptural installation. Dani says, “I see this as a beached painting . . . washed up on the shore.” Trevor thinks along more extraterrestrial lines. “It should be suspended in space, to survive. But it can’t.” I think of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, the beach at the end of the world, upon which the last creatures on earth crawl. There’s a melancholy sense of futility to this work, but no sense that the process will end.
Shifting scale, but keeping with the melancholy tone, we linger for long minutes over Lesley Vance’s intimate and lovely, translucent wave forms. Trevor shows how the works are about duration. He reads the varied stresses in the marks, when the scraper is used to shift the pigment. “Every time the artist pauses there is this Fibonacci, Nautilus shell effect. Subtle, minute pauses, choreographed, like a soundtrack.” Dani observes,“There’s a really interesting shift between figure and ground here. Like a little window into something. And there’s the horizon line.” She’s right. I picture the artist slowly turning the tool, each click opening up just a little more of the view.
In front of Alex Olson’s Proposal 9, a grid of deliberate, graphite-dusted strokes on a feathery background, Dani reads tonal shifts within the gray marks, identifying a repeating warm tone that generates a rhythm that carries us over the surface. Trevor is respectful of the skill involved in creating the decorative, fabric-inspired pattern of Proposal 10. In contrast, Rosy Keyser’s Big Sugar Sea Wall shows the struggle of an artist trying to come to terms with new, perhaps intimidating building materials—corrugated steel panels. These are mounted onto a light wooden grid. Trevor shakes his head: “I see all the confidence in the frame, but they aren’t abusing the materials enough.”
On our way out, Trevor pauses in front of one of Matt Connors’s rolled prints. “What do we think of these ink jets?” I wonder, could part of abstraction be that process of translating a painter’s mark, so that it barely retains its reference to painting? Trevor insists that this work doesn’t hold up. “I get that this is an abstraction of a stroke. But there’s not much process there. Send this to a print shop. Roll it up and stand it up.” Dani is a bit more deferential. “It does bring up the question of the difference between painting and sculpture. And we’re in a space now where we aren’t quick to label.” Trevor concedes, “I agree that it should be here, but I don’t consider it a painting. It has a value in generating conversation, but that’s it.”
What strikes me, however is how generous they are with their peers. They refer to the painters by their first names. As they engage with the works, they enact the gestures of which the marks are a trace—draw, wipe, pull, stroke. They feel the process that goes into the work. They feel the struggle themselves and they know where it went wrong. They also know when it is done right. If they are quick to point out the failures, it is only because they would also hold themselves to the same standard.
Because this is important work. If the most powerful paintings in the show refer to anything, it is to a generalized anxiety about process, the thrum and movement of differentiation, the contrast between historical and cosmic time and between human and stronger, more elemental and destructive forces. Paint is either thickly layered, sometimes achieving a peat-like density, or suggestive of the slowed flow of tar. There are just glimpsed references to broken shells, and driftwood, sea caves and creatures, coiling weeds and drifting tentacles. It is not Ashely’s longed-for real place, but it is a place that refers to something abstractly matter, something abstract that matters, beyond the surface, on the surface.
1. Alex Olson
2. Molly Zuckerman-Hartung
3. Installation shot.
4. Dianna Molzan
5. Matt Connors
6. Sarah Crowner