Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 10, 2012
Jens Hoffman Painting Between the Lines Exh. cat. San Francisco: California College of the Arts, 2012. 72 pp.; many color ills. Cloth $25.00 (9780980205534)
Exhibition schedule: CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, October 4–December 17, 2011
Fred Tomaselli. Watt (2011). Photographic collage, acrylic, and resin on wood panel. 48 x 48 in. Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York / Shanghai.

Painting Between the Lines was an exhibition of the work of fourteen contemporary painters that sought to remedy the sad fact that literature has fallen by the wayside insofar as providing subject matter for contemporary art is concerned. True enough, but the remedy proposed by the exhibition was somewhat problematic, although it did manage to successfully reframe ways that we habitually look at contemporary paintings by encouraging a slower and more considered engagement. Curator Jens Hoffman commissioned each artist to make a work that specifically responded to a passage in a novel that describes a fictional character’s reaction to a painting imagined by the author. Usually, these turned out to be highly stylized literalizations of the works evoked by the texts, each done in a manner that made it readily identifiable as a signature work by the selected artist. Most of the commissioned paintings were on the small side, with the largest measuring about five feet in width or height, and each was hung on a freestanding wall that was set at an oblique angle to another equally sized wall positioned to its left. The suggestion that each pair of walls could be taken as the front and back covers of a much larger book was unavoidable, and a bit irritating, insofar as it distracted the viewer’s attention away from the paintings that were being exhibited.

The left-hand walls contained three elements: the first was signage that cited the passage of text from which the artist worked; the second was an early “collectable” edition of the book from which the text was taken (presented in a Plexiglas vitrine); and the third was a concentric set of sharp rectangles painted on the wall in a way that “framed” the display of text and book, drawing visual attention away from the adjacent painting. To further privilege the textual over the visual, each of the fourteen pairings was set up as a discrete viewing station positioned within a dark and labyrinthine installation that was reminiscent of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery.

Among the questions behind the exhibition are who selected the books, and from those books, who actually picked the text/fragment extracted from them? There are reasons to believe that much of this was done prior to the artists’ involvement in the project, who subsequently might have made choices from an array of proscribed options presented to them by the exhibition organizers. What this means is that the artists are not really formulating painterly responses to the full literary experience of the book to which they were paired, but instead were only operating within the parameters of a kind of “reverse captioning” by which an image could be said to imaginatively annotate a verbal evocation of an image. Thus, from a group of works that seemed to promise a mystic marriage of painting and literature, viewers often only caught a glimpse of a rather awkward first date. In other cases, the paintings did in fact add some stunning creativity to their textual promptings, making the exhibition quite rewarding in spite of its somewhat contrived and potentially overbearing curatorial premise.

In a work titled Watt (2011), Fred Tomaselli deployed geometric repetitions of collaged images of eyes set within transparent medium to reflect a passage taken from Samuel Beckett’s 1953 novel of the same name. The passage contains a character’s rumination about the magnetic tensions between two ovals in the composition of an abstract painting, which are characterized as if they were engaged in some kind of metaphysical duel. Tomaselli’s painting follows suit by placing two oval shapes formed of his collage materials in an overlapping configuration. In Laura Owens’s Untitled painting from 2011, a small festival of Matissian color reflects a passage from Sylvia Plath’s 1963 novel, The Bell Jar, the gist of which points to a failure to recognize one’s self (and one’s pain) for what it is. Wilhelm Sasnol’s Building Site (2010) pictures a stark, seemingly uninhabited industrial building articulated as a colorless social realist ghost that has been “accidentally” besmirched by a streak of brick red paint on its surface. The painting and accidental defacement is described in a passage from Milan Kundera’s 1984 novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, itself a kind of philosophical parable about chance, destiny, and desire.

The inclusion of a painting echoing Oscar Wilde’s 1891 The Picture of Dorian Gray seems a natural curatorial choice, in that Wilde’s fable is the only major work of literature that features a painting as one of its central characters. Unfortunately, Norbert Schwontkowski’s 2011 painting of the same title moves in the direction of a fanciful understatement, showing only a headless Edwardian figure positioned next to a black cat, presumably representing the loss of sanity on the part of the protagonist of Wilde’s brilliant book, but this approach does not do justice to the wit and depth of allegorical insight that was Wilde’s literary stock-in-trade. On the other hand, the single work in Painting Between the Lines that most successfully honors its literary doppelganger is Raqib Shaw’s The Blue Moonbeam Gatherer (2011), a piece that literally reflects the epic grandeur and lustrous prose of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Shaw’s painting is of a nocturnal winter landscape, full of tall mountains and snow-covered trees captured in cool blues and silvery grays. To these he adds a symphony of different reflective materials that make every detail of his composition sparkle in a way that suggests the existence of a magical time and place where archetypal characters fulfill their cosmic destiny. Also worthy of note was Michael Von Ofen’s painting of a ghostly Madonna as filtered through Umberto Eco’s 1980 novel, The Name of the Rose. It is a charming, intimate work that captures its figure in a state of hallucinatory transformation, gradually becoming the Whore of Babylon of Book of Revelations fame.

It was not too long ago when a great many painters were making a lot of noise about being post-ideological, because during the eight-year interregnum between the end of the Cold War and the onset of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, ideology suddenly seemed obsolete, excepting of course that amorphous ideology that was and still is the market called by another name. But all the happy talk about “post-ideological pragmatics” and “the new democracy of images” only set art (in general) and painting (in particular) into an awkwardly subordinate position in relation to the visual culture of the mass media, which is nothing if not pragmatic. Following in the footsteps of Pop Art, many artists were unabashed in taking their inspiration from mass entertainment, not fully realizing that working in such a manner prompted the question: why were they not making mass media, rather than pretending and failing to compete with it on its own technologically enhanced terms? The overheated commercial environments of international art fairs made the situation even worse by reducing visual experience to nanobytes of attention-worthiness set amid oceans of clutter and inflated price tags, further cementing the ill-advised marriage of art and entertainment in a way that left too many serious and challenging artistic inquiries out in the cold while inviting too many intentionally self-trivializing works to warm themselves near the hearth of a fever-stricken art commerce that has always rather poorly pretended to care about “the larger audience.”

Now, a divorce between art and entertainment seems both imminent and desirable, and many of the artists who gained their identity under the 1990’s sign of art-as-entertainment are now trying to distance their work from the allegedly post-ideological world that was their initial habitat. Given this backdrop, we can gladly note that the exercise provided by Painting Between the Lines makes welcome sense as an alternative framing device that can give the work contained within it a kind of literary-conceptual traction that might disengage it from the pop-surrealist clichés of “nineties painting.” It also facilitates a slowing down of the viewer’s gaze, giving that viewer enough pause to see how the complex thing that operates behind any given painting is the most crucial aspect of seeing it at all.

Mark Van Proyen
Associate Professor of Painting and Art History, San Francisco Art Institute

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