Picturing the World: Painting at the 56th Venice Biennale
Plenty has already been written about the daily recitations of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital at the 56th Venice Biennale, a gesture that served to recapitulate our nervous twitching about art and money. Across the grand swath of global art on display, there were indeed many compelling moments pointing to capitalism as the hoary culprit in our world of excess and inequity. Typically, at the heart of such claims in relation to the art world one finds the medium of painting. With its easel format, its desirability as status and wall turf, painting can become quickly commodified in the powerful global marketplace.
In light of the premise of art as the handmaiden to capital, how did painting fare in this great city of Tintorettos and Veroneses? Did it keep up with curator Okwui Enwezor’s premise for the main curated show, of art’s capacity to address “all the world’s futures” (Enwezor’s title for the exhibition), or did painting rest on its laurels and fall back on those centuries-old traditions on view in the noble city? And how could painting keep apace of the sustained spectacle of the contemporary biennial phenomenon with its buzzing electronic screens, vast object archives, and gesamtskunstwerk installations?
Actually, painting was exceptionally strong in Venice. In accordance with much of the art in the Giardini, the Arsenale, and scattered about town, painting effectively cast a light on the complex texture of the global condition: the tragic horrors and the rapturous beauty humans have wrought past and present. Indeed painting seemed the ideal vehicle for such a thesis, as its seductive convergence of image and affect opened up the world for us to see and feel.
Two important exhibitions framed the painting experience in Venice. One was Jackson Pollock’s Mural (1943), on view for the first time at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection on the Grand Canal. Separated by almost seventy years from the contemporary work blanketing the rest of the city, the massive canvas still exuded the cool bebop freshness that wowed audiences decades ago in New York City. Its earthy, viscous medium sweeping into gestural abstraction and emoting the mythic content for which the New York School was known (remnants of totemic figures from earlier work dance across the canvas) found its legacy elsewhere in the biennale. Tsibi Geva at the Israeli pavilion was a notable example with his existential dramas played out through a powerful mix of Pollock-like brushwork and found material. The work of Huma Bhabha in Enwezor’s curated Central Pavilion (formerly the Italian Pavilion) also relied on a kind of pictographic expressionism drawn from the canon of the New York School, and she was not alone with this strategy. Mural seemed to confirm a direction in painting that has endured, one that still has viewers contemplating the revolution of this breakthrough style and the primal energy of its content.
The second key show that anchored the larger painting discourse in Venice was Peter Doig’s exhibition at the Palazzetto Tito, mounted by the Foundazione Bevilacqua La Masa. This event offered a surfeit of lavish figuration that has been de rigueur in contemporary art and which shows up in spades in Venice. Figuration in painting is back, and Doig has been leading the way with his brilliant use of color, brushwork, and composition to reinforce the majesty of his simple, yet mysterious scenes. Figurative work dominated painting at the biennale, and while Doig was not included in the main event, this satellite show was a reminder of the productive tension between figuration and abstraction that Doig and others craft so well in singular works.
On the Giardini campus, the heart of the biennale, with its venerable pavilions of art and nationhood, painting, predictably, was not in abundance. The notable exception was the Romanian pavilion with the young Adrian Ghenie pulling expressionistic punches that called to mind Vincent van Gogh or perhaps Chaim Soutine. Titled Darwin’s Room and curated by Mihai Pop, Ghenie’s loaded subjects of Charles Darwin, Adolf Hitler, Vladimir Lenin, and other colossal figures of modern history (as well as several gorgeous landscapes) were matched only by the intensity of their rendering. Ghenie deploys oil paint masterfully, with luminous color, highly worked surfaces, and the luscious moves of brush and palette knife both obscuring and exaggerating that which the artist depicts. In Charles Darwin at the Age of 40 (2014), for example, Darwin’s face, which dominates the composition, is really the backdrop for a riotous array of thickly painted marks, dabs, and sweeps of paint, as if the scientist’s mental energy has oozed out of his head to ornament his visage. The pavilion was an ecstatic display of art’s capacity to unleash the imagination through paint.
The Giardini also hosted examples of the so-called expanded field of painting. The Canadian pavilion featured a madcap scene with the art collective BGL stuffing the space with recycled cans of paint and other detritus, a kind of colorful junkyard of retired paint props. And Oscar Murillo draped canvases on the facade of the Central Pavilion—a darker and notably weaker version of Sam Gilliam’s important process art fifty years earlier.
In the Central Pavilion itself, Enwezor included a few brilliant paintings, although he dropped many more into the Arsenale (a welcome reprieve from the dark maze of small video chambers that occupied this space in biennales past). Chicago’s Kerry James Marshall blew me away, with two of his customary figurative works—remarkable genre paintings whose compositions of color, line, and form sang in perfect pitch. These were juxtaposed with two biomorphic Rorschach-like abstractions much less typical of his oeuvre. These latter large-scale, horizontal paintings were incredibly sexy—vaginal in their morphology with hot pinks and fluorescent greens—and made his adjacent figurative works more carnal and erotic. Enwezor sited Marlene Dumas’s intimately cramped skull paintings—simultaneously diagrammatic and visceral—in the next room to remind viewers of art’s timeless preoccupation with the equation of sex and death.
Enwezor also punctuated the Central Pavilion (and the Arsenale) with traditional Aboriginal and Aboriginal-inspired abstractions. These paintings, like Pollock’s Mural down the canal, are examples of art’s capacity for magical and spiritual mapping, as opposed to the other ideologies at play in the biennale. Daniel Boyd updated the meandering line-work of traditional Aboriginal spirit painting with a palimpsest of geographic data embedded into the surface, while Emily Kame Kngwarreye, a leader of women’s art and ritual among the Aboriginal Anmatyerr people, displayed an enormous painting of aqueous and bubbly mark-making in vibrant color.
Works on paper dominated both the Central Pavilion and the Arsenale as if to underscore the social and economic accessibility of this art form in defiance of the escalated art market. There was a wonderful wall of Rikrit Tiravanija’s Demonstration Drawings (2006) for which the artist commissioned Thai artists to copy photographs of political rallies from the International Herald Tribune. Although each was modest in size, the amassing of them all and the practice of ordinary copying served to reinforce the strength of a people’s collective, perhaps a metaphor for Enwezor’s aspiration for the biennale itself. South Asian artist K.M. Madhusudhanan’s thirty drawings from the series Logic of Disappearance: A Marx Archive (2014) presented haunting surrealist juxtapositions of maquettes and statuary of industrial and figural forms—a mechanical bird sprouting from a stone bust of Lenin’s head, for instance—to create oddly gripping political reflections.
While the Giardini was hit the hardest with manifestations of capitalism as the source of current ills ranging from environmental calamity to violent racism, the Arsenale pursued the theme further; but here work displayed more affect, more expressivity. U.S. artist Lorna Simpson’s paintings were a surprise. Against dark washy fields of color a hatted leopard woman in one painting and a writhing, leggy figure in red in another were a far cry from her well-known conceptual photographs. Chris Ofili was also present with Gustav Klimt-ish versions of his recent obsession with nudes and nature. Enwezor placed them in their own gallery space, and Ofili painted the walls with grisaille foliage to complement his boisterous Garden of Eden imagery. (Enwezor gave several artists their own space, including Georg Baselitz whose prominent placement and massive male figures were deeply disturbing given the artist’s recent sexist comments disparaging women painters.) The quieter work of Jumana Emil Abboud in Ballad of the lady who lives behind the trees (2005–14) was another notable homage to women and the land (Palestine in this instance), and it felt discreet, intimate, and poignant in contrast to Ofili’s bravura. Although primarily cut from collage, Kay Hassan from South Africa and Lavar Munroe of the Bahamas put forth “painterly” portraits whose fragmented veneers underscored the hybridity of global identities today.
Again, in the spirit of an expanded definition of painting, Katharina Grosse broke up the incessant march down the Arsenale interior with an installation of more draped canvases (different than the dour Murillos) and piles of rocks and debris similarly sprayed with bright pink, yellow, blue, orange, purple, and green. The piece was like a psychedelic site of destruction or an attempt to graft pleasure over pain.
Central to global progress, to “all the world’s futures,” is the condition of empathy. Artists create reflective work so that others might enter into their worlds, and in so doing expand their own thinking. There was much painting in Venice that depicted the peoples of the world, a kind of contemporary social realism, a bit of poetic ethnography. Viewers witnessed the faces of their sisters and brothers from around the world. From the exceptional group show at the Iranian pavilion which included artist Mehrdad Mohebali and his pointillist depictions of Iranians gazing in balletic sync at something outside of the picture frame, to the Chinese artist Liu Xiaodong at the Faurschou Foundation and his photo-based painted journals of ordinary folk, painting pictured those with whom we must, now more than ever, empathize and relate. That the capitalist marketplace circulates such images only adds to the complexity.
Dean of Faculty and Vice President of Academic Affairs and Professor, Department of Art History, Theory and Criticism; School of the Art Institute of Chicago
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