8 Figurative Painters in an Atemporal World
by Patrick Neal on March 4, 2015

In the reviews of The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, the Museum of Modern Art’s first survey of contemporary painting in a very long time, a few critics recalled the modest but important surveys of new art the museum used to mount decades ago. These up-to-the-minute shows of American art were organized every few years by legendary curator Dorothy Miller, and the Guggenheim Museum did a similar thing with its “Exxon Nationals” series that ran sporadically from 1978 to ’85. All of these exhibitions took into consideration the possibility for multifarious and idiosyncratic artistic practices across the nation.

I thought of this while coming across the exhibition 8 Painters at Danese Corey Gallery, the title of which jibes with the simple namesakes 12 Americans or 19 Artists of these earlier survey shows. And it is interesting that 8 Painters, comprised of all figurative painting, and timed to run concurrently with The Forever Now, offers an alternative to the mostly abstract works at MoMA. If abstraction is favored by undiscerning speculator collectors as well as museums hoping to advance a fast-forward chronology of art history, there is still no small amount of figurative work on the scene. The abstract works in The Forever Now reveal a hodgepodge of styles, with artists picking and choosing motifs across time and space and putting them together in single works (hence the term atemporal). Image-based artists are doing much the same thing. Recurrent throughout 8 Painters are stylings on past painterly marks and movements, not so much placed in quotations as absorbed into a work’s facture.

Liz Markus’s painting “Lee Radziwill in Nina Ricci” (2014) brought to mind a film I once saw of the painter Helen Frankenthaler entertaining guests at a dinner party. Markus’s stain technique mimics Frankenthaler’s color field sponging and features a similar campy, bourgeois subject as the film. The socialite Lee Radziwill in lavish surroundings woozily emerges from the raw canvas, with Markus capturing the loopy adornments of ostentatious furniture in traces of glittery, gold paint. The work adopts a painting style as outmoded as last season’s fashions and redeploys it in a dreamy reverie, a tact similarly used by the painter Thomas Trosch.

Doron Langberg’s sensual “Staring Into Space” (2014) with its high-key color and scorched surface evokes the heated, atmospheric intimacy of the Nabis and the homoerotic expressionism of the Berlin “Junge Wilde” group of the late ’70s. The painting shows a man sitting on the edge of a table, his long legs stretched before us and mingling with the legs of the table, the domestic interior abstracted into decadent royal gold and purple colored shapes. Langberg’s realistic depiction of the figure has stylistic affinities to Jennifer Packer’s “Mario” (2014). Both use streaks of translucent paint allowing light from the grounding canvas to show through and activate negative space as a structural component. Their works are both bound up in a psychological ether with the space around things woven together.

One can sense a mood and storyline around Matt Bollinger’s three paintings even before reading words associated with his images. Two small paintings of a police report and newspaper story detail a crime involving Bollinger’s father. A single large work, “Storage,” revealing a car stored in a garage full of junk, hangs from nails on the wall much like a drop cloth. In the smaller works, the words on paper are framed within orange folders atop wooden desks, just as the garage door and walls frame the wrecked car parked inside. The works have a mournful, subdued palette of pale oranges, brown, and tan and the artist uses collage in surprisingly effective ways, placing together textural, cut pieces of paper that evoke rust, clutter, decay, and loss.

Bollinger and the artist Joey Frank play up the geometry and structure inherent in simple domestic objects: a folder, board game, or sheet of paper — things that are essentially flat and lend themselves to a picture plane. In Frank’s large painting, “Summer Puzzle, therapy puzzle/ palm reading puzzle” (2014), three different scenarios reveal themselves as scrambled pieces from three different jigsaw puzzles. The painting is constructed and brushed with an unfussy, casual hand and plays with elements of randomness, chance, and free association. As the title suggests, there are allusions to beach, water, sand, bodies, dreams, and astrology, all jumbled in a non-linear, horizontal layering.

In Nina Chanel Abney’s earlier work, wacky, perverse story lines and characters were painted in brushy and block-like combinations. At Danese Corey, she exhibits two identical diptychs, one in color and the other in black and white, and this new work is flatter and more somber, in the manner of Jacob Lawrence meets Kota Ezawa. Dotted with mysterious numbers and resembling board games, signs, or value charts, the flat technique works to convey an obscure mash-up of images as absorbed through cartoons, shuffleboards, computers, and movie screens.

The skin of acrylic paint in Kimo Nelson’s “Untitled (#0417)” (2014) has a ripped “affichiste” surface, as if distressed in the process of drying with pieces torn and repositioned. In bright blues and pinks the painting suggests a brutal, arctic landscape, airy at top and heavy at bottom with a cool river flowing through, maybe blocks of ice, snow, mountains, or a glacier. Nelson appears to be responding to what happens physically during the painting process — there are a variety of linear striations brushed in varying thickness, while marks skirt the edges of other marks or are applied internally as bands.

There are moments in the show where it’s difficult to get a handle on individual artist’s larger projects. For example, Caitlin Cherry exhibits a cartoonish painting of the alien from the Predator movies in a canvas that hangs from the ceiling and hovers over a pedestal, surrounded within a force-field of green lasers. Smoke machines blow foggy mists, creating a spooky ambiance in the darkened alcove where it resides, but the painting gets a bit lost, its simple construction at odds with the over-the-top installation. Nonetheless, the work has a humorous theatricality that builds on Cherry’s practice of propelling paintings into institutionalized settings that contemplate technology and warfare.

8 Painters is riddled with inferences to games and media as well as slacker, sophomoric, and abject themes that can be off-putting at first but come into focus as more time is spent with each artist. With a resurgent interest in “New Image” and “Bad” painting, it is timely that image-based artists are also at liberty to freely borrow from art’s past without resorting to a lot of theoretical overkill or being reigned in by recent developments. As advanced by The Forever Now show, working in an atemporal mindset can be a thrilling conceit but also poses an obvious challenge: after all the borrowing, will a given work actually add up to something of substance? It’s a hopeful sign that the artists in 8 Painters demonstrate a critical distillation of influences that inform their particular sensibilities, philosophical outlooks, and relationship to materials — not making any great claims, just proceeding in a personally deliberate way.

8 Painters continues at Danese Corey Gallery (511 West 22nd Street, Manhattan, Chelsea) through March 14.

8 Figurative Painters in an Atemporal World