Return to Articles

Mario Cutajar


Christopher Wool, “She Smiles
for the Camera I,” 2005, enamel
on linen, 104 x 78”.
 Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

Christopher Wool, “Untitled,”
2005, silkscreen ink
on linen, 104 x 78”.
 Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

Christopher Wool, “You Said
Tomorrow Yesterday II,” 2005,
enamel on linen, 104 x 78”.
 Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.
On a rainy ray in April I trudged along Wilshire Boulevard and then up Camden Drive in Beverly Hills--which for me has all the charm of a facelifted celebrity mug in premature rictus--to take a gander at Christopher Wool’s latest paintings at the Gagosian Gallery.  Inside I moved from painting to painting leaving a snail’s trail of water on the polished concrete floor.  Wool’s monochromatic smeared paintings evoked the rain-swashed streets outside.  I looked at the paintings while listening to the disembodied voice of a particularly loud woman coming from the partitioned but not soundproofed sanctum upstairs.  She could have been discussing money or somebody’s mental health. The timbre of her voice conveyed more than her words.  It was the clamor of the banal and it shattered the decorum of the white cube far more effectively than any work of art--however “low”--could.  This was a day when the “outside,” the beyond the frame of art, was not going to be denied.

I could have been put out but I wasn't.  I was actually grateful. The social machinery that supports art takes great pains to not reveal itself. It's there. It's always there.  Paintings don't get on walls by themselves. And those walls, especially in Beverly Hills, don't rent themselves for free.  But just as the military-grade logistics needed to create the illusion of naturalness on the movie screen are always outside the frame they construct, so too are the dealings and machinations that make possible the gallery experience.  When you walk into the white cube you enter a bubble.  Even the air is different: it's scented with the ever-present traces of drying latex paint, the hospital smell of art.  And in this bubble, everything conspires to induce amnesia, to make you forget what you were before you entered the cube and what you were thinking about and how it might connect with what you are seeing framed by all that white space.  It's like an alien abduction!  Except that in alien abductions the focus is on you.  People who fantasize about alien abduction are fantasizing about achieving the status of art and becoming objects of intense scrutiny, thus momentarily enjoying an extraordinariness denied to them in real life.  In the gallery, it is the objects on the walls that have been abducted, and it is their ordinariness you are supposed to forget.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing.  This abduction, this removal of images and objects from the seamless continuum of the ordinary is how art enables us to experience the ordinary as, well, a little less ordinary.  Duchamp's famous inverted urinal, “Fountain,” is the perfect illustration of this.  Yes, you can read it as a smartalecky provocation, but once you're over that you are perhaps also prepared to recognize that a urinal is a receptacle for more than one meaning, as indeed all objects potentially are. Witness the roles they play in dreams.

But as the arrest of the man who earlier this year took a hammer to a copy of “Fountain” at the Pompidou Center demonstrates, the revaluing of the ordinary as art is also in the context of the market the realization of the alchemist's dream of turning lead into gold.  This particular urinal, one of several that Duchamp put R Mutt's signature on, is now valued at $13.6 million.  It is this sleight of hand, whereby a conceptual maneuver furtively elides into a commercial one, that reveals how the decorum of the white cube is also a marketing setup.  A $13.6 million Duchamp makes a con artist out of Duchamp.  It transforms an act of liberating subversion, which conferred dignity on the lowest objects (and by extension on the humblest forms of labor), into something like stock market manipulation.

Marcel Duchamp, “Fountain,” 1917, readymade—porcelain urinal.

Which is why on the afternoon I was at Gagosian I took pleasure in the unintended leakage of the inane into the hallowed space of the marketably significant.  But the greater pleasure, an unexpected one, was that the paintings held their own.  The whole context was loaded against these paintings and yet they somehow overcame it. We connected.

What did I connect with?  I would say a species of intelligence whose hallmark for me is the sense an artwork conveys of its author’s awareness of its potential futility.  Not the certainty of it. Certainty is always either delusional or fake.  It is, at any rate, a foreclosure, a defense, even when it is powered by nihilistic rage.  If you are certain that what you’re doing is pointless, than the only honest thing is to stop.  No need to fill warehouses full of art about the death of art.  Just dig a trench and bury it and move on to something else.

Wool’s paintings from the time he started stenciling letters on his canvases to his current practice of composing by decomposing, painted by wiping off what he has painting, accreting by erasing, have always seemed to have as their underpinning an obsessing over the nature and viability of painting and beyond that of the viability of language itself.  It has therefore been easy for critics to tag his work as painting about painting.  Which is accurate enough as far as it goes.

Steve Roden, "loops of limbs and
branches unknown", 2006, oil/acrylic/
polyurethane on linen, 36" x 44".  
Courtesy Susanne Vielmetter Gallery.

Steve Roden,
"one mountain
of found breath", 2006, oil/
acrylic on linen, 38" x 46".
Courtesy Susanne Vielmetter Gallery.
But the question is: why such agony over painting? What is the nature of the trauma (whose name is Warhol) that painting can’t get over?

The standard answer, of course, is mechanical reproduction, but that is only half an answer, and indeed, it is an answer to a misphrased question.  Painting doesn’t suffer. Painters do.  And of those who do, most seem to be men.  It took the impact of Wool’s paintings to reveal to me how deeply gendered this question of painting’s viability is.

The question “What is a painting?” is code for “What is a man?”  Were it not so, it would be impossible to explain why the spectacle of someone like Wool mopping up his effusions (or can we come straight out and call them ejaculations?) like a self-effacing Pollock would be so affecting to someone like me.  Painting and the painter’s putative virility have long association.  I would even hazard that the association between the phallus and the brush go all the way back to cave painting.  By the same token, the disdain for painting evinced from Duchamp (who used the phrase “bête comme un peintre" typically translated as “as stupid as a painter” but loaded with the association between “stupid” and “bestial”) through to Warhol has an implicitly queer subtext, a disaffiliation from painting’s machismo.

Wool’s example is proof that the de-macho-ization of painting need not equate to its extinction.  In fact, if anything, the notion that one can no more know a priori what a painting is than what a man is opens up hitherto unsuspected possibilities.  And perhaps one of those possibilities is a return to styles of abstraction that predate Abstract Expressionism.

This is the impression I took away when I checked out the Fascination show at Cal State L.A.’s Luckman Gallery.  “(keep feeling) Fascination” (named after a 1982 synthpop hit by Human League) is a survey show of what is billed as recent L.A. abstraction.  Over the years I’ve been to a number of similar shows and this one at first struck me as on the whole oddly conservative.  With the exception of Amy Wheeler (who was also at Shoshana Wayne Gallery), whose color and facture seem to reference digital processes and chromas, the other artists in a show anchored around a couple of Steve Roden’s larger paintings appear to be rediscovering Kandinsky, Klee, the School of Paris, Arthur Dove, and the Symbolists.  But what at first glance might appear retrograde,  is actually the emergence of approaches to abstraction unburdened by the ponderous rhetoric of transcendence and existential angst.  Roden’s visual “transcriptions” of music (of which a number were recently on view at Susanne Vielmetter) seem strangely static and mineral-like.  And yet their oddness makes them memorable.  Portia Hein's liquid forms set against atmospheric grounds employ the fluidity of paint to suggest floating botanical forms on the verge of re-becoming paint blobs.  David McDonald, perhaps better known as a sculptor, has a painting of what looks like a mustachioed head.  Others in the show make reference to forms that can be read as representational and indifferent to the “purity” of abstraction.  That’s one thing these artists have in common.  The other is that none of them seem to be terribly perplexed about what painting is or can or can’t be.  They’ve moved on.

Kids these days. They just don’t know how to suffer.

Amy Wheeler, "Tonight Tonight,"
2003, acylic on canvas, 60 x 54”.  
Courtesy Shoshana Wayne Gallery

Portia Hein, "Untitled (PH77)," 2005,
watercolor & acrylic on canvas, 90 x 54”.  
Courtesy Anna Helwing Gallery.

David McDonald, “Free From
Ailments #1,” 2003, acrylic/joint
compound/wax on wood, 44 x 42".  
Courtesy Newspace Gallery.