Carnival Spirit Reigns at P.S. 1;
Existence of Painting Affirmed
P.S. 1 is now the official amusement park of the Museum of Modern Art. That’s the conclusion I reached during a recent visit to Long Island City’s
MoMA affiliate. At the gate, an attendant stamped a “P.S. 1” logo on my hand-a ritual usually observed at places like Rye Playland. When I asked if this allowed me unlimited rides on the Log Flume, he chuckled and answered, “Absolutely.”
On that Saturday afternoon, a veritable Beach Blanket Bingo was spread out in the courtyard: kiddie pools, lawn chairs and hot tubs situated among environmental sculptures. Patrons stood in line, waiting to buy beer from the museum’s keg. An outdoor concert veered between live avant-classical and prerecorded disco rave; it was less irksome than I initially thought, but irksome all the same. The best thing at the museum that day was not anything I saw or heard, but the smell of burgers grilling on the barbecue.
P.S. 1 still claims to having something to do with art, and what brought me there was the exhibition Painting
Report: Plane: The Essential of Painting . Curated by Alanna Heiss, the
director of P.S. 1, along with associate curator Daniel Marzona, Painting Report marshals evidence to support the contention that “the grand continuity of painting exists.” It’s certainly nice of the institution to acknowledge an art form it usually relegates to its stairwells and cellar. Not that P.S. 1 has become a friend of painting-if anything, Ms. Heiss’ introduction to the show, featured in a museum brochure, is a study in equivocation.
Having cited the Modernist painter Maurice Denis’ famous dictum that a painting is “essentially a plane surface covered by colors arranged in a certain order,” Ms. Heiss goes on to claim that “the literal surface … [has] become its own metaphor.” This is a short-sighted notion of what painting is, one influenced less by Denis-who must be spinning in his grave at this point-than by the inflexible strictures of Minimalism. The “literal surface” of a painting, while an integral part of its structure, can’t function metaphorically. Metaphor is provided by illusion, by the fictional space the artist creates, making use of the formal elements of the medium.
One shouldn’t be too hard on Ms. Heiss. P.S. 1 is, after all, an institution dedicated to the throwaway aesthetic. When the director dutifully notes that painting “is construed by many as part of an aesthetic system largely consigned to the post-modernist wastebasket,” we get a pretty good idea which side of the wastebasket dynamic she’s rooting for.
The artists featured in Painting Report are Al Held, Kristin Baker, Fabian Marcaccio and William Scharf. Though each of these artists deals with the picture plane in a singular manner, the exhibition isn’t thorough or focused enough to fill out its conceit. Painting Report is more like a random sampling of favorite artists. Mr. Held is given the lion’s share of space, due presumably to his seniority and reputation, but also, surely, to the immensity of his paintings. His aggressive pictures of zooming sci-fi architecture have never looked better than they do in P.S. 1’s big room. Mr. Held’s “ecstatic profusion,” as a wall label has it, nearly justifies the scale of his canvases, one of which measures 15 by 30 feet. And yet, despite his sophistication, Mr. Held’s vast, spectacular exercises in color, light and space remain just that-exercises.
Mr. Held is Michelangelo in comparison with the other artists included in Painting Report . Ms. Baker’s paeans to racing cars are visually astute but materially inert, and Mr. Marcaccio’s wall-sized assemblage is over-the-top and ugly, a screed against painting rather than an extension of it. Mr. Scharf’s Surrealist reveries are gratifyingly mild in this context, as are the small, art-schoolish paintings of the German artist Magnus von Plessen, the subject of an exhibition in one of P.S. 1’s side galleries. Mr. von Plessen has looked at more Gerhard Richter than is healthy for any human being, but his curt paintings of empty industrial spaces aren’t without merit: In fact, Nightroom I and Nightroom III (both 1999) are more convincing as proof of painting’s viability than anything in Painting Report . As for the viability of high art, P.S. 1 made up its mind about that ages ago.
Painting Report: Plane: The Essential of Painting and Magnus von Plessen: Recent Paintings are both at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, 22-25 Jackson Avenue at 46th Avenue, until Sept. 30.
My response to the work of the Bay Area artist William T. Wiley has always been tepid, but in a curious, unnamable way. I don’t dislike his art. When looking at one of Mr. Wiley’s elaborate mixed-media pictures, I’m amused by its dry and sly fusion of the mythological, the hermetic and the down-home. There’s a lot to see in one of his paintings, as well as things to appreciate. The trouble is, I never find myself in front of Mr. Wiley’s art willingly-I stumble upon it on the way to something else.
Thanks to A Slow Time in Arcadia , an exhibition at the George Adams Gallery that pairs Mr. Wiley with fellow San Franciscan Roy DeForest, I now understand my indifference. At the bottom of one of his canvases, Mr. Wiley has written his credo: “P.S. I’d rather be laid back-than layed [sic] up or down.” It’s not that I prefer art that’s uptight; it’s that I prefer art that gets up and goes. Mr. Wiley’s art just sits there, satisfied with its own reclusive self. Even when he makes a funny priapic effigy from a stick, some wire, a provocatively bent section of garden hose and an alarmingly grungy sock, Mr. Wiley does so with a casual disregard-as if he couldn’t care less whether anyone ever saw the thing.
The same is true of Mr. DeForest. I’m sad to say so, particularly because in the past I’ve enjoyed his cartoonish panoramas of dogs, deities and pinched dabs of acrylic paint. Is Mr. Wiley dragging Mr. DeForest down? The issue may be geographical. It was the conceptual artist John Baldessari, if I recall correctly, who defined the difference between the East Coast artist and the West Coast artist: The former worries about how his art fits into history, while the latter worries about how his art fits into his car.
I’m not about to engage in California bashing-not when one of my favorite painters, Richard Diebenkorn, is a son of the state-but a good-natured isolation may be the source of the laxity Mr. Wiley and Mr. DeForest share. I still hold out hope for the latter. Mr. DeForest’s Nevada (2002), a kitschy and cutesy mixed-media wall sculpture, is sardonic enough to make me believe that there’s more oomph to the oeuvre than is currently on display.
Roy DeForest and William T. Wiley: A Slow Time in Arcadia; Paintings, Drawings and Constructions, 1960-2002 , is at the George Adams Gallery, 41 West 57th Street, until Aug. 23.