It’s Not What You Think: From Now On In at Brian Morris/Buddy Warren
From Now On In: Michael Berryhill, Tom Burckhardt, Steve DiBenedetto, Lydia Dona, Fabian Marcaccio, Carrie Moyer, Alexi Worth at Brian Morris Gallery and Buddy Warren Inc.
March 7 to April 25, 2015
171 Chrystie Street, between Delancey and Rivington streets
New York City, (347) 938 2931
One of the better consequences of the much maligned The Forever Now exhibition at MoMA has been to raise the question of what might really constitute significant painting today? With its snarky title, From Now On In, the show of seven mid-career painters at Brian Morris Gallery, attempts, if not a definitive answer, at least a very different kind of conversation.
Significant painting is so difficult to attain today because it requires a navigation of a dynamic that acknowledges arbitrariness while embracing specificity. Lacking an overriding ideology, there is no particular mandate anymore to make a painting any particular way with any particular subject matter (earnest exhortations from various painting sects notwithstanding). While admitting their methods are arbitrary, painters must then find a way to be specific, to make decisions that matter and elucidate a particular structure and feeling as it evolves.
The seven painters included here build their paintings in ways that are neither programmatic nor simply rendered, each one taking a very different approach to ambiguity. Alexi Worth, though always presenting a recognizable image, makes the “why” of his images disconcerting. How does a painting of a hand crumpling paper relate to one of a topless and faceless sunbather with a plastic iced tea container? The crumpling hand indicates creative frustration; perhaps the twisted form and obscured face of the bather indicate another kind of frustration. Or perhaps it was just intended as a Coppertone ad gone horribly wrong. Through his use of stencils and airbrush on an open-mesh nylon, Worth fuses a flatness of outline that contradicts indications of volume and perspective, and the missing face of the bather seems to appear as a silhouette formed by the line of a receding wave on the sand.
Fabian Marcaccio also uses unusual materials and grounds but in order to hide imagery that could prove disturbing. His paintings, composed of hand-woven manilla rope, climbing rope, alkyd paint, silicone, wood, and 3D printed plastic, overwhelm us with the scale of their physical presence while indicating an expressionist touch where one often does not exist. The woven ropes are like an enlarged canvas, and feel as if we were viewing a microscopic detail of a De Kooning. But from across a long room one painting suddenly coalesces into an image of a zombie head, while the other, In Vitro Transfer: Origin of the World, with its nod to Courbet, portrays the injection of a fertilized egg into a womb revealed by an open vagina.
Michael Berryhill obscures his imagery with fuzzy pastel layers of color on the rough weave of linen canvas. He uses figure/ground ambiguity – as does Worth– but with imagery that barely coheres, more like Marcaccio. In Full Blown TV Tray, brown X’s and concentrically scalloped brushstrokes help us discern a TV tray on a braided rug. But the tray supports an anomalous exhaust hood (apparently the Full Blown of the title) that is elucidated by a few yellow brushstrokes on scrapings of light blue over blood orange. Berryhill’s images seem familiar yet their juxtapositions are baffling, only making sense through a use of punning titles and the logic of painting.
Marcaccio’s and Berryhill’s paintings also converse with Steve DiBenedetto’s work. DiBenedetto has lately been rethinking the flatness that used to be the source of his imagery. By layering images on top of other images, the archeology of his painting creates both space and ground. In Feedback, the tentacles of a black octopus entwine with the blades of a black helicopter of equal size, carving out the space but creating a drama that could be a metaphor for the old struggle of nature v. technology.
The painting energy and construction of Lydia Dona’s paintings, with their layers of imagery, relate to DiBenedetto, but her work suffers in this setting. Unfortunately, compared to the other paintings, hers lack the structural organization to create clarity of scale that might make her ambiguity engaging, but in this context feels merely chaotic.
The struggle to develop structure is ultimately what unites the paintings in the show. It is how we make the connection between Carrie Moyer’s paintings and Tom Burckhardt’s. Both use biomorphic geometry to create allusions to representation, which also link them structurally to Worth. Moyer employs flat monochromatic grounds to isolate and unite the arbitrary collisions of more painterly areas into forms that seem vaguely figural and imperious. Moyers encourages these allusions with evocative titles, such as Mythic Being and Three Queens.
Like Moyer, Burckhardt also creates representation through geometric construction and translucent layering, though his biomorphic geometry references ‘50s decorative arts. But Burckhardt’s painting process alters these references to produce images on an intimate scale. Titles indicate that we are looking at an abstraction of a finger on a touch screen, or a buoy on water.
What is compelling about this particular exhibition is that it requires our attention to make sense. It is peculiar to realize how contemporary art so often ignores the idea that it should be looked at, and contents itself to being written about. But here we actually are invited to examine these paintings and think about why they are together, and then supply the cohesion. This is not an exhibition of “end-game” painters. While the paintings insist on their material presence, they also use that presence to create images. The very idea of an image presupposes a viewer, and particularly these images, which embrace the kind of ambiguity that tantalizes with unstable possibilities of resolution. Nevertheless, those possibilities create a spirit of hope here, and if painting might not be dead, then certainly the ghost of its former significance haunts this enterprise.