Painting Report. Plane: The Essential of Painting', a theoretically ambitious show of four painters, identified the picture plane as a bridge between Modernist and Postmodernist painting practice. A sizeable and stunning group of Al Held's work from the past decade was supported by the somewhat arbitrary selection of Kristin Baker, Fabian Marcaccio and William Scharf in an exposition of four different approaches to planar engagement across multiple generations. (The curatorial statement admits the vast scope of the exhibition's project.) Scharf represented the Modernist school, with Marcaccio and Baker on the Postmodern side of the line; it was Held who straddled the generations. Oil paint was conspicuously absent: with the exception of some watercolours by Held, every piece in the show was made with acrylic or other synthetic materials.
William Scharf, who had a solo exhibition two years ago at the Phillips Collection and served for a time as Rothko's studio assistant, is not widely known. Now in his 70s, Scharf has maintained his commitment to Surrealist form charged with the emotional weight of the Abstract Expressionist picture plane. As such, he is like a rare bird on a now isolated island, having developed within the confines of a hermetic, lost environment. His puzzling canvases seem only vaguely connected to this show's thesis and require a patient eye. The curatorial statement interestingly suggests that Scharf may one day be viewed as the Bonnard of the Abstract Expressionists. For the moment, however, the particular combination of vocabulary and palette in his large canvases too immediately calls to mind hotel lobby art.
In technologically updated versions of Lichtenstein's late 'brushstoke' paintings, Marcaccio satirizes the violence and physical presence of the Ab Ex gesture, playing the juiciness of big brushstrokes against a digitally constructed picture plane that simulates sexy swaths of paint underneath their real counterparts. In Untitled (2001), Marcaccio's one piece in the show, paint is carefully choreographed to ooze just barely off the plane onto the floor, and the artist contrasts the viscosity of these plastic marks with their deliberate execution and placement. His torqued billboard-like surface pictures a grid of burlap at varying degrees of remove, torn and stitched together in places and unravelling in others. Landscapes and Pop images are caught in this snarled mesh, which oscillates between being the fabric of the plane and just another image upon it.
The recent Yale graduate Kristin Baker squugees or sprays layers of acrylic over PVC, floating thick, taped-off plates of paint over one another in a pouchoir of speed and elegant stillness. In 3G's Gone (2001) the tyre-marked bend of a racetrack is depicted beyond the netted safety barricade. The graphic foreground briefly restrains the viewer's gaze before allowing it to shoot across the white pavement, only to come up against the physical fact of the sky. A crashed mess of cars, wheels and smoke fills Boom Boom No. 1, where the acceleration of Baker's Richterian smear is stopped by the hard borders she imposes on her constituent shapes, freezing the energy of the accident into a docile mobile.
Al Held's huge geometric landscapes (the largest is six metres across) are remarkably executed combinations of tripped-out video games and Hudson River School sunsets that allude to a manifest destiny of technological space - sublime explorations of an expansive, infinitely ordered terrain of our own imagining. The geometries of Held's formal language function as surface placeholders and as illusionistic descriptions; as in Renaissance floor mosaics, the perspectival depth of his picture plane is visibly pieced together. The labour-intensity and magnitude of both the canvas' size and the illusory depth of its field are nothing short of breathtaking.
As a serious painting show, 'Painting Report' necessarily acknowledged at its outset that the demise of painting has been 'periodically announced', while at the same time asserting the durability of the picture plane in the face of such marginalization. Can institutional surveys of contemporary painting - whatever the scale and scope of their aspirations - be organized without this preface? Hans-Ulrich Obrist's 'Urgent Painting' at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris earlier this year and Douglas Fogle's 'Painting at the Edge of the World' at the Walker Art Center in late 2000 both explicitly addressed the alleged irrelevance of the medium, as did 'Painting on the Move' in Basel this summer. But surely by now it is painting's supporters who most often raise the non-issue, keeping the hysterical proclamation alive in order to refute it, overreacting as a strategy for self-definition.
First published in Issue 71