Liz Ainslie, Blusher, 2012 (image by courtesy of the artist)

By Clay Matlin

I have felt in recent years that there has been a turn away from painting by artists of my generation and those younger, that Marcel Duchamp’s claim that he wanted to be intelligent and therefore he could not be a painter was being taken to heart. Of course, this has always been a bit of problem for painting. Barnett Newman, whom David Sylvester termed Abstract Expressionism’s “sage and fool,” was looked upon as a lesser artist with a shtick, so caught up with a dense and often impenetrable theoretical and moral foundation that his fellow artists regarded him more as a “thinker” than an actual painter. The same can be said of Robert Motherwell, not the part about having a shtick so much, but the stigma of being a “thinker.” We can affix it to Mark Rothko, too, though he felt so deeply all the time that perhaps no one cares that he wrote endlessly in his “scribble book.” Instead, the artists who are most venerated are those like Pollack, and even centuries ago Caravaggio, who can be assigned some sort of savant status, an almost mystical calling, a free-wheeling presence that belies the complexity of thinking and ability.

We want our artists easily identifiably, surely. The overly thoughtful, well-adjusted artist, usually a painter (and often a sculptor) contradicts the vision of what we have been led to believe an artist should be. It dulls the romance. They might drink to excess, fighting some sort of “inner demon” that lives in our fantasy of the artist (see Joan Mitchell). The smart go in a different direction. They try their hand at many mediums. They cannot be hemmed in by one discipline. So we forgive the sins and eccentricities of filmmakers and photographers, dancers and performance artists, installation artists and those that dabble in the netherworld of relational aesthetics. They can wow us with their references to Derrida and Barthes. We cheer them when they cite The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, even though it is, at this point, sadly, so over-used an essay as to be worthless. The irony of this is, of course, inescapable. It is the artists who make tangible things who we want merely to present their objects to us.  Perhaps this comes from a desire to have the object speak for itself. Too much of an explanation or theory behind a work of art simply masks the fact that it might just be awful. This is certainly the case with much of what the New Museum has trumpeted these past few years. There is a strange disconnect in art, that being smart or giving the appearance of being smart will somehow generate the talent needed to create good art. For some reason the preening demonstration of intelligence by the more performative arts escapes our judgments.

Unfortunately, intelligence is not a particularly original or insightful ability and does not a great artist make. Yet we get press releases that are all written in the same “smart” way, like first year semiotics courses. We learn nothing about the art, only about the “idea” behind the art. So many ideas. So much idea-driven art. Art that has to be explained, unpacked, told, and shown. Art that in the end is not much more than an idea. Knowledge of the idea, an immersion in the realm of the overly academic is the only way to get at the core of the meaning. I want to be clear, however, that I am not against idea driven art. I find the work of Schwitters, Duchamp, Newman, Agnes Denes, Mary Kelly, Andrea Fraser, etc., profound and important. But the glut of art that cannot stand on its own and must be propped up with some overly complex theory that manages to make the art less interesting seems to have reached a critical mass. The ideas are often empty, just a collection of words like modernity; hyper-realism; Baudrillardian; a reference to Žižek; subaltern; capitalism; a reference to the self, to community. Oh sign! Oh signifier! How heartbroken must Charles Sanders Peirce and Ferdinand Saussure be at the state of your use?

The very crush of “ideas” and idea-driven art is too much. How else does one explain Jerry Saltz wasting his time critiquing the painting of George W. Bush by trying to find some deeper meaning in a self-portrait of the former president sitting in a bathtub. The very banality of the painting, the awkwardness, maybe not of the painting itself but of the choice of imagery—what Saltz refers to as Bush’s lack of “natural gifts,” something that has not stopped many an “artist” before—asks nothing of us. Nevertheless, Saltz, perhaps ironically, perhaps not, beseeches the Whitney to give Bush a small show or at the very least buy a couple of his paintings. This is ridiculous. This all suggests an exhaustion with an art world saturated with constructed meaning. We can delight in Bush the painter because he is not Bush the “war criminal.” Saltz is too clever by half in claiming he thought Bush had no inner life, as if these paintings are a demonstration of that nebulous concept. However, Bush’s paintings are not important for what they show, but for what they don’t—they are emblematic of nothing. They come with no set of instructions about how to view them. There is no long list of terms that we must define in our heads, no epistemological riddle to the placement of each object in each painting. Rather, the paintings just are: we can overanalyze them, as we have been trained to do, and apparently feel we ought to, but that is a burden of our own making. There is much to find irritating in Immanuel Kant’s fantasy of aesthetic judgment, but there is also much to recommend. Most importantly, we should remain emotionally open to experience and not let the seductions of cognition, which so much of this over-thought art gives itself over to, muddy our capacity for experience itself.

We should be careful that we do not weigh down our experience of art with our own desire to be educated or impressed. Or to impress and educate. Therefore, it was with no small delight that on a recent trip to Bushwick—the neighborhood that seems to personify, at times, the problem of “idea-driven” yet unfulfilling art—that I came upon a refreshing, if somewhat uneven, four-person group show of small, abstract paintings. With no press release and a simple sign tacked to the wall with the names of the artists and the placement of their paintings, SHIPSHAPE at 245 Varet Street succeeds where most gallery and museum exhibitions fail: in letting the art stand or fall on its own accord. This is not to say that abstract painting is not idea-driven. Of all painting it might rely most on ideas to get its message across. Nor am I in some way longing for purely “formalist” art; that is, art as a series of successful compositional arrangements. Instead, the refreshing quality of SHIPSHAPE lays not in the lack of ideas in the paintings, but in the absence of the advertisement of its intellectualism. It is with no small amount of chutzpah that Christopher Dunlap, the curator and an artist in the show, assembled a group of paintings that speak with one another entirely on their own merit and without the crutch of some bizarre narrative theory. Dunlap succeeds in creating an exhibition that, even if at some points more successful than others, never feels out of touch with itself. And yet, SHIPSHAPE can be divided evenly into two parts. The first is much stronger than the second. Both Dunlap and Liz Ainslie paint genuinely abstract imagery more informed by the European masters of the first half of the twentieth century than their American heirs who chose to turn their backs on them in the wake of World War II. Ainslie and Dunlap, however, seem not to share the mysticism that often accompanies abstraction on both sides of the Atlantic.

(For the sake of clarity, when I use the term abstraction I am referring to what I see as the general mission behind SHIPSHAPE as well as what can be thought of as generally nonobjective style of painting. As such, abstraction here can be understood as having a particular spirit (or appearance) disengaged from analytic and mimetic responses to the natural world. This is in contrast to paintings in which the images are abstracted from the real world. The second half of the show falls into this latter category. )

Christopher Dunlap’s straightforward, delicate, geometric images have a bit of a primitive quality about them. It is not what they are, but the way they are. The painter’s presence is always there, with the standout being “Untitled” (18” x 12”), a beautiful and careful painting of black and white triangles interspersed with shots of color. He has not quite given himself over completely to abstraction; the hints of Suprematism and Mondrian are everywhere in his work. It is Ainslie and her delightfully ugly paintings that most embodies the spirit of abstraction that it seems SHIPSHAPE aspires to. Her paintings have no relation to how the world is constructed; we have no point from which to find entry. Ainslie chooses to paint with a drab, slightly gray palette. The world she paints has a geometric feel though it could never exist in real space. It is dusty and uninviting, all sharp angles and rough edges. Her brushstrokes fly back and forth, whip around in circles, leaving some places thicker with paint than others. The result is paintings that at first look simple and even sloppy, but are meticulous. Ainslie is most sure-handed and her homely, elegant paintings  stand out from the rest of the exhibition.

SHIPSHAPE’s second half is less successful. Robert Costello’s two paintings are fairly boring. Ostensibly “abstract,” they are weirdly dated, evoking the now forgotten 1970s abstract illusionism of James Havard. While clearly possessed of a talented touch, Costello’s abstraction is not, aside from that 1970s tinge, the twentieth-century abstraction of his cohort. Instead, Costello seems to have “abstracted” forms, a hat-tip to Cezanne and the 1880s, reducing them to their more geometric components, generalizing them, rather than painting abstract forms, as is evident in “Envelopes” (22” x 26”), which has a dreamy Casper David Friedrich-esque fantasy quality to it of an astral landscape. Mike Schreiber made two small paintings that are actually quite nice. Sort of abstract, they are more in line with Costello’s abstracted forms than with Ainslie’s abstraction, the canvasses divided into four parts by roughly painted triangles. Schreiber then paints abstract shapes and a star over the triangles. Both he and Costello move paint well and have sweet senses of color. Schreiber, unfortunately, painted the worst painting in the show, “Fake French” (30” x 24”), a hideously tasteful gray work on linen with a black line down its left-side that looks like stencil for leaves. If one gets close enough to the canvas one can see logos for corporations peeking just through the paint. It is neither abstract nor art – it is a commodity. When he wants it, Schreiber has a future as a corporate draftsman for West Elm, though his other two paintings show a more committed artist.

Yet, regardless of its faults, SHIPSHAPE is heartening and it is fitting that this small show should be up at the same time as MoMA’s massive Inventing Abstraction. While we cannot compare the talents of this group of young painters to titans like Kandinsky and Mondrian, the very fact that people are still attempting to make real, earnest abstract painting is a sign of hope in an art world that seems to fear genuine earnestness as much as it seeks to cultivate an affect of cool in those who never were. Painting is hard. Making art is hard. Hiding behind the shelter of some sort of clever idea is easy. Would that more galleries were willing to forgo the press release and artist statement and let the work stand firmly on its own. Of course, if that were to happen how would we know what we like, and what to buy? Perhaps we need to be told. Though I’d argue not a tear would be shed if no one ever had to write another artist statement again.

SHIPSHAPE: A group-show of abstract paintings by Liz Ainslie, Robert Costello, Chris Dunlap and Mike Schreiber. 245 Varet Street, Brooklyn. Closed February 22, 2013.