AN EXHIBITION featuring thirty international artists, “Painting at the Edge of the World” reported on the embattled status of painting after a century’s worth of challenges from all sides. The medium has suffered attacks by Conceptualists and performance artists; by modernists like Piet Mondrian and Clement Greenberg, who hypothesized that painting’s ultimate goal was to paint itself out of existence; and, more recently, by poststructuralist-inspired theories of authorship, which targeted the transcendental I/eye implicit in painting since the Renaissance. Yet if this exhibition is any indication, it’s not painting that’s been weakened by the siege but rather the critical paradigms of the last century.
Countering the most basic principle of the medium, curator Douglas Fogle included historical precedents for the reconceptualization of painting without the paint. Among these were Tableau-Bateau, 1973, a slide-based installation by Marcel Broodthaers, and Nucleus NC 1, 1960, a three-dimensional construction by Neo-concretist Hélio Oiticica. In fact, the exhibition’s insights were eloquently underscored in Andreas Gursky’s Untitled VI, 1997—a large C-print featuring Jackson Pollock’s 1950 One: Number 31—on view in the first gallery. Representing Pollock’s canonical canvas as an object of detached examination installed in the sterile space of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gursky neutralizes the work’s significance as a progenitor of a living tradition, severing it and the ideologies it has come to embody from the contemporary works that make up the body of the exhibition.
Accordingly, the show made room for the phenomenological, psychic, and material relationships between bodies and things, viewers and paintings, alongside matters of style and influence. While the critique of Abstract Expressionism that underlies Paul McCarthy’s videos Face Painting, 1972, and Painter, 1995, is unmistakable, the artist’s paint-slinging performances complete the identification of the medium with bodily fluids and waste—also expressed here in Chris Ofili’s commingling of paint and elephant dung and Arturo Herrera’s expansive, shit-brown mural All I Ask, 1999. Here paint is shown to belong to that special category of substances, neither living nor dead, that psychoanalysts dub the “abject” and alchemists imagine to hold magical transformational properties. Similarly, Marlene Dumas’s Painter, 1994, features a naked toddler, hands drenched in paint, standing defiantly before us. The liquid pigment that articulates the child’s bluish flesh mimics skin itself, forming a contiguous surface with her gloves of paint, while in Young Boys, 1993-94, the thin washes used to describe the penises and shivering arms of pubescent boys suggest at once blood, water, and translucent membranes. As in Deleuze and Guattari’s body without organs, the integrity of Dumas’s bodies is broken down, their potential for linkages and flows with other bodies and things enhanced.
Thus the “world” in the show’s title appears as both reflected and penetrated, indicating an “edge” that is simultaneously emphasized and crossed. Most of the artists included here work representationally, though many of the depicted bodies seem to struggle with their status in representation. Emaciated and enervated female figures press uncomfortably toward the viewer in Margherita Manzelli’s Nottem and Binaural, both 2000. One senses that the suffering of these women is the result of their liminal status between pictorial and real space. More bombastic than Manzelli’s somber works are Takashi Murakami’s 727, 1996, and The Castle of Tin Tin, 1998, which feature the artist’s signature cartoonlike character, Mr. DOB, growling out at the viewer from his own dynamic “super flat” world. Murakami’s figurative constructions exhibit all the potential to spill out of the world of the canvas into our own. Indeed, having spawned consumer products with a life well outside the confines of painting, Mr. DOB has done exactly that.