“Something Living”

Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery Road, The Domain
August 19, 2017–February 11, 2018

Philip Guston, East Tenth, 1977, oil on canvas, 80 x 100 1/2".

Philip Guston is the point of inspiration for this spirited group exhibition—specifically, his painting East Tenth, 1977, which this gallery shrewdly acquired in the early 1980s. Typical of his rather solemn, idiosyncratic experiments from this period, the work features a grimy New York sky above cartoon bottles, red-brick walls, and shapes reminiscent of Guston’s earlier Ku Klux Klan–type profiles. While the curatorial premise, detailed on a gallery wall, is fairly pedestrian—that contemporary artists have continued Guston’s obsession with “formless matter” and “living presence”—it becomes inconsequential for the works themselves. This is especially true of Dana Schutz’s Breastfeeding, 2015, Neo Rauch’s Gebot, 2002, and Jamian Juliano-Villani’s Boom Shot, 2015, all of which, although very different, share art-historical DNA, which might be described as a conflation of Neue Sachlichkeit and Surrealism. Schutz’s work in particular—an almost violent portrayal of breastfeeding—seems as if it could command the entire gallery space, showing a baby’s expressionless face as the stationary focal point amid an unshapen whirlwind of a mother’s slippers, feet, arms, and knees.

Schutz’s zaniness—symbolic of the twenty-first-century subject’s experience of being confronted by too many things at once—is echoed in Chris Ofili’s glittering decorative abstraction, Triple eye vision 2000–2002, 2002, and Katherine Bernhardt’s Lisa Simpson, watermelon, cantaloupe, cigarettes, and chapstick, 2016, which revisits Pop art in the wake of 1990s grunge. Rachel Harrison’s pinky powder-blue Paper Clips, 2016, and Arlene Shechet’s flesh-colored sculptures, Beginning Now, 2016, continue the exhibition’s punk-like treatment of the grotesque, underscoring Guston’s aesthetics of outrage, anxiety, and dejection as a peculiarly American sensibility.

— Wes Hill