PRINT November 2014


Avery Singer, Saturday Night, 2013, acrylic on wood panel, 43 3/4 × 59 7/8".

PAINTING, AS WE KNOW WELL BY NOW, has long since ceased to be regarded as dubious or even obsolete. Whereas artists painting in the 1970s and ’80s felt obliged to justify their medium in order to rescue it from its reputation of being a highly suspicious commodity fetish, painting has since the ’90s been regarded as an accepted—even radical—form of social, conceptual, and institutional critique. Entering a new, unbounded era, in part driven by the posthumous hype around the work of Martin Kippenberger and his disciples, the medium came into fashion yet again under the banner of “network painting,” a loose term that imagined the artist’s personal social sphere, and the passage of the art object within it, as intrinsic to the work’s materials and meaning. This approach finally broke with the modernist idea of a “pure,” clearly delimited work, but it also introduced new problems: Network painting relied on the artist’s nexus of social relationships, a community that our twenty-first-century global economy—in an intensification of the state subjugation that Michel Foucault called biopower—is busy absorbing. Biopower signals a technology aimed at how we live, a technology that is, as Foucault aptly expressed it, “applied” to life. With the rise of new communication systems—above all, social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—the tendency to capture life has gradually intensified. The avant-gardist claim to convey art into “life praxis,” in Peter Bürger’s phrase, obviously becomes quite problematic as soon as this life has risen to the status of a resource highly in demand.

The paintings of the young New York–based artist Avery Singer address precisely these problems of biopower and subjectivity and do so in a decidedly productive and perceptive way. Rather than providing the personal connections of the artist’s life so intrinsic to network painting, Singer’s work dramatizes and performs the life of today’s artists as an idea that is as clichéd as it is a Lacanian fantasy projection: from the culture of the studio visit (The Studio Visit, 2012) to the practice of meeting collectors (Jewish Artist and Patron, 2012) to performances and theatrical presentations (three paintings titled Happening, all 2014). These last works in particular demonstrate a certain longing for a ’60s avant-garde post-studio practice that is particularly prevalent in the art circuits between New York and Berlin at the moment.

Singer’s paintings testify to her great fascination with the visual rhetoric of the historical avant-gardes by reactivating the formal aesthetics of Constructivism, Futurism, and Vorticism and the somber palette of grisaille. Certainly her aim is not to bring the dead avant-garde back to life—on the contrary, her work leaves no doubt as to the hopelessness of this claim. For example, Naum Gabo’s relief Head of a Woman, ca. 1917–20, appears in several of her paintings: Residents Reprieve, 2014, where it stands in as the head for a kneeling figure; Exhibitionist, 2013, where it plays the role of the female figure lowering her eyes in shame; and The Great Muses, 2013, where it rests on a stage next to an assemblage reminiscent of Isa Genzken’s recent sculptures. This circulation turns Gabo’s stereometricism into a free-floating passe-partout that no longer reaches out into space (and hence metaphorically grasps for life) but rather figures as a two-dimensional visual element that is absorbed into the aesthetic scene as another prop. Clearly not much remains of its original utopian claims to overcoming the boundary between art and life.

In lieu of that avant-gardist opening, Singer’s work activates fantasies about the life of artists today. Accordingly, her first exhibition at Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler in Berlin in 2013 was called “The Artists,” as if a reality show or soap opera, and like a television series, the paintings she showed there nourished and displayed projected visions about how these “artists” live and work. For example, The Studio Visit shows two robot-like figures who appear to be carved chunkily from wood—the female artist (with longer hair, but a face blank except for nose and eyebrows) and a male visitor in a baseball cap—sitting at a table in front of a studio wall hung with stereotypical “modern art.” We find a figurative painting that recalls Picasso’s retour à l’ordre phase next to a machine painting with dangling gears and dowels and—in front of a stretched canvas, turned to face the wall—an anthropomorphic modern sculpture that towers over the scene. The artist figure holds a bottle: a charged symbol of the excessive and bohemian lifestyle traditionally associated with artists, at least since Henri Murger’s 1851 novel, Scènes de la vie de bohème. Singer’s painting captures at once a clichéd projection of the contemporary artist and its foundation in the often-awkward economic and social reality of the “studio visit.”

Avery Singer, The Studio Visit, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 72 × 90".

The topos of the transgressive, bohemian life led by artists is taken up in various ways throughout Singer’s oeuvre. In Saturday Night, 2013, for example, a slumped figure rendered in a Cubist dissection is—quite literally—in the process of breaking down, next to a realistically painted bottle on a counter of an assumed bar. But unlike paintings that address the pervasiveness of altered states amid creativity, and more explicitly the topic of the drunk artist, as in several self-portraits by Kippenberger, Singer’s work presents the alcoholic artist as a phantasm complete with beret perched atop an already formless head. According to Jacques Lacan, the phantasm, or fantasy, is distinguished by the fact that it pushes its way in front of the real, protects it, and thus makes it harder to access. Phantasms are therefore tied to the real but at the same time disguise it. One could say that the living conditions of the artists in Singer’s paintings are blatantly performed, on the one hand, but, on the other, remain unattainable because of their phantasmatic quality, which makes any capturing by capitalism symbolically more difficult.

IN ORDER TO FLESH OUT this willful phantasmatic dimension in her paintings, Singer borrows from a broad swath of cutting-edge artistic production techniques, including those of commercial art, architecture, and graphic design. Using SketchUp—3-D-modeling software popular with architects and engineers—she digitally generates motifs and compositions and then projects them onto her canvases, where she paints using an airbrush technique in a monochromatic grisaille to produce strangely graphic surfaces that look more dead than alive. The overdrawn depth of SketchUp’s three-dimensional effect gets intensified by the excessive modeling of light and shadow in grisaille, as if each scene were lit with floodlights or projections that often fall in raking stripes of gray or white across the picture plane. Technology allows Singer to imagine these Lacanian fantasies as so many formal projections into the scene. In fact, at times the staged nature of this action becomes more literal, as in the anachronistic overhead projector seen in a box in Performance Artists or in the paned shadow that falls over the entire scene in Dancers Around an Effigy to Modernism, both 2013. We are thereby constantly reminded of the dramatic exaggeration in these scenes.

But what are we to make of Singer’s insistent depiction of representational and highly illusionistic tableaux? In the essay “The End of Painting,” in 1981, the critic Douglas Crimp went so far so as to reproach painting for its inherent illusionism, as if illusionism were one of its essential qualities. Since that time, a number of women artists—above all, Lucy McKenzie—have appropriated illusionistic techniques such as trompe l’oeil. As an alternative to gestural painting, trompe l’oeil has proved especially useful to women artists because it emphasizes gender-neutral “skills” and distracts from subjective expression and reductionist assumptions about signifiers of “femininity.”

While this connection is certainly at work in Singer’s paintings, a more fundamental basis of their illusionism is digital culture. The computer generation of the artist’s motifs and their application onto the canvas through projection and airbrush introduce a loss of materiality and subjective indexicality. Singer’s approach also guarantees the heterogeneity of her painting: It has absorbed other, related art forms—including airbrush technique, used primarily in the auto industry and for body painting—in what art historian David Joselit has described as an externalization of the medium. In Singer’s work, this leads to paintings that seem to have been completely purified of any traces of the artist’s agency but nevertheless reveal a signature and unmistakable style: grisaille, digitally generated forms, illusionistic depth, figuration, avant-garde formal language. Perhaps digital culture’s current incursion into painting is the condition that makes illusionistic representation not only conceivable but also necessary and justified.

ALMOST EXCLUSIVELY, Singer’s paintings depict striking scenes from contemporary bohemian life, whether taking place at a studio, bar, or performance. The formal overload of Performance Artists, for example, includes diverse figures in various reclining poses, props, and masks within an extreme scenic perspective, which is underscored by the depiction of a platform that often appears in her works: When painted events take place on a stage, their “realness” must be taken with a grain of salt. That artists play themselves in everyday life and, to paraphrase sociologist Erving Goffman, “perform theater” echoes in Singer’s compositions, in which we find a focus on group dynamics and the assignment of hierarchical roles of performance, whether in Flute Soloist or the ocular panoptics of Director, both 2014, which finds us zoomed in on the flutist of the earlier painting. Stiff-jointed, blocklike figures carry over the motif of the mannequin, which was frequently employed by the historical avant-gardes, as seen for example in the Surrealist paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, but also refer to an even more advanced stage of alienation and simulated avatar living in the digital age.

Avery Singer, Performance Artists, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 78 × 103 7/8".

Singer’s work features many characteristics of advanced painting—beginning with their exposure of bohemian living conditions, up to their foundation in digital culture—which at times seems a little strategic. With their cold, print-like look, however, these paintings make clear that there is less reason than ever for a romantic idealization of artistic bohemia. Whereas bohemia was once considered a place where origin and income did not matter, in the art metropolises these days one is more likely to encounter financially secure trust-fund kids and their ever-increasing facility with self-promotion and branding. Singer’s work does not so much depict everyday scenes from a creative life as it references the pervasive specter of bohemian fantasies—as if the expressionless actors in her paintings were themselves aware of the fact that an affiliation with this social segment might signal the straightest path to the VIP lounge.

Yet this does not mean that artistic communities are completely demystified through Singer’s scenes. Because numerous happenings and performances in diverse alternative project spaces and galleries repeatedly serve as her subject, the artist’s paintings seem to insist not only on the projection of fantasy within these arenas but also on the veiled or even protected potential behind that fantasy. Precisely because such sites serve collective fantasies and continue to be marked by economic purpose, they can still be areas of residual artistic freedom—as in Singer’s paintings, where they become the staging grounds of an ambitious practice.

Isabelle Graw is a Berlin-based critic, the publisher of Texte zur Kunst, and the author of High Price: Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture (Sternberg, 2010).

Translated from German by Steven Lindberg.