New York

“Bad Painting”

The New Museum

The essence of “Bad Painting” is to create a controversy through a controversial title. The viewer’s obligation is to decide if a controversy really exists. Represented and defined as “paintings outside the mainstream,” the works included are definitely hard to classify in terms of traditional painterly competence. Most include the human figure, and their common link is that none represents the figure in classic good proportion: Does this mean the artist couldn’t draw even if he wanted to, or that good drawing is not essential after all? Somewhere beneath the murk of defining what is mainstream and what isn’t lies either some grain of truth or irrelevant semantic nit-picking.

Luckiest of all are those who walked into the show, saw a lot of bad paintings and left. They escaped the labyrinth of contradictory definitions now plaguing more obsessive viewers. Most likely there’s no pat answer to any of the above questions, but there remains the question of whether or not the question itself is worth asking. In the end, the “Bad Painting” show served as a catalyst for debate, which is a valid task for a declared “alternative” museum. In terms of the work shown, a disservice was probably done to several painters who must now justify their inclusion in a potentially denigrating category. Ignoring many real conflicts between the styles and intentions of a disparate group of artists in favor of a seemingly unifying theme may have misrepresented some of the works shown even while pointing a well-deserved spotlight on others.

First of all, Robert Chamless Hendon probably shouldn’t have been included, since his paintings represent a highly stylized technique rather than any conscious or unconscious rejection of art school training. The idea of reacting against academic art is stressed in the catalogue of the show—which includes testimony from the artists asserting their lack of interest in formal concerns versus personal expression. Joan Brown, for instance, is portrayed as a classically competent painter who rejects drawing the figure “correctly” in favor of technique closer to the childlike, the primitive, or the naive. Yet naiveté is a question of honesty when someone like Brown consciously choses to present her subject matter as anti-schooled work. The raw energy and force of Jim Chatelain’s street people, on the other hand, seem to spring from a genuine spontaneity of expression, a psychological response to the actual rawness and brutality of urban life. Chatelain’s paint-spattered canvases, pigment slathered over the frame as well as the canvas, seem painted by someone who could not turn around and re-create an academic life drawing. Are Brown and Chatelain working toward the same goal then, even though one works by eliminating influences to appear genuinely naive and the other incorporates subject matter into the work despite his naiveté?

Neil Jenney does a little of both—presenting people and objects with calculated anti-sophistication. Including block-lettered titles like Girl and Vase on the canvas with a picture of a girl and a vase is a smug joke, fully intentional. Wiping his brushstrokes around the figure in crude outlines is full of what could be dishonest intention, since the rest of the canvas is treated traditionally as background and painted in uniformly. Jenney’s examinations of ludicrously posed objects are wise and scorching because they are done by an urbane mindChatelain is not cynical, only raw and responsive; Jenney is distanced from his material, satiric and therefore capable of evil manipulation.

William Wegman is a wit, Shari Urquhart a sensitive color-master whose uncontoured people are playful and used humorously within the textures and wild patternings of unlikely rug murals. But Eduardo Carrillo, painting sloppily and gaudily, produces works reminiscent only of schoolboy comic-book drawings; what happens in his paintings may spring from a personal vision, but seems unaffected by either academics or “good taste.” Are these painters in the same category? Does it matter?

At some point a decision has to be made, and if it is made on the basis of academic competence then works by true “primitives” will be lost. If that includes painters like Chatelain, the loss would be a great one. If it includes Carrillo, then an individual who does not know how to conform to accepted standards of even “primitive” work will be ignored. I would choose to keep Chatelain. “Bad Painting” chooses to make no choice, and for that reason misses the chance to support admittedly selected talent.

Deborah Perlberg