New York

John Torreano, Erica Lennard, and “Mind Set: An Ongoing Involvement with the Rational Tradition”

Droll/Kolbert Gallery/Sonnabend/John Weber Gallery

“Cosmetic Transcendentalism” is a term that Donald Kuspit used in the October Artforum to describe the work of Rodney Ripps, Lynda Benglis, and the artist under review here, JOHN TORREANO. To Kuspit such work comprises a new “luxury art” that “accept(s) the fact that in today’s world art and entertainment are one, that modernist self-criticality and theatricality converge, and that the attempt of either side to repress the other only leads to the decisive infiltration of the one by the other.” Our task is to comprehend the “dialectic”: to see how “these artists’ self-conscious use of ‘luxurious’ materials from the kitsch culture . . . produce(s) an art which mocks its own kitsch dimension and, in so mocking, transcends it, presenting a new decorative ideal—in fact, a kind of decorative transcendentalism, i.e. a self-mocking, gaudy, tinsel-and-stage-paint transcendentalism.” Please remember this; I’d like to return to it.

Torreano is a case in point; he uses thick dabs of paint and glass jewels. In his recent work the dense base is gone—indeed, one painting (wittily entitled Rocks) is nothing but clear gems pasted on raw canvas. Others (like Grape and Lime) involve gems and paint that are close in value (?). Formally, Torreano seems to work toward an equivalence that is denied him from the start, an equivalence between the light of the glass and the color of the paint, and an equivalence between the glass as a material that is illusory in one way and the paint as a material that is illusory in another way. This leads him to a composition that is at once “all-over” and “point-to-point”: the glass and the paint are alike enough to render one image and different enough to be read gem by gem and dab by dab. Reading Torreano’s work from gem to gem is somewhat like reading Rembrandt’s work from highlight to highlight. Also, the use of glass as both an ironic representational device and iconographic emblem—that is, as both a painterly and a social fetish—recalls (albeit very indirectly) the use of glass (i.e. mirrors, water vessels and the like) in much northern European painting.

However, to the work this is to “recuperate” it with a formalist critique that it neither wants nor can bear. It is very hard to get past the kitschy aspect of the painting; its Pop-ish campy irony remains its first meaning. The question is: is such art effective now as a critique of “culture,” say, as Warhol’s was 15 years or so ago, or as Stella’s was, in a different way, with its house paint and non-art materials? I don’t think so. Such irony is a matter of timing; when the timing is off, the crass is neither critical nor comic but merely crass, the bathos is in fact bathos.

Torreano’s work is not a cultural critique or a form that explodes our cultural contradictions. If it is a celebration, whose party is it? It is ironic, and its irony is static. And yet there is a way to recuperate this too, if one sees its static irony as a dialectical advance. Thus Kuspit’s “Cosmetic Transcendentalism.” Again, he states that today art and entertainment “dialectically convert into one another” and that to repress one of the terms is to force it all the more. This sounds good; it has a nice (now archaic) Freudian-Marxist ring; maybe there is truth there. But the way it uses Adorno and others against themselves is suspect; this should cue us as to how “dialectical” the notion of “Cosmetic Transcendentalism” is. Not very. Kuspit celebrates the work of Torreano and others because it “mocks its own kitsch dimension and, in so mocking, transcends it . . .” This is about as dialectical as William Zimmer saying: “from ersatz jewels, John Torreano has produced real gems.”

It is perhaps better to interrogate such work on its own terms, maybe along the lines of the approaches of critics of style like Carter Ratcliff or Carrie Rickey. To recuperate it by dialectical analysis is excessive.

In any case, do we want to say with Kuspit that “the distinction between high art and entertainment is obliterated today”? Is it somehow “undemocratic” to disagree? There is a happy pessimism there that is quite dismal.

The photographs of ERICA LENNARD look very fine; they are as elegant as the pictured sites (mostly gardens, parks, and estates in Italy, France, and England like Villa d’Este, Parc des Sceaux, and Blenheim). In Italy she gives us long views of ruins against low hills, in France she rehearses the meticulous lines of the gardens in a strict photographic form, and in England she lets the landscape express its relative chaos. A local character is intuited and then enunciated in appropriate form.

This is fine and proper, only too much so. It is not merely a question of whether or not these are false types; most likely they are not. Rather, it is a question of propriety and property. The propriety of the photographs does not question the right to property that these sites represent; in fact, they celebrate it. The photographs are stately but sentimental. They seem suffused with a nostalgia for the Old World (which is perhaps the worst effect of art history as it is taught in the American university).

Today we are witness to a revival in painting (though it is a “revival” only to those that were dead to painting of the last decade). A few critics—proponents of the “revival”—have used photography badly, as the victim to painting’s vanquisher. This is too bad, because it is not needed; it’s beside the point. Yet, given photographs such as these, one understands the complaint. Photography does have a tendency to look old, to lend a static sentimentality to its subject. With such sites this may be Lennard’s intention; it is at least her excuse. All the photographs are like gardens gardened: sensibility indulged for its own sake. In the 18th century it was obligatory for a young landed gentleman to make a continental tour, a sentimental journey; these photographs are like a 20th-century version of his sketches; the upper-class youth is replaced by the upper middle-class art lover.

Documentary photography (if this is that) is best, I think, when it takes us where we cannot go in order to represent people and places that are otherwise denied representation.

One of the sadder misconceptions that we are laden with is that art that is rigorous in form is stringent in feeling. In our day, when hysteria passes as normal discourse (especially when art is the topic), it is easy to understand why we may think this. But with all respect to California, Primal Scream, Joan Didion, et al., we debase our feelings as we shout them. Granted that Eliot made an unsure distinction between “feeling” and “emotion,” one understands him nonetheless when he says that it is the business of art to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all; nor is “personality” its fit subject. As he wrote, only people who have these things know what it is not to be bound by them.

“Mind Set: An Ongoing Involvement with the Rational Tradition” is a show of 18 painters who, by and large, go beyond the expressive mode common today—indeed, many even eschew “touch.” This, let it be said, is no cause to hide; Minimalism did not kill feeling, and certainly the Black Knight is not back. These painters know that there is feeling beyond the gesture; that there is nothing intrinsically “honest” about raw painting. Which is to say that “finish” may now be rehabilitated, and that is welcome.

“Mind Set” is an unfortunate title if only for this: it may cause the painting to be dismissed as “merely constructivist,” as design. It sounds like a game (which it is of course); and this rouses the anti-intellectuals and conventional moralists. Also, the subtitle notes an “involvement with the rational tradition.” One knows what is meant: that they are committed to modernist skepticism. But if there is a subject that provokes skepticism, it is our rational or metaphysical tradition. The question is: how does one step outside of it in order to critique it? And that is where the critique begins (as many of the paintings suggest): with the deconstruction of binary structures like outside versus inside, image and ground, etc.

As there are only one or two works by each artist, I will touch upon the work with which I am most familiar.

Bruce Boice showed a painting that seems to conclude one phase of work. He is a good example of an artist for whom self-criticism need not mean reductionism: the work continues to complicate itself while clarifying its premises and processes.

A new painting by Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe also attests that no serious artist invents a style, then historicizes it into an oeuvre. Grey Genevieve is unlike prior work by Gilbert-Rolfe, but it is part of the same investigation. Whereas before, he painted rectangular forms that created line by abutment, now he draws the line. This is not to say that it is “merely descriptive.” Indeed, Gilbert-Rolfe composes an “image” that contradicts itself so it cannot close or conclude. The grid here is very partial; and yet the skepticism (which goes beyond the tired question of the efficacy of grid painting) is assured, even elegant. We are given a contradiction that “stands still” without resolution and, in the words of Walter Benjamin, invites us to awaken. The contradictory nuances of the light blue on the light grey remain residual signs of landscape. but they conflict in a way that questions how we see and name. Is it sky on sky that we intuit? Water and rock?

David Diao showed an eccentric geometric painting. Like a color wheel broken open, it gives, then takes away an order of colors and a hierarchy of images. Diao undoes the logic of geometry; he takes it as a system given as its own solution and turns it into a pictorial problem. I like the paintings; often, though, he does not let geometry rebut him. It tends to overdetermination, but here it does not determine enough.

Tadeusz Myslowski showed a work entitled Perspective Distortions, black crosses on a hard white field that hint at perspectival lines. Now we know that the cross is a primary sign of a figure on a field; here Myslowski “stretches” it to the point where it is a figure that defines its field in perspective. This complicates the two terms of the cross (horizontal/vertical; concrete/abstract) with a third term: spatial illusionism. Perhaps it is just that Joseph Masheck’s series of essays have cued us to these issues; it seems a comment that should be a footnote and not a title.

Lucio Pozzi showed two “Swirl” paintings that were related to the “Turnover” paintings of last year; both are about a systematic displacement. In the “Turnover” paintings, the medium (plywood) was displaced, i.e. sawed and reordered; in these, the medium is the surface or, rather, the painted ground. Pozzi paints ground after ground, each a different color, each somewhat askew, in such a way that one is not quite sure where the “ground” ends and the “image” begins: thus the title Swirl. A hierarchy of frames and colors is disturbed even as it is stated. Such an investigation seems important to me; my complaint is that Pozzi the artist performs it in so many arenas that it is hard to trace him. Perhaps this is intended, but the result is that the work seems more whimsical than it is. He has stated: “I consider my work to be an endless sequence of situations, connected not by materials, sizes, speciality, etc., but by how they are dealt with.” This is fine, only, what remains? He seems to want to free the epistemological figure from the material ground: but what sort of “body” (beyond stated theory) would it then have? Perhaps I am too positivistic.

The show has many good things. (In passing, I would cite the work by Susanna Tanger in which the image echoes the support in a way that upsets the givens of both its form and our space.) However, the relationships between the works are often superficial. Many have a spurious critical “look.” It is, in any case, a welcome show and one that, given the ambience now, is timely, perhaps even corrective.

Hal Foster