New York

Katherine Porter

David Mckee Gallery

For some time, remedies to keep the dynamics of abstract painting alive have been devised to counter the sterility of a problem-solving formalism, like that practiced by Bush. One such remedy, and one that has been attracting a lot of attention again recently, is the attempt to infuse the work (by which is meant both labor and product) with a sense of personal urgency. This means a return to romanticism and the belief that somehow the manipulation of inert matter can represent the emotional state of the artist doing the manipulating. In effect, this solution is like chasing one sort of conservatism with another. The newer sort carries a very different, if often unacknowledged, subtext, however: implicit in the revival of an Expressionist strategy is a sturdy individualism that fits the political climate of the day, which may in part explain the success of work which parades nostalgic academicism with such pride.

Painters like Katherine Porter give us work that uses the strategies of modernist painting, while conveniently forgetting to include the hard kernel of radical thought at the center of that practice. The early modernists made art to make people think: provocative, questioning art. The latter day academics who borrow the styles of these artists, whether in a Constructivist or Expressionist mode, negate this heritage by presenting self-referential, introspective work, that is accessible to the viewer only on the level of sensation. If it feels good, who cares if it means anything?

Like so many artists of this kind, Porter is content to smear the entrails of an eviscerated modernism across her oversized canvas, hoping that the mere spectacle of commitment will be enough to make her work convincing. Her motifs are simple circles and spirals, which form a borrowed iconography that has acquired a range of meanings, stretching from spiritualism to feminism, but which here only hovers uncertainly in a private, hermetically sealed region of the artist’s imagination.

Porter’s method appears equally simple, though in fact it is not. The work looks direct, as though painted with speed and urgency, yet the colors are mixed, often downright murky. The bravura brushwork, and its use as a device to elicit a visceral response, recalls the work of Philip Guston. But this is Guston in a self-indulgent mood, Guston without wit, without savagery. The spark is lost, and we are left with eddies of muddy colors presented as solemn exercises in looking important.

Thomas Lawson