New York

Ull Hohn

American Fine Arts

I’ve never been a painter, but in a slough of despond, or when overcome by paralyzing lethargy—for moments, hours, days—psychically wired to the TV set, my only friend, I’ve had occasion to be an armchair painter, thanks to Mr. Bob Ross. Mr. Ross, you see, is perhaps our nation’s preeminent instructor in the art of amateur painting, although as this is his vocation he must be accounted a professional. Such are the ironies of public television, which is Mr. Ross’ main venue. I believe his show, of which I’ve seen only fragments, but fragments seen perhaps a hundred times, I believe his show is called “The Joy of Painting.” I can’t imagine that Mr. Ross doesn’t enjoy his job. He might be a worthy object of envy, especially for dispossessed creative types who can barely make a go of it.

Mr. Ross has a calm, easygoing, reassuring manner, a manner that telegraphs to his audience. Yes, you can do this, too. It’s easy. There is something discreetly mesmerizing about his way of laying on paint: broad slabs of paint that establish the skeleton of landscape; daubs and smears that create the effects of limpid streams, frothy clouds, and murmurous leaves. Let’s make one thing clear: Mr. Ross does not do thrift-store paintings of the kind fetishized by Mr. Jim Shaw, although the works of most of his disciples can, at best, be consigned to that domain of kitsch.

Most but not all. Fans of Mr. Ross and “The Joy of Painting” must have been pleasantly surprised by Mr. Ull Hohn’s exhibition. Mr. Hohn has taken to painting landscapes and other pictures after the manner of Mr. Ross, following precisely the instructions of amateur painting manuals. But Mr. Hohn’s efforts in no way resemble the gruesome mess hanging in your Aunt Sally’s living room. No, his amateur paintings are as good as they could possibly be, or at least as good as Mr. Hohn, an accomplished painter, could make them. These landscapes certainly hold their own beside those of Mr. Ross.

Mr. Hohn’s amateur paintings address themselves to empty time, passing time, boredom—leisure. Someone with an existentialist, or perhaps even situationist, bent might divine in the numberless amateur paintings, produced by weary hausfraus and overworked-and-underpaid middle-management types on their one day off, the epidermal secretions of a desiccated suburban bourgeoisie, condemned to the hell of mini-malls, car pools, multiplexes, and Godard movies. Oh yeah, and tupperware parties. Mr. Hohn, however, working from within the constricted arteries of the art world, shifts from a generalized bourgeois anomie to one that’s quite site-specific. In short, it’s hard to sell a painting these days. The spiritual product, art, fails to do its worldly business—make money. This is fairly by-the-book Gerhard Richter/institutional critique. Mr. Hohn’s personal innovation is to nudge these ossified arguments into a Beckettesque swamp of crippled initiatives. Finally, it may just be a question of killing time. Mr. Hohn’s amateur paintings—shown along with some other representatives of artistic evolution, a few “student” landscapes that completely lacked the Caspar-David-Friedrichesque polish of the amateur paintings, and some characterless diarrhea-colored abstractions that look nonetheless simultaneously referenced abstract painting’s conventions of flatness, expressive gesture, and monochrome—advance an amusingly perverse institutional argument: if the scrupulously trained artist cannot sustain a career in a decimated art market, then he might as well just be a Sunday painter, a painter for his own lonely pleasure.

David Rimanelli