New York

Carl Ostendarp

Jay Gorney Modern Art

With his unapologetically dumb Miracle Whip–Modernism paintings of the late ’80s, Carl Ostendarp achieved a welcome levity. Rudely digesting the delicate chromatic resonances of Color Field painting, Ostendarp spun out something resembling a mutant meringue flattened into the basic shape of a canvas. Imagine a debased Robert Ryman, smothered with ridiculous excesses of lather, and you’ve got the basic picture. Recently, however, evidence of a more sober method has surfaced: an increased emphasis on a more delicate manipulation of materials, and a stricter regulation of tonal range. In other words, a more self-conscious, and for that reason somewhat irritating, even strained “sophistication” has slowly insinuated itself. The delicious funkiness and quirky ribaldry of those early efforts has begun to be displaced by something more on the order of visual Muzak.

In the early ’90s, Ostendarp approached the precious tabula rasa of the blank canvas as if it were a baking sheet: raised pancakelike forms—equal parts Disney, Clement Greenberg, and Duncan Hines—were coated with a pigment calibrated to be distinct from the monochrome ground. Little more than visual candy, these works actually make you hunger for the dyspepsia induced by the earlier works. The weird grace of those odes to scatology has given way to a bland, almost blank exercise in comic relief as a kind of antidote to the sensory deprivation caused by much decorative abstract painting. In his new paintings, Ostendarp offers a point of entry into artistic dilemmas that he proceeds to trivialize with a kind of abject sarcasm. It doesn’t seem to be reticence that compels Ostendarp to withhold visual and intellectual pleasure, but more likely the desire to suggest that his cool detachment is a signpost for hipness. For example, in A Kick in Time, 1994, a purplish question mark hovers over an abstracted pale-and-deep-pink landscape; or in Untitled, 1994, a cartoonish splat of very pale blue is plopped down over a mottled purple ground. In the iconographically related paintings Gumdrop Follies, 1994, and The Puppet’s Nightmare, 1994, cute lozenges resembling eyes dance across the canvas, apparently searching for some reason to be there.

Burdened with the weight of Modernism, artists like Jonathan Lasker have survived, if not thrived, by offering the uncanny plasticity of paint as a sign of artistic kitsch, slowly morphing gawky gestural maneuvers into an uncomfortable beauty. Ostendarp was moving in a related direction, but he has yet to find a language to express the grace of painting’s general “failure” in a way that generates meaning beyond the medium itself; we now find ourselves confronted with paintings that fail as, well, “failed paintings.” The immediate impression is of an artist who seems lost, confused, and basically unable to contend with the more pervasive question of how to make compelling painting that flirts evenly with figures of irony and sincerity without looking like a tactician smugly playing formalist games. Ostendarp used to handle the supposed “existential” problems of being a fin-de-siècle painter with awkward grace, melding monochrome painting and post-Minimalist materialism with a canny Pop sensibility: it was like Roy Lichtenstein meets Jules Olitski meets Bruce Nauman meets Pepto Bismol. Now all the Pop has gone out, and emotional and esthetic flatness triumphs; pretty, yes, but pretty vacant too.

Joshua Decter