“Painting––The Extended Field”

Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall & Rooseum

The first thing I encountered at the Rooseum were three overjoyed kids screaming ecstatically while frolicking on an enormous pink carpet, which covers the entire floor of the largest room in the institution. This hallucinatory color field is Rudolf Stingel’s contribution to “Painting—The Extended Field,” a collaboration between the Rooseum and Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall, curated by David Neuman and Bo Nilsson, and mounted at both locations simultaneously. The show was just reinstalled, the two parts switching institutions. This will give the fourteen artists in the show a chance to rework their installations or display entirely new pieces.

Stingel’s bright pink field is certainly “extended,” but in what sense is it painting? This exhibition supplies no definitions of genre; nor does it seem content to display the vitality of painting, a theme favored in any number of European exhibitions over the last couple of years. The main aspiration appears instead to be a demonstration of how painterly practices emerge in other genres, such as photography, video, sculpture, printmaking, and installation. Painting no longer appears as a strictly circumscribed mode of expression but as a zone of contagion, constantly branching out and widening its scope.

Some examples of painterly contamination seem more convincing than others. In Jessica Stockholder’s case, I get the impression that I am looking at large Modernist canvases through 3-D glasses—suddenly you can enter the abstract space and walk around among lurid forms. Bowtied in the Middle, 1996, with its huge purple carpet hanging over a wooden construction, fresh oranges, and bright plastic pears, marks its relation to the wall by a number of strings, like an abstract painting attempting to free itself from the two-dimensional but unable to sever the umbilical cord. Stockholder’s pieces certainly are visually pleasing, and the colors are often amazing. But they never seem to escape the sphere of pure aesthetics, and who’s afraid of Purple, Orange, and Green?

One senses a similar spatial shift in Nahum Tevet’s large installation (Untitled, 1995-96), which covered the floor of the first room in Magasin 3. A meticulous arrangement of hundreds of wooden slabs and blocks, the installation recalls the geometries found in Russian Constructivist painting. Like an architectural model of an imaginary city, it conveys a strange combination of chaos and organic order. Perhaps the installation is really a portrait of the artist’s hometown, Tel Aviv. Its airy and poetic atmosphere reminds me of the lightness and exactitude of Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities.

In terms of “extension,” Luc Tuymans’ infinitely subtle approach to painting seems distant from the strategies of Stockholder and Tavet. Tuymans’ canvases, ranging in color from gray to gray, show sparse details of diverse objects—parts of a murky living room, a rabbit, a child’s face. These things seem on the verge of disappearing altogether, and perhaps the act of painting could here be seen as a form of salvation from complete erasure. Amid the overabundance of visual data produced by technology and the media today, Tuymans’ work seems to make the case that what we need is not more imagery, but less. He takes away from the image, emphasizing the traits that remain. Interspersed in this large and visually overwhelming group show, Tuymans’ method of optical economy is effective. Some works, like Silence, 1991, with its sleeping—or dead—head hovering inexplicably, have a disturbing, even uncanny aspect; others, like Encounter, 1985, are elegant but boring.

At any rate, Tuymans’ painterly strategy is hardly that of an “extended field” but one of scarcity and heightened attention to what remains. Perhaps for pedagogical reasons, several artists are included who appear to be involved in the perpetuation or foreclosure of a long history rather than in the opening of a new chapter. Rémy Zaugg’s series “Not Here,” 1995, with its visually meager presentation of the simple eponymous statement, seems to partake in a kind of endgame involving painting’s traditional opticality, asking questions pertaining to the position of the eye but hardly stretching the field of painting as such. The same goes for Imi Knoebel’s series “Grace Kelly VII,” 1994, self-consciously positioned at the end of Modernist painting, but not, in any substantial sense, beyond. Here the medium has been reduced to a final state, which the title seems to suggest is also the most beautiful.

More difficult to define are projects by Abigail Lane and Guillermo Kuitca. Lane’s installation consists of the two-panel red and silver Ink Pad, 1996, hanging on the wall of a softly lit room covered with Bloody Wallpaper, 1995. The latter piece consists of traces of what seem to be two bloody hands in a repetitive decorative pattern. The large pad is cool and exquisite, like a high-Modernist abstract diptych, but the room also conjures scenes of bloody domestic brutality. Similarly, Kuitca’s installation includes a large oil painting (Untitled, 1995) of what appears to be the stage set of some unusually brutal tragedy, the props seemingly stained in blood. Three additional paintings on mattresses (Untitled, 1989) depict maps, the network of roads appearing as large arteries pumping the blood of the earth.

“Painting—The Extended Field” attempts to track painterly qualities in other media as well. In Paul McCarthy’s grotesque video Painter, 1995, there is no question that painterly “quality” is what we get—and much more than most of us want, unless you have a great love of the scatological. But I am not so sure what is at stake in the inclusion of Diana Thater’s video installation Late and Soon (Occident Trotting), 1993. To claim that the work is painterly may sound good, but is, I believe, ultimately arbitrary.

The strength of this exhibition, however, is its will to ask questions, rather than to formulate tiresome “truths” concerning the life and death of an art form. Shifting the emphasis from a well-defined medium to the zones between media seems appropriate to the contemporary moment. When the two parts of the exhibitions switch places in February, new solutions will be tested. Stingel’s carpets, for instance, are to appear on the wall. The field of painting, or whatever it is, continues to extend.

Daniel Birnbaum is a writer living in Stockholm. He contributes regularly to Artforum.