Institute of Contemporary Art

If painting in general is back in vogue, as has been so jubilantly proclaimed, then wall painting’s revival cuts both ways: A more grandly scaled, “couture” version of painting, it also, paradoxically, boasts something of an anticommodity status. “Frieze” brought together five artists to present the state of large-scale murals (all works 1999)—which, in this show at least, exhibited strong ties to Pop, Op, psychedelia, and ’60s and ’70s graphic design.

John Armleder, who made his first wall paintings in 1967, was the relative old master here. For “Frieze,” he took on a selection of icons, knocking down or ratcheting up their impact so that they combined into one smoothly static look. On one wall, a series of concentric pink and black circles referenced the targets of Kenneth Noland and Jasper Johns but with the high-modernist marrow sucked out. On another wall, at a right angle to the targets, dozens of free-lovin’ smiley faces, ordered into a strict, authoritarian grid, were mirrored on a third, opposite wall by identical rows of black splats, which invoked Jackson Pollock’s drips or even an exploded version of the smiley faces themselves.

While Armleder disguised his cultural theory under a sheen of amiable banality, Franz Ackermann and Sarah Morris offered highly stylized reflections on the urban environment. Berlin-based Ackermann’s Untitled (Call Yourself City) presented an homage to the interior of the Bundestag as it looked while under construction along with a painted version of one of the artist’s “mental maps” (drawings inspired by the main arteries of cities, in this case Boston) and assorted buildings and billboards—all portrayed practically on top of one another in the center of a stadium. With its candy-colored blobs and intensely hued, overlapping imagery, Ackermann’s hard-edged Anycity dissolved into a semipsychedelic urban playground.

While Morris’s recent canvases mimic the grid patterns of International Style skyscrapers, in moving onto the wall she turned to the expansive yet immaterial structures of television. Based on a pixelated image from a Budweiser ad, Midtown—Panasonic Jumbotron (Times Square Reflection) had a white diagonal grid crisscrossing hundreds of gray, red, blue, green, yellow, and black triangles, all rendered in extra-thick coats of high-gloss house paint. If Ackermann’s wide-screen urban scene was aggressive, then Morris’s wall painting was downright assaultive—painting’s steroid-injected, supercharged challenge to TV.

By contrast, Margaret Kilgallen’s Half Past, despite its two-story scale was a refreshingly humanized haven. Incorporating smaller paintings (on found steel or wood panels) and displaying a relatively naturalistic palette, her impressionistic patchwork of signs and words, animals and people seemed downright old-fashioned, a kind of contemporary cartoon folk art. Half Past was also highly tactile: Two narrow shelves held half-used bars of soap and train-flattened coins, and the artist’s hand was evident everywhere in streaks, roller marks, and paint drips.

Finally, local boy Alexander Scott took up the lower walls of the ICA’s open stairwell. Unlike Morris’s high-impact work, Scott offered an interpretation of Satie’s “wallpaper music” in visual form (wallpaper art!), with intersecting horizontal and vertical rows of album jacket-like squares. The motifs included a white, stylized deer graphic on pink; black-and-white variations on ellipses-within-circles; and a few squares with simulated fake-wood paneling created with a handmade paint roller (get it?). But just as Satie’s music, contrary to its composer’s wishes, got listened to, almost already gone got looked at—it was in an art center, after all, not a cocktail lounge. And whereas Armleder’s piece looked deliberately vacuous, Scott’s was just vacantly trendy. This, apparently, is the next frontier, as painting merges with design and “dares” to be merely decorative.

Julie Caniglia