“Glee: Painting Now”

“Glee”? Only in the wake of 13,000-plus stock-market averages would such a title be imaginable. Optimism, confidence, and fun are the watchwords here, and the curators, Amy Cappellazzo (of the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art, where the exhibition will travel next) and the Aldrich’s Jessica Hough, are pretty open about the fact that these twenty artists “skirt weighty subject matter or politicized content.” The show is premised on the idea that painting exists with more conviction now that it has been forced to shed some of its worn conventions and historical baggage in order to survive alongside new digital technologies. Might as well call the show “Easy.”

Indeed, one would have to try pretty hard not to enjoy a lot of what’s there. Much of the work is, of course, “gleeful”: neo-abstract, bright in color, and unashamedly betraying an impulse toward “beauty” (as in Sharon Ellis’s moody Symbolist-inspired landscapes) or a willfully messy party-crashing aesthetic (like the very unlovely work of Albert Oehlen). The modernist stash has been freely raided by just about everyone in “Glee,” mostly with good results; here you have Color Field (Ingrid Calame, Monique Prieto), the Grid (Wayne Gonzales, Sarah Morris, Peter Halley), and the Decorative (Carl Fudge, Jim Isermann). But such appropriation does not lead to an absence of originality here: “Glee” includes some of the better painting being made right now. The moments where the conventions of the medium are cleverly overturned stand out as some of the show’s best. Linda Besemer makes compositions of vertical or horizontal stripes in acrylic on glass, achieving enough density so that the sheets of paint can be removed from their temporary supports and hung fabriclike over metal rods. Besemer’s “folds” are optically seductive (there is a strong temptation to test their pliability by touching) as well as theoretically engaging in their failure to match up to preconceived formal categories. Alex Blau also employs additive means, preserving brightly colored airbrushed patterns (borrowed from snack-food packaging) in many layers of clear acrylic lacquer. The resulting small round-edged squares acquire the depth and the density of glass blocks, sculpture built solely with a painter’s arsenal.

Other artists in the show use technological methods to achieve visual pleasure, like John F. Simon Jr., whose computer painting program operates on a slim computer screen affixed to the wall. Alex Brown’s Port Gentil, 1996, fragments (or “pixellates”) images from found photographs into Y-shaped graphic elements. Jeff Elrod uses the mouse instead of a brush for works like Wicked Ass, 1998–2000, a large-scale pastiche of a Matisse cutout in which a white Icarus-like figure floats against a blue background. A weird mix of hubris and homage, Elrod’s piece becomes emblematic of the exhibition as a whole. The idea that painting looks back as well as forward (as “Glee” constantly reminds us) is not new, nor is it particularly useful now as the key to restaking some kind of painterly territory in the digital age; painting has proven its resilience and adaptability in the face of new technologies since the advent of photography and is showing no signs of giving up now. Furthermore, the narrative of “glee” is largely irrelevant to the work on view, which, fortunately, is strong enough to obviate this weak curatorial premise.

Meghan Dailey