Los Angeles

“The Undiscovered Country”

Hammer Museum

For proof of how lousy this show is, you need look no further than the catalogue essay and the solitary wall text, both of which begin by invoking the idiotic received idea of painting’s supposed death. Even in the 1970s there was no real juice in that orange, and it’s been decades since there was even pulp. Painting, like any other medium, goes in and out of fashion, but it’s never not being made, shown, or sold.

Curator Russell Ferguson panders to “the ongoing frustration felt by a wide-ranging group of painters in the face of this burden, the struggle to continue with painting, and what relevance such a practice can still have today” instead of telling them to just get over themselves. Everyone has a relation to painting of some kind, especially the representational: from finger paintings taped on refrigerator doors to Impressionist masterpieces packing the museums; from Picasso and Warhol to Alberto Vargas and Patrick Nagel. Jasper Johns has appeared on The Simpsons, and John Currin’s clotted nothings turn up in the background of key scenes in the recent Bridget Jones flick. This medium ain’t going nowhere.

With twenty-three artists and close to sixty works from 1964 to yesterday, are there any great paintings in the show? Darn few, but a few great paintings can wipe out lots of crap. Any surprises? Nope, not if you follow the “buzz.” Of course all of that wouldn’t be an insurmountable problem if there were any conceptual probity to Ferguson’s curating. It doesn’t take X-ray vision to discern that instead of actual thought, the curating amounts to a stroking of particular collectors, gallerists, and lackluster heads of MFA programs. With dutiful nods to “brainy” stuff (is there another reason John Baldessari and neo-Conceptualist phony Lucy McKenzie are in the show?), Ferguson likes representational, somewhat dreamy, touchy-feely paintings, but fails a) to argue why these fey daubings and not others, and b) to make a coherent lineage out of his otherwise weakly formal juxtapositions.

To see works by Fairfield Porter, Richard Hamilton, Vija Celmins, and Philip Guston grouped with those by Thomas Eggerer, McKenzie, Edgar Bryan, and tedious Karen Kilimnik wannabe Mari Eastman could only be meaningful in some dizzy investigation of the ersatz and the fatuous. Given the ubiquity of figurative and representational painting in galleries and museums throughout the past decade, Ferguson has produced a fashionable show that was over before it opened.

But it’s easy to imagine an effective personal show that would trace the “untimely,” Porter’s true contemporary inheritors and conversants Alex Katz, Albert York, Maureen Gallace, and Brian Calvin, or one that could include both Jess’s trippy relief paintings and John Wesley’s randy perplexities. Shakespeare or no, imagine a show that actually interrogated how something titled “The Undiscovered Country” really sounds now; which is to say, like a late ’70s/early ’80s erotic self-awareness manual for clitoral stimulation. Given the same temporal and representational parameters, that spicy tour could start with some tough Lee Lozano tools, Betty Tompkins sex works, and a few Adrian Piper LSD drawings before negotiating, oh, Cady Noland and Lily van der Stokker, ending who knows where and leading to who knows what pleasures.

Bruce Hainley