New York

“Remote Viewing: Invented Worlds in Recent Painting and Drawing”

Artists are an opinionated bunch, so one often wonders what those included in group exhibitions think of the context in which their work has been placed. Sometimes I imagine they feel lucky; on other occasions dismayed. “Remote Viewing” triggered the latter suspicion. For while the venue was distinguished and each artist was afforded adequate space, the show’s close focus on certain traits in contemporary painting made some of the artists look more like trendy copyists than unique practitioners. Curator Elisabeth Sussman strove to identify several symptoms in recent practice: abstraction with traces of representation or “referentiality,” spiral compositions coupled with bright, “assertive” color, and the use of science, technology, or religion to generate “structure while retaining little identifiable residual information.”

The artist who best fit this scheme was Julie Mehretu. In fact, the show seemed virtually to have been constructed around her work. A darling of the 2004 Whitney Biennial, the subject of recent high-profile financial wrangling, and a MacArthur Foundation grant recipient, Mehretu is a virtuoso whose breathless graphic maelstroms, punctuated by splotches of bright color, effectively illustrate Sussman’s notion of a neoabstract “invented world.” Arguably the show’s magnum opus, Seven Acts of Mercy, 2004, is an epic ink-and-synthetic polymer painting that conjures Leonardo’s deluge drawings or quattrocento cartography reinvented for the digital age.

Sussman’s vision of an abstraction that functions as “an amalgam of the real in the imaginary and the imaginary in the real” also finds support in the canvases of Matthew Ritchie, attempted analogues to mythology, religion, mathematics, and the structure of the universe. Only The Eighth Sea, 2002, which depicts a mass of octopus-like forms swimming in a light blue field, is a naturalist departure from his systematizing works of the mid-’90s. And while it may not, strictly speaking, construct an “invented world,” it at least employs “spiral composition.” Also consistent with the idea of a formal aesthetic laced with cosmic or apocalyptic references are the depictions of industrial plants in Franz Ackermann’s acid-bright “mental maps,” the images of helicopters that flit across Steve DiBenedetto’s painterly encrusted surfaces, and the spacey doodles that punctuate Ati Maier’s dense, quasi-naive compositions.

Yet despite these visual and thematic commonalities, the experience of encountering swirling, curvilinear motifs in every room of the show—albeit through the filter of individual “style”—diminished rather than heightened the freshness of many of the paintings. The recurring spiral compositions, gestural speed, and amped-up color quickly started to feel like empty devices or collective visual tics. But the curatorial logic really fell apart when it came to the inclusion of the exhibition’s two elder statesmen, Terry Winters and Carroll Dunham. This pair fit the program least of all, feeling like blue-chip masters recruited purely to bolster the show’s pedigree. Winters’s complex matrices and Dunham’s slapstick psychodramas seemed out of place among paintings by younger artists obsessed with systems, mass media, and new technology. Winters belongs to a post–New York School painterly tradition that Ritchie et al. have no interest in maintaining, while Dunham’s flat, cartoonlike images feel out of place in a selection of works that pointedly explore “deep space.”

Another of the show’s frustrations was the failure to make use of some potentially interesting sources, allusions, and sidelines. The original “remote viewers,” for example, were psychics recruited by the U.S. military in the 1960s, yet this reference was never fully unpacked. The possibility of a new millennial art also went unexplored, despite the clear influences of Bosch, Dürer, Blake, the fin de siècle Symbolists, and Robert Smithson’s sci-fi mysticism. In addition, myriad younger artists incorporate the underlying ideas, if not the too narrowly defined formal guidelines, of Sussman’s construct, so where most group exhibitions would benefit from further editing, “Remote Viewing” would have gained from greater breadth.

Martha Schwendener