New York

“The Painted World”

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

As much as curator Bob Nickas structured “The Painted World” mainly around color schemes (orchestrating rooms of black, red, green, and blue paintings, with strategic chromatic anomalies only intensifying the effect and, perhaps, signifying potential) and in terms of the way in which—as the wall text put it—“abstract painting continues to be explored and reexamined by successive generations of artists, reflecting the times in which it is made, with an awareness of, and building on, its history,” this show was really centered around Wayne Gonzales’s brilliant White House, 2003, whose eponymous subject matter can only be discerned at a distance.

The closer one moves to Gonzales’ monochromatic, brainteasing take on pointillism in the age of pixelism, the more diffuse and disembodied the image of the Presidential residence becomes. Even at point-blank range, it defies logic: Any coherence is a kind of special effect prompting lively meditation on the viability and cogency of modes (abstraction and nonrepresentation) and medium (painting). By placing what is often seen as the absence or refraction of color—whiteness—at his show’s hub via one of its most politically ambiguous and emblematically American signs, Nickas opened a dossier on how and why abstraction still engages. Further, the centrality of this painting suggests that any discourse that refuses to confront how subject matter, even in its abstraction or absence, bears on formal or conceptual issues obfuscates the aesthetic ideology that inheres in any work of art, and thus winds up supporting, implicitly, ideological forces by other, often unacknowledged means. If the title of his exhibition “seems to suggest that the show will offer pictures of the world around us, of nature, of the landscape, of a recognizable place” and if his painters “may appear less concerned with how the world looks than with how the world feels,” it is, indeed, a matter of how feeling appears and how abstract and unrecognizable the world around us is. That “The Painted World” was chockablock with visual exuberance only proves—and expands on—the show’s stated purpose.

Some purists may have found Gonzales’s work (his other painting, Hooters, 2005, depicted three bosomy waitresses) too “Pop” to be included—as if the borders of abstraction are definitively mapped or should be policed. But just as Gonzales’s painting shows representation to be a kind of abstraction rather than suggesting that abstraction necessarily exists in search of (metaphorical) subject matter or form, the range of other works pushed and pulled at the relation between abstraction and nonrepresentation. Ostensibly a close-up depiction of the cracked, peeling surface of a building exposed to the desert sun, Alex Hay’s Old Green ’05, 2005 (the first painting of his to be seen after a thirty-year hiatus) becomes a study “of” and/or “about” paint itself, a consideration of the painting’s palimpsestic mediation of its own history as well as the relationship of representation to its destruction, the painter to aging, and style to trends. Two knockout Myron Stouts (an austerely luxurious black-and-white totem and a kaleidoscopic dazzler) and Moira Dryer’s darkly prescient Wall of Fear, 1990–91, extended the pleasure of such considerations.

All of which may make it seem that “The Painted World” conveyed serious cerebration, which it did, but perhaps it struck its points most slyly by the eye-popping color-coded groupings, as when one turned from the shiny, galactic candy fun of John Tremblay’s Ice Age, 2005, to a room of oxygenated reds: a florid Yayoi Kusama; a bopping, hypnotic Dan Walsh diptych; and a cheery lifesaver by Olivier Mosset. That a political agenda couldn’t be named doesn’t mean there wasn’t a liberating one at work.

Bruce Hainley