New York

Scott Richter

Elizabeth Harris Gallery

Why bother to paint when one not only lacks the skill but also doesn’t even seem to enjoy the attempt? The question invites a number of possible answers, several of which were on display in Scott Richter’s recent exhibition, “Portraits: Based on the Irreconcilable” (irreconcilable with what?). First, one may be absorbed, as Richter appears to be, in the production of latter-day “bad painting,” in the tipping of one’s art-historical hat to a quasi-movement associated with the bad old days of Fun Gallery and the calculatedly messy work of the Hamburg-based painters, such as Albert Oehlen and Werner Buttner, who made the German New Wave a big splash. One may thereby involve oneself in “honoring” an outré past by becoming a “clever” epigone.

Second, one may have a taste for schlock. I didn’t bother to count the number of paintings in Richter’s show, but they seemed to keep on coming in a steady flow, and one needs a strong stomach indeed to digest them (unless, perhaps, one has a particular fetish for the cheap, touchy-feely quality of the wool carpet on which Richter paints, much as faux painters like Julian Schnabel have painted on velvet and tarpaulin).

Third, one may be anally fixated, fascinated by playing with paint the way infants play with shit (while Marcel Duchamp thought of painting as “olfactory masturbation,” one might also frame it as defecation). Perhaps Richter’s On Having Smelt, 2007, is a tacit acknowledgement of his sympathy with this approach? In some works, a wad of thick paint has been plopped onto the surface of the canvas—it looks like the leavings of some giant pigeon—as though intended to clarify for the viewer the fundamentally shitty nature of life. In others, most notably Portrait of a Liar, 2006, dabs of paint spot the picture like a rash, while still other works suggest children’s finger painting (though if this were in fact the case, it would only give the lie to Wassily Kandinsky’s idea that children have more imagination than adults).

Still, the goofiness of these paintings is to some extent redemptive. Humor is a way of making the best of a bad thing, and Richter knows how to make a joke out of his inability to paint. Such a capacity for self-criticism—the ability to laugh at oneself—is inspiring, all the more so because it is so rare. The fact that Richter depicts empty heads, featureless vacuums, also suggests that his subjects may be intended as comic versions of the archetypal “hollow man.” This man without a self, a victim of the “crisis of faith” inseparable from modernity, is generally an appealing character, but Richter chooses to portray the cornball American version rather than his heroic European counterpart. Such updating is, however, to the artist’s credit, because it gives his images an air of truth; they bespeak contemporary life in all its sloppiness and crudity.

But Richter’s heads are fundamentally abstract shapes, not representations of people; they have painterly rather than human presence, and even then they don’t achieve very much. Richter emerges, finally, as a sort of cockeyed Abstract Expressionist, a pseudo-virtuoso of aimlessly precarious brushstrokes and arbitrarily ruptured surfaces.

Donald Kuspit