New York

Rudolf Stingel

Rudolf Stingel’s 2005 exhibition at Paula Cooper consisted of one work, a painting of his gallerist based on a Robert Mapplethorpe portrait. Installed on the back wall of Cooper’s cavernous space, whose floors were covered with white panels that recorded visitors’ tracks, the picture turned the white cube into a shrine and its founder into a godhead. The holies were more literal in the artist’s latest show, which comprised five diminutive, black-and-white oil-on-linen paintings of saints sourced from photographs of statues and hung one per wall across two rooms. Such austerity rendered the gallery’s vaulted ceilings more cathedral-like than ever, and the canvases’ compactness (sixteen by thirteen inches) required the viewer to apprehend each one at a devotional close range before trudging to the next in a sort of stations-of-the-cross progression. The afternoon I was there, patrons quietly followed the path of the person ahead, waiting until he or she had moved along before approaching the next image—gallery-goers as pilgrims.

Overwhelming in its very intimacy, the exhibition extended and intensified the interpretive conundrum posed by Stingel’s work of the past few years, which is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to square his professed interest in “taking on the subject of painting” with the emotional toll of the paintings themselves. That is to say, if many earlier projects might be understood as sending up the conventions (and pieties) of the medium, particularly its cultural applications and institutional uses and abuses—among other interventions, there were instruction manuals for making your own Rudolf Stingel abstraction; museum halls coated with the metallic insulation material Celotex, which provoked graffiti-like gouging; and gaudy carpets covering walls or, most notably, a floor in Grand Central Terminal—the more recent series seem to be less about painting than to be, well, paintings.

In his shift to work that he describes as “more psychological,” which began with a 2006 set of melancholic self-portraits, Stingel has moved from unorthodox materials to oil, abstraction to representation, puckish theatricality to sober musing, interactivity to contemplation. These paintings, loving passages of grisaille pointillism depicting saints in moments of reverence or reverie, are almost embarrassing in their pathos. The figure in Untitled (Madonna), 2009, glances heavenward, her hands clasped in prayer, while the furrowed forehead and heavily lidded eyes of the subject of Untitled (St. Florian), 2009, seem a testament to the solemnity of this protector of chimney sweeps and firefighters. Any number of critical apparatuses might be pressed into service here, from a tired observation about institutional critique, to an even more shopworn chestnut about the spiral of the copy from statue to photograph to painting, to, spare us, some excursus on religious art and the aura. In lesser hands, images of saints would more readily elicit such readings; these seem subtler allegories.

What to make of this new sincerity? The press release states that the paintings “constitute a kind of cultural self-portrait,” and Jerry Saltz wrote in New York magazine that they “charge the gallery with thoughts about what it takes to create shows in the wake of orgiastic abundance,” related sentiments that both feel right. To put a finer point on it, what would it mean to think of Stingel’s subjects—believers in the as-yet-unseen, who chugged on despite any hard evidence of faith’s rewards—as tokens of today’s audiences or, better still, artists? At the very least, such an analogy would advocate a virtue the contemporary art world could use a bit more of right now: patience.

Lisa Turvey