Los Angeles

View of “Painting,” 2012–13.

View of “Painting,” 2012–13.

“Painting”

The Box

View of “Painting,” 2012–13.

Kudos to the director of the Box, Mara McCarthy, who, with this timely group show, wrested the discipline from cliché. Featuring the work of eleven artists from the early 1950s to the present, “Painting” considered its titular subject not just as material but also as designation and as act, sometimes all at once. This held no less true of the earliest work in the show, Wally Hedrick’s folksy-seditious pre-Johns representation of the American flag with the antiwar message peace scrawled across its stripes (Peace, 1953), than of the most recent, Paul McCarthy’s Foam Pallet, 2012, a shit-colored, barnacle-like encrustation overtaking its support. Hung above Barbara T. Smith’s Day-Glo Cotton Balls, 1964, a homespun Op checkerboard grid of the medicine-counter staple saturated with hot pink and orange paint, McCarthy’s contribution cast a fitfully perverse light on even the most seemingly clean-minded entries. Other instances of his work in the exhibition—scatological videos of the artist painting with his penis or defecating and smearing feces just expelled from his ass—showed Mara’s father, who served as an adviser to the show, to be crucial to our contemporary interest in painting as a somatic political site through (which is to say, not despite) its fundamental baseness. With image of boil and materiality of pigment inextricably mixed, Lee Lozano’s pimple popper in No Title (Hygiene #3), 1961–63, spoke to this no less.

These examples alone begin to suggest the heady works that were clustered here, a selection made, however, with the express purpose of eluding any all-encompassing narrative. With most works having been produced in the 1960s despite the outliers on either end, “Painting” emphasized, if anything, the allure of expressivity (hence the privileging, even performing, of “making” as a precondition for, and valence of, communication), albeit an attraction very easily inverted. Judith Bernstein’s Union Jack-Off on Vietnam Policy, 1967, for example, may not have stopped the war, nor did the New York–based artist presumably imagine otherwise, but given the ferocity of her gestures and grotesquely evocative encrustations of paint—phalluses emerging, keloid-like, from the fat striped red-and-gray ground; bunched-up stockings; collage; American flags; and a detumescent segment that hangs from the base of the panel to lie flaccidly on the floor—one cannot help but respond or admit to complicity. Mike Henderson’s gruesome scene of white police officers brutalizing an African American man in Castration, 1968, likewise asserts a brutal inhumanity.

No less violent were Boris Lurie’s Dismembered Stripper, 1955, and Lumumba Is Dead, 1959–61, the former a painting (in the conventional sense) of a Bellmeresque figure in parts and the latter a collage of pornographic images, heaps of bodies as simultaneously sources of pleasure and carnage, overlaid with Nazi emblems, mementos of World War II, and notices for local memorials to liberated Jews. As with the McCarthy/Smith adjacency noted above, Dismembered Stripper was all the more affecting for its placement beside Al Payne’s Untitled, ca. 1972–78, a gossamer scrim pulled taut over a wooden frame, which, in present company, suggested flayed skin. Each painting, singularly prepossessing, nonetheless benefited from curatorial savvy, as ideas mutated across each wall. Indeed, “Painting” traversed many an aesthetic and an appropriately catholic notion of the medium itself—one so broad as to embrace everything from framed oil-on-canvas pictures to Carolee Schneemann’s 1963 Ice Box, a wooden shelf supporting elements set in motion by a fan. If there was a binding thread, perhaps Mara McCarthy’s statement expresses it best: “These artists pursued their art without the concern of the art market. They pursued their art to an extreme. These paintings are without definition. Enjoy.” Notably, McCarthy’s penultimate sentence begs the very question that the exhibition purported to answer. Or maybe “Painting” wasn’t really attempting to define what the medium is now. It instead implied, via the lack of agreement among disparate practitioners, a newly revitalized discourse of painting.

Suzanne Hudson