New York

Michaela Eichwald and Max Schmidtlein, Frank und Pflaumi haben einen Traum (Frank and Pflaumi Have a Dream), 2017, acrylic on auto upholstery headliner fabric, 50 3/4 × 116".

Michaela Eichwald and Max Schmidtlein, Frank und Pflaumi haben einen Traum (Frank and Pflaumi Have a Dream), 2017, acrylic on auto upholstery headliner fabric, 50 3/4 × 116".

Michaela Eichwald

Reena Spaulings Fine Art | New York

Michaela Eichwald and Max Schmidtlein, Frank und Pflaumi haben einen Traum (Frank and Pflaumi Have a Dream), 2017, acrylic on auto upholstery headliner fabric, 50 3/4 × 116".

In recent years, demonstrating one’s own insouciant flexibility, whether professional or personal, has been a matter of economic survival; thus, the shrug emoji has reigned. We are all implicated in variously exciting or pernicious networks: What to do about it? Painting, in its dominant German/American vein—at least the type associated with the Cologne–New York axis and identified by David Joselit in 2009 as “networked”—has demonstrated commitments to awkward states such as ambivalence, and to its own poverties. Michaela Eichwald’s exhibition of paintings at Reena Spaulings Fine Art seemed to newly commit. “All the stuff we could say comes from a certain Rhinelandish or an even rougher, heavier Westfalian history. . . .” the press release reads, gesturing at Joselit’s “Painting Beside Itself,” bad painting, and so on, without really wanting to go into it. This is fine, in fact, because the paintings in this excellent show did the work themselves.

While some of Eichwald’s previous paintings were long, landscaped, Rauschenbergian passages through collaged materials, her recent works are made with paints placed on varieties of pleather. A material that sings of cheapness, pleather is an obviously bad copy of something else, to which the oils, acrylics, and stains she applies adhere with various degrees of success. The show opened with a work made with Max Schmidtlein called Frank und Pflaumi haben einen Traum (Frank und Pflaumi Have a Dream) (all works 2017)—a spare composition on blue-striped auto upholstery fabric, based on a wartime German banknote design. A central crest featuring two comically uncertain blue-gray creatures on their hind legs has dried in halfhearted watery streaks, while arcs of bloody rust and bright yellow fare better, pushing left to right across the picture plane, suggesting states of high or low feeling. Involving a similarly affective movement was Saufen Weinen Wiederkaeuen (Boozing Weeping Rehashing), an acrylic painting on mustard pleather with the texture of acne. Three white, cloudlike shapes seem to form the melancholic triad invoked by the title, as though modeling emotional processes. All these wet, sloppy states are interconnected like tanks, and drip splodgy drunken tears onto their bumpy ground.

Other paintings had a more immersive, allover style, such as Urbi et Orbi, a meaty ground of pale flesh tones marked with bruises and gashes, overlaid by two bright shapes resembling blue bells. In works like this one, the materials appear simultaneously compromised and lifted; the poor, synthetic surface is exalted by its rendering as abject body mess, which is in turn cheered by simple, more obviously artificial forms. In no painting was this more apparent than the exceptional Grosse Unbekannte mit zwei Hausgeistern (Great Unknown with Two House Ghosts), made with the saddest pleather—a sickly beige with a trompe l’oeilbutton-tufting print. Thinking about this fabric is so abysmal—what could its purpose possibly be when the texture it pretends at is obviously fake—that it summons an expanding infinity of imitations of imitations of beige material. The painting features softly rendered figurish forms, whom one might take for the “house ghosts,” whose streaky, feathery wings are the painting’s topmost layer: dirty, brown, expressionistic brushstrokes. Angels, maybe. Pinks, deep reds, and yellows suggest an interior, perhaps a towel rail or a cupboard tended by spirits who are somehow lifting this patterned pleather from within its status as a compromised, innately shitty, endlessly reproducible material. It’s difficult to convey how moving it is to see the care and struggle taken with this sad stuff, except just to say that if you imagine what the spirits of our labor in art would look like, could it be something like this?

Laura McLean-Ferris