New York

Luchita Hurtado, Untitled, 1970, oil on canvas, 32 7⁄8 × 19 1⁄8". From “Painting: Now and Forever, Part III.”

Luchita Hurtado, Untitled, 1970, oil on canvas, 32 7⁄8 × 19 1⁄8". From “Painting: Now and Forever, Part III.”

“Painting: Now and Forever, Part III”

Greene Naftali/Matthew Marks Gallery

The pensive woman portrayed in Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Jubilee, 2016, prominently hung in “Painting: Now and Forever, Part III,” appeared to be contemplating her predicament: “How’d a good painting like me end up in a show like this?” The spectacularly haphazard exhibition, a mishmash of roughly one hundred works by forty-six artists at both Greene Naftali and Matthew Marks, raised a lot of questions. Why so many bad painters? Why so many bad pieces by good painters? Why the whipsaw transitions between works as bewilderingly different as Alex Israel’s giant, onanistic self-portrait and a subtle night sky by Vija Celmins? Why the departure from curatorial logic and, not infrequently, discernible taste?

Perhaps the biggest question the show’s organizers might have asked themselves is why the third edition of this decennial exhibition was necessary at all. When Marks and the late dealer Pat Hearn delivered the first one in 1998, painting had been nearly eclipsed by photography, video, and various conceptual practices. (Painting has died many deaths, only to be resurrected by the market’s voodoo priests.) Now, when the medium is conspicuously in vogue again among young artists, the idea of a show professing to “prove the vitality of painting today” seems a little out of touch. Given the wealth of innovative work out there, however, this museum-size survey could have soared, had the installation been more thoughtful.

Matthew Marks had the strongest pieces. Standouts included Luchita Hurtado’s Untitled, 1970, a surreal vision of a woven basket bearing down on the prone body of a nude woman. In this and other works from the 1970s, the artist adapted the enigmatic monumentality of René Magritte to her own gripping ends. Five impressively diverse canvases by Leidy Churchman testified to the up-and-coming American’s willingness to experiment: Mother, 2018, is a cartographical mosaic of shapes and symbols, while the beguiling Paradise 8 & 9, also 2018, depicts a path disappearing into an overgrown forest. Janiva Ellis, a latter-day Francis Picabia, layered childlike limbs, pinup-girl breasts, and several mouths to create a hybrid nymphet/succubus for the internet era in Scripture for the Enemy, 2018. The five paperbacks—four Edna O’Brien novels and Violette Leduc’s Ravages (1955)—in Lucy McKenzie’s clever Quodlibet XXXI,2014, felt like a feminist riff on John Haberle’s trompe l’oeil canvas A Bachelor’s Drawer, 1890–94. But these images were hung willy-nilly alongside much weaker ones, including slapdash botanical sketches by the otherwise terrific Lois Dodd; two stilted nudes by Sylvia Sleigh; and a hippieish set of torsos sprouting fish, branches, and waterfalls by Suellen Rocca. Many paintings suffered from the trendy stripping-away of technical finesse. Xinyi Cheng’s A Bit of Wind, 2016, for example, showed a plate of blurry seaweed-like strands, seemingly scattered by a breeze. Were it not for Cheng’s (presumably intentional) imprecise execution, the canvas might have captured a quietly affecting moment of transience.

At Greene Naftali, the selection was truly baffling. There was, for instance, an astoundingly bad Gedi Sibony still life, in which some crudely rendered bottles and lumps of fruit stood around awkwardly like guests at a party for someone none of them liked. Nearby was a bland, latex-splashed bedsheet by Rodney McMillian, and a large black canvas with a few white scrawls by Genoveva Filipovic—her distracted, irresponsible approach felt like the painterly equivalent of texting while driving. Mathieu Malouf rendered two enormous heads in such perversely chalky matte layers that it was difficult to believe he was using the same sensuous medium that inspired Willem de Kooning to remark, “Flesh was the reason oil paint was invented.”

The real crime, however, was that these deadening works were hung near three inspired paintings by Jeanette Mundt, each depicting a gymnast torqueing through the air at the Rio 2016 Olympics. Using a series of photographs from the New York Times that captured each athlete’s routine, frame by frame, as references, Mundt further fractured the gymnasts’ movements by breaking their bodies into offset vertical slivers. Together they formed many-limbed monsters—cloning experiments gone awry. Mundt’s paintings, in their representation of time and motion, evoked the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge while nodding to the particular capacity of paintings to articulate duration. If only the show as a whole had as much to say about the medium.

Zoë Lescaze