Behrang Karimi, Air, 2017–19, oil on canvas, 41 3⁄8 × 70 7⁄8".

Behrang Karimi, Air, 2017–19, oil on canvas, 41 3⁄8 × 70 7⁄8".

Alastair Mackinven and Behrang Karimi

Initially, Maureen Paley’s website presented little information about this exhibition of new paintings by Alastair Mackinven and Behrang Karimi: only an image of an ornate twin-spouted vinaigrette vessel—a nod, perhaps, to the artists’ shared love of enigma. A few days later, a fragmented press text reinforced this notion. In it, Mackinven wrote, “Red pink and purple . . . from the comedian the audience wants new material, from the touring band the audience wants old material and from the artist . . .” Raising questions of artistic consistency and gregarious eclecticism, Mackinven’s text continued: “fire . . . . . . part of this was painted in a damp warehouse, industrial ghosts are making Spectres redundant. M.E.S. said this.” The statement was a reference to his studio’s industrial setting in East London and to the recently deceased leader of the Manchester, UK, band the Fall, Mark E. Smith, whose elliptical lyrics, like Mackinven’s writings, speak of England’s industrial magic.

Mackinven has participated in musical acts over the years—including the Country Teasers in the 1990s and more recently the Stallion—and has worked in numerous painterly styles, consistently valuing a sort of satirical gothic heterogeneity. Hung in the downstairs gallery, all four of his paintings on view here incorporated bright color and rust via iron powder on hard-worn, labored surfaces. With a focus on what the artist has previously described as a form of “abstract capitalist realism,” his current work has developed into what could be called a critical mysticism through the direct influence of William Blake. Populating Mackinven’s pictures are lank-haired, genderless, ghostlike personages in various states of repose, among them the figure in Untitled, 2012–19, who nonchalantly turns from the viewer in an act of melancholy resistance, and the upside-down individual in Untitled, 2018, whose state of tranquility is shown as a colorful psychedelic vision: The being’s masklike face has the faraway look of someone in meditation or drug-induced reverie.

Karimi contextualized his strange, quasi-Fauvist-Cubist paintings in the upstairs gallery by penning a track list for an imaginary album, with titles such as “greetings to the editors of control” and “all your pleasures choke inside the throat when you stop loving light.” Reminiscent of Chagall, Léger, and Picasso, his canvases feature marionette-like characters—albeit ones that still function after their strings have been cut—relaxing and at play. The guileless style of Air, 2017–19, and many others works such as Matrix, 2019, and Mothers Carpet Room, 2018—all of which show children and adults in flat, nonperspectival landscapes and interiors—acts as a critical force in its own right. It points to the aesthetic potential of unworldly, ingenuous expression as opposed to the cool, self-consciously critical strand of painting exemplified by the concise, evasive reflection of Michael Krebber and the self-consciously de-skilled figuration of Jutta Koether.

Despite living in the major center of Cologne/Düsseldorf, Karimi has spent the past two years in relative isolation, working in his studio and looking after his children, and this intense focus on the domestic side of life has permeated his pictures, which portray playgrounds, kids running, and life being lived. We sense that he is a willing loner outside of certain critical networks, and in this respect, both he and Mackinven share similarities not only with Blake—who could serve as a model for an affirmative innocence for the digital age—but also with painting’s long line of naysayers and misfits, such as Bosch, Bruegel, Goya, and van Gogh, who, as T. J. Clark recently claimed in Heaven on Earth (2018), are corralled by theorists into discourses of sanity and conformity. In fact, in fraught times like our own, such figures provide a space for the insubordinate and the blessedly unserious. Karimi and Mackinven are seeking their places in this line of misfit seers, making art as a rapturous critique of current institutional, aesthetic, or political realities. Ultimately, the bite in both their oeuvres comes from a tension between a reflection on expression and the open possibilities of the mysticism they advocate.