New York

View of “Merlin Carpenter,” 2020.

View of “Merlin Carpenter,” 2020.

Merlin Carpenter

Reena Spaulings Fine Art | New York

During the opening of his second presentation at Reena Spaulings Fine Art in 2007, Merlin Carpenter painted invectives such as DIE COLLECTOR SCUM and I HATE YOU THE ART WORLD YOU CUNTS onto canvases. At his 2011 show at Berlin’s MD 72, only those who were willing to pay 5,000 euros were allowed to view the art. For a 2017 show of paintings at Simon Lee Gallery in London, Carpenter contractually bound buyers of his works to keep them wrapped up until the year 2081. His art, depending on who you ask, is either willingly naive, deeply cynical, or the real thing. For his fifth outing at Reena Spaulings, “Paint-It-Yourself,” he arranged for ten expensive, primed canvases—fetishistically flawless in their whiteness—to be installed in the gallery with a box of paints, which visitors could ostensibly use to “make” the work. “First of all this show is a bit of a reaction to the sameyness of a lot of painting,” Carpenter wrote in the press release, which was formatted as a letter to the gallery’s cofounders, John Kelsey and Emily Sundblad. “It’s almost like the whole thing turned into zombie formalism. Figurative formalism . . . So let’s clear the decks. ‘You want a painting show, well then paint-it-yourself.’ It doesn’t matter what it looks like anyway.” Some visitors wondered if Carpenter had hired children to paint the canvases, and others murmured that near the end of the opening, a certain artist on the roster of New York’s Greene Naftali Gallery blotted out a good chunk of the writing that appeared on them. The works contained a mash-up of deliriously expressionistic marks, signatures, drawings, and smudged-out bits of text. Among the scrawls were phrases such as BANKS ARE COOL; WANK WANK; and JUST HAD A BRILLIANT WANK. Someone had scribbled GAY under a rainbow, and elsewhere, a demented butterfly surrounded by handprints and dollar signs took wing alongside a disembodied head spewing blue vomit while hurtling through space. One also spotted a game of tic-tac-toe, a tribute to KOBE (Bryant, the basketball star who recently died in a helicopter crash), and the epithet AMBITIOUS LITTLE BITCH.

It’s perhaps worth comparing Carpenter’s technique, premised on this kind of self-reflexive void, to that of Andy Warhol, who transformed libidinal lack into pure product. But while the Pop artist was comically and ingeniously up-front about his desire for fame, glory, and glamour, Carpenter insists that he aspires to nothing—which might suggest that the exact opposite is true. He is committed to his lucrative brand of fuck-offery, which is directed at everything from the liberal art-world order to the enduring romantic and market-driven appeal of painting itself—endlessly ripe for parody and vilification—and the various cultural networks that buoy up his practice and make it legible as art. That Carpenter keeps on with his “workless work” (to borrow the writer Rhonda Lieberman’s take on Maurice Blanchot’s notion of désoeuvrement) and that his polemic against the industry’s inherently compromised value system remains hermetically sealed within it seem to me the basis for much of the antagonism he generates. And indeed the fact that his practice echoes the opacity of the powers at which his gestures are supposedly aimed is what ultimately undermines the work, leaving it looking rather sanctimonious and torpor-fueled. The draw of Carpenter’s work is similar to that of a Whit Stillman movie—viewers know that the protagonist’s assuredly privileged problems have low stakes, if any at all, but we suspend disbelief in order to take the work in. And it is this very dive into fantasy required of Carpenter’s participants (usually insider-y types themselves)—and viewers’ uncertainty as to whether they are the joke or are in on the joke—that offers some scraps of pleasure.