David Ostrowski, F (Taylor Swift), 2020, acrylic and lacquer on canvas and wood, 16 1⁄8 × 12 1⁄8".

David Ostrowski, F (Taylor Swift), 2020, acrylic and lacquer on canvas and wood, 16 1⁄8 × 12 1⁄8".

David Ostrowski

Imagine earnestness in a painting. It’s not pretty. Or maybe it is, actually, and that’s the problem: It’s kitsch. With the group of new, modestly sized works on view in the exhibition “So kalt kann es nicht sein/It can’t be that cold,” David Ostrowski appeared to have miraculously circumvented this impasse. The battered objects were gray, heavily layered and textured—some with collage elements barely discernible through the paint—and each titled with the artist’s customary “F” (which stands for what you think it does) followed by the name, in parentheses, of a prominent pop-music act (Toni Braxton, Sheryl Crow, Genesis). The titles certainly corroborated what this writer had been quick to assume was the irony, or even flippancy, displayed by the artist in the past. His previous works include large blank canvases minimally streaked with spray paint, officially a challenge to the ontology of painting, but more obviously an art-world in-joke on the medium’s infinite endgames, which, under the influence of a market run amok, just about passed for criticality—at least until it was shot down as “zombie formalism” in 2014.

But Ostrowski’s new works suggest something else going on. Imagine earnestness, but without sentimentality, without fetish. Even in their shittiness, Ostrowski’s gray acrylic rectangles make too great a claim on existence to be dismissed as merely undead. A number of them revisit past efforts. In F (Michael Bublé), 2009/2020, for instance, an older spray streak is newly encroached upon by a dense gray that seems to hug or smother it. In the entirely recent F (Taylor Swift), 2020, a thick layer of paint covering both the cheap wood frame and the canvas conveys a kind of airlessness, which, intentionally or not, seems an apt description of that singer’s universe, too.

Common to all the works on view was that they appeared as survivors: triumphant, dirty, abused. Their ramshackle state asked not for pity, but for an acknowledgment of the brute determination undergirding the diligent poise with which they were hung—some delicately, invisibly suspended from the ceiling—in the gallery.

In his 1981 essay for this magazine, “Last Exit: Painting,” Thomas Lawson criticized painting after modernism for having degenerated into “empty, self-pitying, but sensationalist, mannerism.” Artists such as Sandro Chia and Enzo Cucchi, he wrote, were “altogether too calculated to be as anarchistic as they pretend” and failed to own the “strain of Warholism”—hype, fashion—that hung about their work. Thus, where modernist painting had been concerned with nothingness as an existential question, Lawson argued, in its 1980s revamp painting itself became nothing. With Ostrowski, no such claim can be made: In fact, more than the zero-degree painting spoken of in the press release for this show and many a catalogue essay on Ostrowski’s work, we found zero degrees of pretense to anarchism, and full-on undisguised fashion-consciousness.

Fashion is often understood to be cool, and coolness to be indifferent or noncommittal. In fact, few creative practices are as determined by what other people think as fashion; it tries very very hard and always has everything to lose. What’s cool about that? As the title of the exhibition says, it can’t be that cold. What we detect in Ostrowski’s work, then, is not detachment, but irony’s close kin: neurosis. This art is fashion-conscious in the sense that it is hyperaware of itself, of its context, and of its reliance on the social and cultural systems that facilitate its significance. It is perhaps this neurotic sincerity, a total embrace of contrivance, that allows for a rare no-frills nothingness to emerge in his paintings. To be clear: It’s not that they are reduced to nothing; they are engaged with its substance.