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Review: Contemporary’s “Painters Panting” suggests constant renewal of medium

David Diao: "Auction"
A still from Alex Hubbard's video "The Collapse of the Expanded Field I-III"

The title of “Painters Panting,” the group exhibition at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, is a play on “Painters Painting: The New York Art Scene 1940-1970,” Emile de Antonio’s classic documentary. In that 1972 film, Willem de Kooning famously said, “Painting has always been dead, but I was never worried about it.”

ACAC Artistic Director Stuart Horodner has brought together seven contemporary artists, five men and two women, to explore, he says, “the exasperation with and ongoing passion about painting concerns.” There are concerns about materials and techniques, of course, but also about rumors of painting’s exhaustion or irrelevance, which these artists confront by pushing the medium in new directions.

The exhibit opens with a large video screen projecting two films by Jennifer West. “Lavender Mist/Pollock Film 1” is a camera-less 70mm film constructed of film leader that West spray-painted, dripped and splattered with nail polish and sprayed with lavender mist air freshener. It presents an obvious engagement with Jackson Pollock and the macho posturing associated with “action painting.” So does West’s “A 70MM Film Wearing Thick Heavy Black Liquid Eyeliner That Gets Smeary,” for which she uses stereotypically feminine materials such as eyeliner and body glitter. But the rapid-fire editing style and dazzling psychedelic colors — evocative of Bruce Conner’s 1967 film “Looking for Mushrooms” — create what the artist calls “paintings in time,” letting the action of “action painting” movingly unfold before our eyes.

It brings to mind Allan Kaprow’s 1958 essay “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” in which he suggested that artists  following Pollock could choose to “develop an action kind of painting” or “take advantage of the action itself, implicit as a kind of dance ritual.”

Saul Fletcher's "Untitled (Midgets)"

Like West, Alex Hubbard and Saul Fletcher combine these two alternatives. Hubbard’s videos “The Collapse of the Expanded Field I-III” (2007) and “Lost Loose Ends” (2008) bring together an assortment of materials, such as poured paint, flowers being cut with scissors and a Mylar drape pierced and torn by an old-fashioned walking cane. The films document fleeting moments of creation and destruction that question the boundary between performance and its documentation in ways similar to Hans Namuth’s famous 1951 film of Pollock painting on glass.

Fletcher similarly creates ephemeral works in the studio that he then photographs. For “Untitled #224 (Misanthrope)” (2010), he photographed a jagged plaster wall with the words “The” (or “a”) “Misanthrope” carved or written on it. “Untitled #234” presents a photo of a similar wall covered with pictures of midgets and pages of text. Like Hubbard’s videos, Fletcher’s photographs trouble the line between document and art object.

Fletcher’s smallish photos seem at odds with the scale of the other works here — Judy Ledgerwood, for example, has painted the wall of an entire room — and with the modernist tendency for big aesthetic statements, though his pictures aren’t any less compelling for that.

David Diao's "Auction"

David Diao and Craig Drennen engage ideas of cultural capital. Diao’s “Barnett Newman: Chronology of Work, Updated” (2010) presents a large red field. Vertical columns of dates in yellow and blue, parodying Newman’s “zips,” chart his artistic output. The color scheme of the painting evokes Newman’s own “Whose Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue” (1966). The painted numeric dates set against a monochromatic background also call to mind the “Today” series of “date paintings” by conceptualist artist On Kawara.

Diao’s work pushes painting in new directions by balancing heroic, Abstract Expressionist painterliness against more conceptual or archival practices. His “Auction Record” (2011), a fictional sales document for his painting “Mean Things Other Artists Said About Me,” more humorously raises questions about the commodification of art.

Craig Drennen's "Timon of Athens 9" (2012)

Drennen finds inspiration for his work in the abandoned Shakespeare play “Timon of Athens.” Never performed in the Bard’s lifetime, though it seems to be enjoying a revival today, “Timon” functions for Drennen as a cultural touchstone that seems at once familiar and not really well known. Paintings such as “Timon of Athens 9” (2012) present imagery such as a faultlessly rendered clock face (the kind you might remember from your elementary school classroom), common letters and bits of text in various typefaces, or a hand holding an arrow. These familiar yet decontextualized images appear among large, runny swatches and blocks of gray, brown, oatmeal, yellow and black.

“Timon,” it would seem, affords Drennen an inexhaustible set of ideas, codes or imagery that he can “stage-manage” to create compellingly enigmatic paintings.

In the first decades of the last century, Kazimir Malevich announced that “painting was done for long ago.” He certainly wasn’t the first or the last to have said so. “Painters Panting” demonstrates the continued vitality of painting and “painting concerns,” even in the face of such pronouncements about its death.

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