Despite superficial appearances, the best artists working in painting today are not approaching it as a reflexive, medium-specific extension of modernism. Instead, they are using painting as a frame, tool, or focal point by which to get at a number of pressing contemporary issues. This is a direct result of the new roles that painting has taken in a digital age.
Painting has always existed in relation to technology, where the term is understood as more than a synonym for digital devices and the Internet, but as the practical application of specialized knowledge: from the brush, to the compass, to the camera obscura, to photography, and, more recently, to the inkjet printer. However, it is only now that painting is so closely affiliated—morphologically, aesthetically, and conceptually—with the digital technologies with which it is engaged. This is not a case of artists appropriating arcane or specialized knowledge, as when artists in the 1960s avidly followed, and made use of, the latest innovations published in Scientific American. Today, artist and viewer alike share the experience of these digital technologies as familiar, available, and omnipresent.
The proliferation in the past decade or so of laptops, tablets, smartphones, and flatscreen televisions, all of which are interfaces housed in slender casings, has significantly altered the presentation of images and, consequently, to our perception and consumption of them through a whole new array of materials and means of display. This makes a painting morphologically very close, in form as well as function, to a digital device.
What is then presented on such delivery systems, whether the painterly ones of “fine” art or omnipresent HD displays, is inevitably conditioned by the fact that, today, all things are presented to us first as images. The issue for contemporary painting does not have to do with pictorial space—depth versus flatness, figure versus ground—which we cannot perceive anymore as having any significatory weight (i.e., that established by a relative hierarchy between near and far, large and small, etc.) but, rather, is engaged with the question of object versus image. Regarding work that actively engages imagery (a term we prefer to representation), this introduces the central question of scale and, by extension, scalability, for it is this very access to and capability for manipulation that the image holds that leads to this draining of significatory weight from distance and relative scale. Instead of implying a day's journey, or a sublime inaccessible beyond, we know that any image placed before us, as long as it is digital, can be scrolled into and out of infinitely.
The artists in Some New American Paintings address these conditions, leaning towards either the material or the optical in their diverse approaches. At the material extreme we have Carolyn Salas, whose planar casts of carved Styrofoam create a complex dialogue between actual and illusionary spatial images, existing in the in-between space of relief. At the other we find Austin Lee, whose crude, spray-painted figures often hover at the edge of legibility. Between these two poles a continuum can be established, and across which this group of artists can be arrayed.
Just to the left of Salas's reliefs we might place Evan Nesbit's color-field paintings made by pushing acrylic paint through the back of thickly woven burlap canvas. David Bayus's photorealistic renderings of fantastical subjects feel like the product of a contemporary materialist imaginary. Eric Shaw updates the over one hundred year old constructive language of abstract painting with the pastel colors and drop shadows favored in an age of saturated LCD screens and Photoshopped effects. Henry Gunderson does the same with photorealistic painting, in the vein of Don Nice, Nancy Fish, and Richard Estes, subjecting the overly perfect vistas and objects of these painters to the fragmentation, cropping, and non-hierarchical juxtapositions characteristic of digital technology. The result is both specific and abstract. Something similar can be said for Jamian Juliano-Villani, whose fantastical imagery is tied together equally by a neo-surrealist sensibility of wild combinations that somehow hold together in the world she establishes in each of her canvases, and which is anchored by an almost classical sense of composition and perspective order. These are not dizzying paintings, ultimately, but somewhat stoic and ordered glimpses into the perverse side of the digital imaginary, much as Peter Saul or John Wesley's paintings were for an earlier moment. Matthew Palladino's paintings are related to this neo-surreal vein, through their construction via an array of classic sticker imagery, which references contemporary readymade image and gestures (sticker placement) as well as compositional sense (layering, repetition) for those we might typically expect from a painterly mode.
While these artists are not necessarily considering the same issues, what links them together as “new American painters” is not simply geography or medium, but that they have internalized these conditions as those which painting, to speak to our moment, must acknowledge. We can see how both material and imagistic concerns inflect our experience of all paintings. In this way, as this grouping of artists demonstrate, those working “abstractly” must address how the non-objective composition is also an image related to a database of historical forms as well as contemporary ones. Just those working “figuratively” must speak to the material implications of images in a digital age—the icons on our smartphones that can do everything from summoning a car, to paying a bill, to sending a message—that are testament to the real world ramifications of the image and the new status of the body in a networked moment.
- Alex Bacon