Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Postcapitalist Painting

"In America..." Published in Krokodil magazine, Soviet Union, 1953 (text translated from Russian)

Some 64,000 years ago, woken beings not too different from us scrawled upon cave walls with red ochre hand-mined from the earth. What connects that kind of activity to the contemporary art exhibited at today’s galleries, art fairs, and museums? There is a disconnect between the felt nobility and inherent good employed to describe learning about and fostering an appreciation for art on one hand, and the decidedly classist, sexist, and racist bias the ‘art world’ routinely demonstrates on the other. The current global economic system of hyper-capitalist, cancerous profiteering rewards such divisive strategies; these strategies arguably underlie the very structures of the current economic paradigm. If systems of health care and education that don’t rely on a profit incentive can be imagined, then a world of art that doesn’t can be too. Such imaginings, practically speaking, are to remain in the realm of thought experiment only. There is no indication that the tide of capital the high end of the art world is awash in will be rolling back any time soon. Even on the non-profit end, much of their funds are still frequently provided by global corporate capital: the lead funder of PST: LA/LA was Bank of America.

Despite this, here in Los Angeles and beyond, thriving communities of working artists exist with the support of artist-run initiatives and alternative exhibition spaces that operate outside the interest and influence of oligarchic wealth. In Los Angeles, the artists of this community produce relevant, grassroots contemporary art activity, and a great deal of that activity is painting. Such a great deal in fact, that some definitive currents and strategies have emerged among the painters of this community. By no means are the basic notions here restricted to the single medium of painting defined at its narrowest at the exclusion of other mediums, or artists who do not identify primarily as painters – ‘painting’ as it were, like all other medium designations, is approached here as one of several overlapping sets of issues and considerations more than as neatly defined classes of products. What the work of these artists has in common is a direct and human-scaled approach. Most of these works range in size from modest to minimally heroic, since they are not industrially fabricated by the alienated labor of technicians in warehouses but hand produced in the studios and studio spaces of artists who are more than likely maintaining a living that has little or nothing to do with sales of their art work. Many of these artists, not being products of brand name MFA programs, remain generally unknown to the commercial gallery world and its audience. Others have broken through to the larger art world stage embodying these notions intact. The exhibitions where you can find many of these artists’ work are frequently organized by artists from within the community itself engaging in extra-studio practice from within the community itself, and the information about where and when typically stays among the social media networks established by them. Exhibitions are often of an ephemeral nature with limited public opportunities to experience them. The audience for them is typically other artists. Some of the overlapping aesthetic and conceptual groupings that have emerged among the painters of these communities as I see them range from edge-to-edge intuitive abstract strategies (Daniela Campins, Rema Ghuloum, Stacy Wendt, John Mills, Max Presneill), to more materially-based pattern and grid riffs (Britton Tolliver, Mandy Lyn Ford, Nano Rubio, Ana Rodriguez, Jenny Hager) all the way to deconstructed investigations of figure-based elements and other represenations (Kristy Luck, Christina Quarles, Maja Ruznic, Ranee Henderson, Joshua Hagler, Josh Peters), to engagements with landscape notions (Christine Frerichs, Esmeralda Montes, Stephen Parise, Carl Baratta, Hung Viet Nguyen, Virginia Katz) as well as engagements with identity, relationships, and media representations (Loren Britton, Michelle Carla Handel, Kyla Hansen, April Bey, Casey Kauffmann).

The unapologetic embrace of painting by working artists of modest means has a larger corollary within our current cultural paradigm. The insatiable hunger for new, novel forms of art coupled with the dismissing or throwing out of older forms thought to be obsolete echoes the wasteful capitalist notion of planned obsolescence. A reassertion and reacknowledgment of painting’s development can be seen as part of a critique of this notion. Also, a connection can be made with regard to perceived notions of commodification of particular mediums. On the surface, a case is made that more conceptual, dematerialized practices challenge the market’s ability to commodify them, leaving painting, sculpture and other materially based forms as tainted with an inherent marketability. However, a deeper analysis uncovers a contrasting take. Indeed, it was a breakdown in financial markets for “dematerialized” and “conceptual” commodities – mortgages, stocks, bonds, debt, securities, derivatives, insurance policies, etc. – that nearly led to complete economic collapse in the previous decade. Indeed, some of the seminal figures of more conceptual bents are canonized market darlings with the “paperwork” relating to the art works becoming a fetishized commodity itself. Against this, the material character of painting and related mediums now stands as a document of the creative, un-alienated labor of working artists, as opposed to both the “administrative” aesthetic of many conceptual and project based practices and the anonymously fabricated designer works of artists like Hirst, Koons, Murakami, etc. This is not to say that there isn’t a hot market for painting, merely that its marketability is no less “inherent” than that of dematerialized forms, whose non-art analogs exist almost as pure commodities, financial products that are essentially shared fictions of government enforced ownership.

It would be a stretch to say the painters mentioned above share a common aesthetic concern. However, grouped together as such, commonalities bubble to the surface when compared to the more recognized artists and trends du jour. Each of the above-mentioned painter's works has a more idiosyncratic, individual characteristic when compared to the repetitive processes of zombie formalism, the last identifiable success aesthetic of the decade. No one wants their work to seem like it was mass-produced to be flipped on the market. No one is making the same painting over and over. This individual characteristic is analogous to and works in conjunction with the notion of indexicality, as defined by German art writer Isabelle Graw. The works directly refer to, and are therefore indexical of the actual artists themselves, and they evoke the artist’s presence when experienced by the viewer. This individualized indexicality can be said to be the result of the reaction to zombie formalism, retro-packaged by writer Chris Wiley as ‘Debt Aesthetics’. Debt Aesthetics refers to the paintings taking on the visual characteristics of currency itself and being traded as such in the wake of the crash of traditional, (barely) regulated sources of credit and markets. This being the case, the overall eclectic reaction to Debt Aesthetics/Zombie Formalism can be summed up as an attempt at a post-capitalist practice, in the case of painting, postcapitalist painting. It is not painting as an attempt to create value that can be used to pay off debt. It is not painting as a commodity that lies somewhere between Monopoly money and BitCoin. It is painting as art. So it speaks to the original question art poses – what is art – and it poses the question not in opposition to capitalism per se, but beyond it, over it, bigger and more universal as an idea than capitalism, speaking to a future that has moved on from it, in light of its increasingly inevitable unsustainability. In no way does the 'postcapitalist' designation imply anything about the above painters' own personal political beliefs. Their work, in my view, is what painting might look like in a world that doesn't revolve around financial profit. It is an initial attempt, a furtive beginning, at envisioning a future, as the great art of the past often attempted to do, if only in hindsight.