Between Picture and Viewer: The Image in Contemporary Painting
"In common parlance, 'picture' and 'image' are often used interchangeably to designate visual representations on two-dimensional surfaces& however, I think it is useful to play upon distinctions between the two terms: the difference between a constructed concrete object or ensemble (frame, support, materials, pigments, facture) and the virtual, phenomenal appearance that it provides for a beholder".
- W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation
School of Visual Arts (SVA) presents “Between Picture and Viewer: The Image in Contemporary Painting,” an exhibition of recent work by 19 established and emerging New York artists examining the relationship between contemporary painting and the notion of “the image” in today’s increasingly hyper-visual culture. Curated by Tom Huhn, chair of the BFA Visual and Critical Studies Department at SVA, and faculty member Isabel Taube, the exhibition is the result of a collaboration between Huhn, a philosopher, and Taube, an art historian. Rejecting the claim that the traditional image is now obsolete, Huhn and Taube point to a renewed interest and relevance in painting, one that makes a compelling argument for the materiality of art at the current moment, despite a preponderance of ephemeral and performance-based works in contemporary art practice.
Tom Huhn explains, “We set out to explore how painters from the New York area were dealing with the image in their recent work. Rather than starting with a preconceived idea about the image in painting, we visited and spoke with a cross-generational selection of artists, who work in abstract and representational styles or a combination of both. The exhibition emerged out of the conversations we had with these painters and the images we encountered in their artworks.”
As Taube suggests, “These works further the modernist debate about whether painting should be considered predominantly an image or an object.” Each of the participating artists in the exhibition grapples with traditional approaches to the image in painting differently some referencing, others embracing, and still others refuting. In doing so, each artist imbues the historical tradition-and the exchange with the viewer-with a fresh meaning.
“Between Picture and Viewer” includes over 50 paintings, the majority of which are new works which have never before been exhibited in New York. From Matvey Levenstein’s paintings of Catholic Church interiors which trace back to a late 16th century tradition of ecclesiastical Netherlandish paintings, to Amy Bennett’s two-dimensional paintings based on three-dimensional models of her own fabrication, several of the artists in the show experiment with ways to translate the built environment through their work. Drawing inspiration from the landscapes of the imagination, Judith Linhares and SVA alumnus Inka Essenhigh each convey fantastical scenes which suggest a limitlessness to the image. Linhares’ nude figures both belong to and critique the tradition of the academic nude; while Essenhigh’s recent work focuses on invented landscapes, which simultaneously comment on current, perhaps superficial obsessions with the environment.
For Josephine Halvorson and Lynn McCarty, the image is an afterthought and exists separately from the process of making. Halvorson’s paintings are material records of her interactions with everyday, actual objects, while McCarty eschews the use of brushes, instead pouring and maneuvering the paint and embracing the unexpected results that occur. TB Hamill reworks well-known forms found in Minimalist painting, emphasizing the craft of each component which subverts the geometry of the whole. Joe Fyfe’s work is constructed from found fabric and is assembled according to conventions of abstract painting-the material construction creates a tension between the image and the object in the work.
Some of the artists challenge the primacy of the image by emphasizing aspects of tactility and materiality. Ron Gorchov and Joanna Pousette-Dart both make use of shaped canvases; in Gorchov’s work, the concave canvas underscores the materiality of the painting, and for Pousette-Dart, shaped panels evoke the earth’s curvature while adding a dynamism that helps to assert the distinction between the image and the painting.
Plurality, ambiguity and “openness” characterize many of the paintings in the exhibition. In Lisa Yuskavage’s work, images with opposing effects exist side by side, generating different narratives which are open to interpretation. Karin Davie’s work consists of vibrantly colored, interweaving coils which seem to unravel and collapse at once. Jill Moser’s loops and lines suggest a simultaneous coming together and scattering of forms, suggesting multiple conclusions. Describing her painting as a conversation with materials, Mary McDonnell creates multi-layered paintings where the image appears and then disappears as her work progresses.
Several of the artists explore ways to undermine the unity of the image by obscuring sections of the work. James Hyde takes the technical image of the photograph and overlays it with paint to conceal sections of the photograph. Similarly, Tiffany Calvert obscures her source material, painting over images from an art history text book of the Rococo style Hall of Mirrors at Amalienberg in Munich. Creating abstractions using dynamic strokes and contrasting tones, Natalie Edgar juxtaposes color with areas of vacant canvas.
While certain paintings at first appear rather straightforward, they require a lengthier viewing for full comprehension, as the artists seek to slow down the transmission of the image. Alexi Worth’s work challenges assumptions about perspective and the connection between art and reality, asking the viewer to pause and reconsider the typical narrative scene. While seemingly purely abstract, Max Gimblett’s large scale paintings contain images that induce contemplation despite their apparent immediacy, conjuring both historical associations and the complexities that can be conveyed by a single brushstroke.
A fully-illustrated catalogue to accompany the exhibition has been produced by the Visual Arts Press featuring essays by Tom Huhn and Isabel Taube. Taube’s essay, “The Open Image,” interprets specific works by each of the participating artists, and Huhn’s essay, “Images and their Inclinations,” presents a philosophical argument addressing the nature and function of the image.
In conjunction with the exhibition, SVA will present a panel discussion moderated by art historian Katy Siegel in conversation with three contemporary painters who will discuss the role of the image in their work: Josephine Halvorson, James Hyde and Dana Schutz. Siegel is a professor of art history at Hunter College, a contributing editor at Artforum and co-author of Art Works: Money (Thames & Hudson, 2004). The discussion will take place on December 9, 2010, 7pm at the SVA Theatre, located at 333 West 23 Street. The event is free and open to the public.
The BFA Visual and Critical Studies Department at SVA is designed for ambitious students who want a strong connection between their academic and studio work. This unified, interdisciplinary approach allows students to develop the ability to understand and interpret the art, philosophy, and visual thinking of the past and present; and to make new art while learning the history of practices, theories and artworks. The Visual and Critical Studies curriculum integrates the academic and studio offerings, with course credits evenly divided between the two throughout the program.