Navigating The Gulf Between Compulsion and Irony in Contemporary Painting

This essay was first presented at the 96th Annual Conference of the College Art Association held in Dallas, TX in February 2008

Painting has found itself in a riveting yet strangely hackneyed state. A condition that is oddly reminiscent of the past, while resonating a fresh perspective of our times. It could be argued that the concept of longing is one that can best define our era. Culturally speaking we are in a very interesting time, a place in history where we are more connected while simultaneously being disconnected from each other due in part to technology. Interpersonal conversation has morphed into erratic emails and text messages, we stay “connected” to each other through filtered means, through social networking sites and vlogs. We long for interaction, though we are quite comfortable to keep our distance and anonymity. In this landscape of contradiction and paradox painting can, and does, function as a bridge between the personal and the communal. It can reveal our inner-beings, and it can allow us to experience something tactile - something real.

Painting as a form continues to resonate in our collective imaginations partly because it is squarely located at the intersection of conflicting ideologies. It is an activity that is ensconced in the place between the extremes chartered by pre-modern, modern and post-modern dogmas. It is a mutable act that is deeply personal, lyrical and replete with contradiction – much like ourselves.

Painting has long been an agent of culture and history, but in our ever increasingly “flat” world – to borrow an idea from Thomas Friedman- is it becoming a locus to bridge the chasms between the far extremes in politics and culture? Has the complicit nature of contemporary visual art (as referenced by Johanna Drucker in Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity) signal the end of the distinction between high and low? Has this in fact increased arts capacity to generate dialogue and aid us in finding the hallowed middle-ground – the centrist arena where community lives? And moreover, is painting and its distinct characteristics, at once highly individual and utterly universal, the much needed lens needed to glance at ourselves through?

In an essay discussing the work of Dana Schutz, Jörg Heiser, states that, “to do interesting painting today means to challenge historical amnesia and visual entropy. Even if they sell well, painters are not privileged in that respect; instant market attraction turns into a long-term fate of critical disdain. Within the wider field of culture, painting remains quixotic. When it comes to being cutting edge, painters are on par with any old punk band from Podunk trying to reinvent big gestures of aesthetic negation directed as social change. The point for painters, in the face of that, is to be confident and skeptical” (1)

My presentation today will explore the practice of several contemporary artists including Jim Wright, Dana Schutz, Kristin Baker, George Condo and Jeremy Earhart who examine the edge between the sincere and the sardonic, between the rarefied spectacle and the common. Painting is in a sense about navigating the middle-ground, it is about sensation and it is about thought. The artists I will examine flatten the strata of image hierarchies. Much like the contemporary painter John Currin whose work Michael Kimmelman described in The New York Times in 1999 as “mix[ing] leering lightheaded kitsch with old-masterish weight as if there were no distinction, a dizzying fear that makes every picture seem wholesome and evil at the same time,” these artsists pull from the ordinary and the canonized databases of our history and breathe life into modern day versions of Frankenstein’s monster. Their direct, matter-of-fact and at times sensuous handling of material helps these creations come to life, firmly locating them in a curious place in our culture—a place where compulsion as evidenced in the fabled hand of the artist and the indexical quality of paint is being re-examined, re-contextualized and employed to bridge the ironic divide.

I would like to begin by looking at the adrenaline-fueled work of Kristin Baker, whose work draws on the culture of NASCAR and encapsulates its “spectacle and catastrophe and drama” (2), to quote the artist. Baker’s works are energetic, futurist inspired abstractions based mostly on the highlight of any NASCAR event – the ubiquitous wreck. Both awe inspiring and banal, tragic and commonplace her work, much like the actual crashes are mediated. Whether through the lens and annals of art history or the desensitization of watching endless loops of crashes in highlight reels. Her work is inherently about the struggle between organization and chaos. The press release for a recent exhibition of her work at Deitch Projects exclaims “At the track, speed is both controlled and pushed to the extremes. Her painting is also a study of how far to push to the extreme, how close one can get to overstimulation without an aesthetic crash” (3). 

But these paintings are about much more than a constantly collapsing and expanding, and at times claustrophobic space like that found in the work of Julie Mehretu or Mark Bradford. Their work deals with the notion of “Superabundance” which was the topic of a paper presented at the 2007 Southeastern College Art Conference by my colleague Barbara Campbell Thomas who teaches at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Unlike her thesis Baker’s works are not merely about a space that reflects our overly-chaotic modern lives- which are full of simultaneity and information. A space that is hard to intellectually penetrate, even though it is more and more commonplace today. Rather, the strength of these works lie in their accessibility, and not in regards to the marketplace (for that is another discussion). These paintings are eerily familiar, yet hard to pin-point. They are complicit in the truest since of the term as it has been heralded by Johanna Drucker. To quote Drucker from the preface of Sweet Dreams where she is writing of the work of today in contrast to the orthodoxy of 1980s postmodernism “…they mark a turn away from autonomy, opposition, or radical negativity and toward attitudes of affirmation and complicity. Current fine art sensibility vibrates with enthusiasms: an uninhibited engagement with material pleasure drawn from across the widest spectrum of contemporary experience exists alongside an impulse to mine the archival riches of diverse pasts.” (4) Baker’s work celebrates both the history of painting and the greatest traditions of high culture, and the arguably one of the lowest rungs of pop-culture. In an effort to speak to the effectiveness of Baker’s strategy I want to quote the closing paragraph of a review of her most recent show in New York written by Victoria Keddie for The Brooklyn Rail.

“Overall, the show left me longing for a Bud Light, a pack of Winston’s, and a trip to the go-kart lanes. I couldn’t help but feel the fiberglass on my skin, the broken shards still on my trousers and shoes. I left feeling I had seen something extraordinary, and devastatingly beautiful – literally.” (5) 

Contradiction, of a differing variety, is employed in the work of Dana Schutz. Dana Schutz’s paintings are constantly pushing the extremes of aesthetics, drama and irony. Her paintings are “full of beginnings and endings” as was recently penned by Katy Siegel. Schutz’s works are chock-full of art historical as well as pop-culture references, yet they do not come off as erudite. Rather they appear naïve, awkward and frankly indifferent to the traditions they obviously feed on. Her paintings reflect a commonality with other painters of her generation as observed once again by Katy Siegel, “…for them, representation doesn’t mean illusion, and abstraction doesn’t mean materiality. You can paint something imaginary or ephemeral in a heavily material style, one that acknowledges the canvas edge and the viscosity of the oil paint; you can paint a field of colors and shapes that contradicts the flatness of the picture plane, creating space where it doesn’t exist. This flexibility allows for many of the complex and fantastic effects of Schutz’s paintings. She makes her imaginary people and events real for us.” (6) 

“In other words,” Siegel continues, “there is no historical imperative, no moral superiority, no necessity, to any one possibility for painting.” Schutz’s work personifies this enigma, it is concerned simultaneously with narrative, abstraction, popular storytelling, personal mythology and the history of painting. Her paintings are both inert and animate – they lie between life and death. They are sincere and open, yet closed and cynical. Much like Baker she is aware of the mechanics of painting and how that syntax can be blatantly manipulated to create a hybrid of surreality and reality – or a false sensation.

Critical discourse has stated that painting has become stale, or disinfected and domesticated in the past few decades. The work of Schutz and Baker stands in obvious contrast to these charges. Their work, along with the work of many others has come to terms with the pale of history, and has discovered through the quoting of styles and the matter-of-fact use of material a middle-ground and subsequently a new construction of painting’s identity. Painting has once again become the medium of sensation and the way in which artists continue to breath life and vibrance into the dull corners of our modern lives. 

Another example of this state of vitality in current painting is the work of Jim Wright. His recent exhibition at Rare in New York entitled “Crossbar Hotel” consisted of paint encrusted sculptures as well as painted surfaces that take materiality in the service of representation to the extreme. These works are meticulously and playfully constructed of acrylic paint that has been molded, carved and subsequently collaged on the surface of these visually resplendent and complex works. Unlike most material-based work, this work isn’t limited to or by its technique. The quirkiness of the construction blends well with and even accentuates the 1960s fantasy-based imagery and quasi-narrative structure. The work is equally sincere and sardonic, calculated and impulsive. As mentioned earlier, painting has been, by and large, a quaint anachronism for at least a few generations. Along with most of its percipient practitioners, I feel Wright is well aware of this fact and by embracing this quixotic notion his work is relevant and successful.

In contrast, George Condo’s quirky paintings are populated with characters with bulbous heads, gigantic eyes and other clown-like features painted in shiny, garish colors floating in vacuums of idealistic landscapes. His work depicts what he calls “antipodal beings”, strange creatures who dominate his imagination and which he believes to be real. Condo speaks of himself as a sort of “receptor” who channels images of these creatures, which exist in a parallel realm just out of the sight of everyone else. The antipods are the epitome of kitsch, they are oddly reminiscent of Troll Dolls, Precious Moments figurines, and Walter Keane’s images – they reek of hallmark sentimentality tinged with the scent of insanity. They are impulsive and perverse, yet strangely honest paintings. Part of what makes his work so very interesting is that beneath all of the obvious signifiers of irony there is nothing in his either description of the work, or within the work itself that connotes that these pieces aren’t sincere portraits of some idiosyncratic avatar. They share a directness, compulsion and vivid imagination which is equally evident in the work of Daniel Johnson, Adolf Wölfli and countless other Visionary Artists. It is exactly his fixation with the characters depicted in his paintings that differentiate them from the doodles of an imaginative grade-schooler coupled with the grandiosity of representing these creatures in the borrowed language of high European portraiture and its collison with Pop Art.

But, this is not to suggest that to be successful within this paradigm one has to quote the canonized language of high painting to keep the work from drowning in a sea of pop-culture refuse. For example, the work of Jeremy Earhart conflates post-punk psychedelia and the so-called “rock n’ roll culture” with its surrealist gestures and grand tableaus which simultaneously recall Rorschach tests and the anamorphic twisting perspective of Hans Holbein as seen through the filter of Robert Lazzarini. His work is typical of a growing sub-genre in contemporary art dealing in part with the debaucherous, gawdy, obsessive, and style-obsessed nature of our culture at large. It fondly embraces the “mall aesthetic” prevalent in most suburban teenage bedrooms in the 1970s and 80s, while calling attention to its absurdity. Much like all of the work examined thusfar, his work plays with irony - it freely intertwines itself in the vernacular aesthetic of pop-culture but with a twist. It cleverly gives the audience a wink and a nod every now and then to let them know that the quotation of this language is done with equal amounts of genuine-ness and derision. It flirts openly with a certain “cool factor”. His use of this quality, which I will call “cleverness”, is most evident in his use of blacklights, tinted plexiglas and fluorescent pigments – all overly debased materials. These works poke fun at a specific audience without alienating them, strangely. They translate a specific experience to a multitude of different audiences in a very direct and distinctive manner, much like the work of Kristin Baker. They are simultaneously tawdry, kitschy and transcendent, like the aforementioned spectacles of Baker’s crash scenes. But, it is in their use of materiality where they differ because unlike Baker, Wright and even Condo – Earhart’s work doesn’t rely on its medium to ground it in the sober arena of fine art. What is absent in this work is the overt use of thick, gestural painterly paint – the kind of technique that makes even the most overlooked subject matter “art”. Afterall, Neil Jenney, Robert Colescott and Joan Brown already made otherwise unacceptable subject matter standard through their matter-of-fact handling of material during the 1970s “Bad Painting” approach which closely followed the well-worn path chartered by their predecessors Red Grooms and Philip Guston. No, what makes Earhart’s work successful is its blatant complicity, the manner in which it pokes fun at the culture it strives to be part of. Its material usage furthers the irony it is dependent on.

What all of these artists have in common is their unabashed and flagrant use of the strategies of irony tempered by a refreshing candor – whether it be a matter-of-fact (dare we say honest) use of material, a direct reference to art history or the ability to propel their visions over the bastions of material culture and into our collective imaginations, to bring us inside their world by reflecting ours. Indeed what they all have in common is the ability to bridge the gulf between compulsion and irony, and in doing so give us a way of connecting to one another.


1. Excerpted from “Bling Bling, Grrr Grrr: Pop and Paintings Eat Themsleves” by Jörg Heiser from Dana Schutz: Paintings 2002-2005, ed. by Raphaela Platow
2. Excerpted from “The Talent Show,” by Catherine Hoing, W Magazine, November, p. 202.
3. Excerpted from Deitch Projects website – URL,
4. Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity by Johanna Drucker.
5. From “Kristin Baker: Flat Out”, by Victoria Keddie, The Brooklyn Rail, October 2003
6. Excerpted from “The Beginning or the End?” by Katy Siegel from Dana Schutz: Paintings 2002-2005, ed. by Raphaela Platow