"Fussiness and kitsch, after all, are the two principle characteristics of so-called civilized man, highly stylized as he has become into a single human grotesque over hundred of thousands of years..."
-- Thomas Bernhard Old Masters
The kitsch of expressionism.
What had been at stake in the shift to non-representational painting often took two radically different directions, though the work in-itself may have been identical. On the one hand there was the appeal to the universal and spiritual and on the other, a different kind of universality, that of matter and the brutishness of form. Of course, non-representational painting quickly ceased to be non-representational. In fact it became rapidly representative of a host of things from the myth of the heroic artist to the hegemony of American capitalism. This was only extended by Pop art before reaching its reductio ad absurdem in Conceptual Art with its heightening of the importance of that most spiritual of cults – intentionality and its glamorization of banality. But if you know anything about glamour, you know that it always comes with nostalgia attached, if not riding piggy-back.
Abstraction has become romantic because it's old, but the same is true of much figurative work, particularly that which is often called naïve, which is the more polite way of saying primitive (the term 'primitive' is here to connote a set of enshrined stylistic cliches). Abstraction seems even older and more mythological, therefore it's no surprise that there is a current obsession with drawing contemporaneous with it since they both share a renewed obsession with geeky myth mongering. Abstraction once appealed to a kind of aniconic religious impulse, although, unlike Islam, it was never organized properly into a ritualistic function. Rather, its function has tended to be emo, something which has become culturally solidified and reached its most appalling form in the Hollywood film about Pollock where both the myth and emotion were unified in a biographical skit that could have come from Tracey Emin if she wrote after-school specials. This campy abstraction continues to percolate and fill up galleries, sometimes serving up a style that has more to do with the current fad for 3-D than anything else. It expresses only a sentimental emoting. This is easily crafted into objects where the handiwork is apparent and the emotion is transparent. Hugh Scott-Douglas' show at Clint Roenisch even provides the buyer with the opportunity to see themselves in the mirror, refracted in the emotion he has packaged his frames in.
What is at work in the 'handmade' kitsch that makes up the refurbished modernist cliches finds an analogue in much of the digital work being done at the moment. In fact, the distinction between the two things is becoming largely one of fetishization and little else. Painting is something anyone can have access to in theory, but in practice few have much experience of. It's exotic in a way, whereas digital manipulation is something that most people do. It is the folk art of our time. As a result, painting doesn't distinguish itself by craft or by imagery, but by materiality, by brandishing itself as something obviously physical. It's a peep show of labour. Digital photography will fake textures and play the old two dimensional game, but painting, anxious to prove itself more precious, is built up with so much artificial surface it starts to resemble a muppet: not exactly real and not exactly anything, but material enough to be a presence and something more than a symbol.
The question then is: what does all of this supposed return to the primacy of matter over concept look like and how does it work? An interesting illustration would be the digital works of Alex Fischer which were put on display at O'Born Contemporary. Landscape, portraits, bits of trash and various materials including paint are layered and layered but always retaining a curious transparency. When a bug hits a windshield and its guts spread, the distinction between the surface and the depths of a body are no longer there. Rather, the single pane of shield and bug becomes the prismatic extension of a moment which then proceeds through a continual process of recession until it is eroded into disappearance. In effect, Fischer's work is just like softcore porn - all the depth of flesh but no orifices, no meat: a repression of material violence encased in a plane. The illusionism is maintained by a highly anxious distance which, even while it is trapped in a kind of petrie dish, still maintains a certain sense of mutation and collapse. This is one of the reasons that it works so differently in miniature or viewed on the internet than in person. What's important about this is what it, perhaps quite unintentionally, points to, and that's the highly mechanical nature of expression, or more particularly, expressionism.
It's well established in neuroscience and psychology (and the acting profession) that there are few things more mechanical, more robotic, in human existence than our emotional lives, those much fetishized, nonsensically arranged and paranoiacally misinterpreted elements of our biochemistry. The truth about our subjective existence is that we are computers that kill and defecate. It should therefore come as no surprise that as machines become an ever more present force in artistic production, expression is pulsed through them more and more and the results are an even greater sentimentality. Although digital work may not have reached the degree of instant emotional molestation which the analogue arts inspire in the viewer, it seems to be well on the way. It is only a matter of time, after all, before people stop attaching tacky effects to photos to 'age' them and the images of antiquated digital cameras grow to inspire the same sense of yearning.
The receding world.
McLuhan spelled out the fact that technological advance leads to a kind of alienated version of the past. Fischer's work, with his nomadic figures surrounded by industrial trash emblematically speak to that. The primitive is reinvented by machinery: history is always being reborn by technological means (if it exists in any other fashion). But the nostalgia which this factory breeds is not a longing for the past, but for a fantasy of the future projected into the past. As Fellini once said of his film Satyricon, it can only be a science fiction film about the past. Whether or not the past is anything other than science fiction is a slightly different question, and one which we can scarcely broach here. Nonetheless, this nostalgia for matter persists, though its strength ultimately comes from a passionate investment in nostalgia rather than any object. One can readily see this in the current obsession with collage which is less a call back to the history and anarchic politics of the technique than a folk art for technocratic society: a science fiction of sentiment. Now, it's collage without glue, that is, without fluidity or body. Everything is assimilated to one prism. That doesn't simply make the work flat. Rather, there's an interfacing which results in a kind of continuous recession.
These tendencies are being made manifest and explicit fairly frequently, but we'll relegate ourselves to a few highly localized examples. What is at stake is the erosion of materiality in the service of a constantly recessive subjectivity. This is in no small part an aspect of the photoshop aesthetic that has come into play and the ease with which it can be used to generate lazy personal mythologies. In part a reaction to the photoshop phenomena and an attempt to ween away from it to a more 'authentic' personal expression, it's also an extension of precisely what it denigrates. At the AWOL Gallery was a painting show by Valeria Rzianina called "XXX-posed: pretty in porn." Rather than displaying the overtly monstrous creatures that have become the stock in trade for so many of her generation of figurative artists, she collaged images from hardcore porn, overlapping, distorting and exaggerating them, lathering on paint in a way that makes a show of its sensuousness even if it registers as little more than a botched attempt at illustrating sensuousness rather than embodying it. The coolness of porn with its de-glamorized banality was skewed into an over-emotive mess. The money shot becomes the recognition of matter as something external to oneself, again reinforcing a certain dualism. This is part of the glamour of painting, very similar to the current trend to softcore modernism, only rendered in a way that borrows more from the world of fashion than interior and product design.
In the work of Alex McLeod these tendencies find an explicit manifestation as a shoring up of fragments into the set design of urban fantasy worlds, whether dystopian or utopian. His creations bloom with all of the richness of a sage's most geometrically pristine fantasies of apocalypse. They are not, however, apocalyptic because that would require an end. Instead, it is a terror of the endlessness of things that's at work. The mechanical pane is what is at play here, with its ready condensations and continual refractions – a machinery for a hodological theatre, one which is not satisfied with the confines of the arch but ventures into a constantly compacting ambiance. It is ambient because it is not a phantasm of structure, or of solid space, but only of its vanishing or refraction. In spite of their overt superficiality, these works are about recession, which is what makes them far closer to the ghostly aesthetic modality of video games than to that of historical expressionism.
A compliment to this tendency was also on display with numerous painters who hybridized the issues above. Stefanie Gutheil's paintings kick up the kitsch even more. Unlike the digital works which were, in a way, far closer to classical painting with its insistence on a projection into the recessive space of the plane, they dislodge it and turn it around. It's a processional space, a kind of goosestepping burlesque. They are a pastiche of Bosch (though they come off more Ottonian most of the time) and early twentieth century collage, only done in the thick paint of co-called naïve painters. Although the obsession with surface is identical to that of abstraction, the force of expression is reigned in by a rigid figuration which cannot support it. The force of the figure is weighed down by paint in what amounts to a comical murder-suicide. Her colour palette isn't vibrant, instead it rings bland, slightly incoherent. Their carnivalesque imagery fades into a nostalgic fog, its sensory power not sharp and vital but oleaginous. It was a butting against the surface which got stranded. Her paintings fumble because their iconic value is sacrificed by an excess of materialization, one which is purely performative but never attains a degree of luxury, merely the gesticulations of it. It is to the painterly what reality tv is to reality. Only when material life becomes as dissipated as this does it need to be so crass.
Born again primitivism; or, did Gauguin crap in the woods?
When Gauguin went to Tahiti for the journey that he would relate in Noa Noa, he could feel his body changing, becoming vaguer, less human and more elemental. Even gender began to melt as the stockbroker hallucinated his way into what he imagined to be a 'primitive' state of being. But even with all of the tropical sex, Gauguin never seemed to shit in the woods or the jungle. You might wonder why that's anything to be concerned about it, but you have to take into account that the civilized world he had left was even more hung up on shit (raw inchoate matter) than it was on sex. Parent-Duchatelet, the man who radically altered urban terrain perhaps more than anyone else in the nineteenth century, made a career out of re-plotting the sewers and the street walkers, the things which were nearly impossible to separate at the time, either in the popular imagination or in state administration. Gauguin, like most influenced by the allure of the 'primitive', was sure to wed the expressiveness of matter with the iconic functionalism that was also readily on hand and keep them within the connubial prism of the pane. Flatness is no longer to be attained in painting though. Rather, it is the frame as recess with the paint as the processional to this flatness where the current verve of the primitive lies. A little church for the alcove of a condo dweller's cabin.
Urbanity created the myth of the wild countryside as its unconscious, the place to which it feeds its shit, before raping and feeding upon it. This is the virgin territory that the Group of Seven sought out in their own highly mythological construction of the Canadian North, an extraordinarily odd vision of a depopulated world beyond the city limits. It wasn't for nothing that early reviews of their work referred to their paintings as 'apocalyptic'.
When General Idea made a painting of Thomson's into a kind of ad or when Lawren Harris' landscapes were turned into advertisements for booze, the Canadian landscape was flattened in a new way, one which, oddly enough, was more profound than what Thomson and the Group had done to it, making the fetish power more extensive. Canadians have always had a taste for Brutalism, whether it's in architecture, urban planning, or hideously over-the-top humour. It isn't simply a matter of beating a dead horse, but eating it and then wearing its skin to forget that we killed it in the first place. That's the world of fashion and it is such a world that the resurgence of such 'material' painting belongs to.
The original cult of the primitive was popular among a divergent group of socialist utopians, middle class bohemians and the other fashion victims around the turn of the twentieth century. It rested largely on the idea that the physical experience of life in the West had somehow dissipated and could be recuperated through a cultivation of the, generally misinterpreted, aesthetic norms of other cultures. This wasn't necessarily directed at foreign countries, but also at internal foreigners like mental patients and children, as in Art Brut. The works we are discussing, however, do not point at any promised land out there, or anywhere else. Instead, they are directed at the flatness of the immanent world, the flatland of advertising. This flatness isn't the kind you run up against though, but one which recedes, as in the video game. You buy the fetish product, not the wilderness that gave birth to it. They're postcards.
The tendencies of the primitive, the naïve and the sentimental are all mixed up explicitly with the tropes of Tom Thomson in Kim Dorland's show Nocturne with its very overt references to the myths of Thompson and the primitive cult in Canadian modernism. Gone is the anti-social vision that underwrote it though. Instead, it is a deconstruction by glamour, kind of a David LaChappelle take on Thomson, that launches an attack in the name of a greater kind of superficiality. Thomson, Canadian art's sacred cow, used to have his own little ramshackle cabin in Toronto to duplicate his experience in the mythical North. It was his own little tourist portal, rather like Dr. Who's Tardis, that allowed him to stay in character all the time. In Dorland, rather than a cabin, you get a tree house as the portal to imaginary innocence.
All of this heavy flesh that dangles from the walls is there to be alluring, like the decapitated geese in a butcher shop window. It seduces with the morbid desire to touch it. As my companion stood in the Angell gallery, the owner leaned in to make it clear that only by purchasing his wares could a little feel be arranged. It promises the sensual realm without the smell.
The glow in the dark paintings make clear that recession works both ways and that the plane is not limited to the frame but explicitly extends outside of it, not strictly by illusion but by virtue of its own facticity. Of course paintings, as much as photographs, have always been paintings with light. It just usually isn't spelled out so specifically. As such, it becomes a kind of virtual reality machine, much as the op art effects of the Douglas works are, resulting in a visceral art within the confines of the white cube. The world is flattened into a series of hard colours. There's a remarkable thinness to Dorland's paintings; a kind of anorexia wherein the paint is vomited out onto the viewer. Their much lauded painterly density is both reference to and extension of this. It isn't flatness that is accented in the pictures, it's the illusion of depth, a depth which is constantly reinforced by superimposition. But what is all this depth? It's the distance between the wall and the world which it depicts. The processional march that happens between them. This distance is filled up with an attractive texture and a vibrating colour. This colour made all the more intense by being placed in the context of such opaquely layered paint.
Primitivism finds its new home in what, to varying degrees, it always was to begin with – a kind of tourism. Of course, it was only a matter of degree before. Some primitivist artists are travelers in the sense that Paul Bowles used to speak of them: they leave and never come back. But usually what you get is tourists, who always come back and who travel the way that paintball players go to war. Just to make sure that you're aware of your part in this tourist expedition, at the Dorland show you can buy t-shirts as mementos of it. You don't need to go camping when you can buy a camp wilderness to take home.