Madonna, Keith Boadwee, Erin Allen, Isaac Gray.
No Painting Left Behind at Rocksbox Gallery
by Michelle Weidman
There are all sorts of reasons to paint poorly, lack of skill, iconoclastic tendencies, Romantic leanings, rejection of traditional formal values and hierarchies (although “bad” painting is a whole tradition in itself), valuation of expressivity over careful craft etc. etc. Another way to examine the show this month at Rocksbox is to ask, why look at “bad” paintings?
In the downstairs gallery at Rocksbox are collaborative paintings by Keith Boadwee, Erin Allen and Isaac Gray. The paintings are crude in form and content. They combine ugly forms with (mostly) ugly colors and ugly imagery to create…ugly figurative paintings. For example, in one of these paintings a nude figure stands over a woman with all limbs splayed and lifted (an image that is repeated in A Smoke, a Drink, and a Shit). The woman is smoking a cigarette while the nude figure dangles either a very tan penis, compared to the rest of the figures skin tone, or a normally colored piece of shit over the woman’s stomach. The colors are mostly low chroma blues and browns as though the artists mixed too many colors together. The woman’s breasts defy gravity, as do all of the breasts in this show that I remember. Perverted? Most definitely, and proudly.
In the statement the artists explain:
“Our work is about The Cult, The Brotherhood, and The Secret Society of Painters. It’s about exchanging information, sharing knowledge and how that information is then assimilated, altered and tweaked by each of us. The paintings are about sex and drugs and rock and roll and life and death and nature. They are about having fun with friends. They are
metaphors for The Primal Scream.”
Somehow this doesn’t quite seem to explain these images sufficiently. In fact, I am not at all sure what “nature” has to do with any of them or which particular “nature” they are referring to. Additionally, the statements about sharing and assimilating information seem to be completely useless to an audience that is excluded in the previous sentence by the reference to The Cult, The Brotherhood, and The Secret Society of Painters, unless of course you happen to be in this particular group of privileged (in the sense that they are included in the categories listed by the artists) male painters, which is probably why these paintings are at Rocksbox, right? This may seem like too literal of an interpretation of their statement. Certainly this work is not trying to be inclusive or appeal to mass taste, although it isn’t an intellectual exclusivity that these artists seem to be aiming for. Again referring to the artist statement they seem to be painting for each other. This leads back to my initial question, why look at these paintings that are so blatantly not made for your aesthetic contemplation but rather to glorify or enact the infantile urges of these artists?
My reason for viewing and enjoying these images is that neither the paintings nor the venue deny the necessary and inevitable influence of affect and derision in the production and consumption of contemporary culture. We know that rock and roll is all about desire: expression of desire, sublimation of desire, acknowledgment of desire and perhaps most problematic or at least most complex, the creation of desire. The politics of rock and roll are based on affect and so are these paintings.
I have been reading a lot more rock criticism than art criticism these days. Here is a quote that I rediscovered recently that seems relevant:
“In a classic 1977 essay, [Ellen Willis] explained that she preferred the Sex Pistols to ‘women’s music’ because “…music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated—as good rock ‘n’ roll did—challenged me to do the same, and so, even when the content was antiwoman, antisexual, in a sense antihuman, the form encouraged my struggle for liberation. Similarly, timid music made me feel timid, whatever its ostensible politics.”
-Evelyn McDonnell on Ellen Willis
Admitting the problematic gendering of this statement that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up when taken out of context (it was seen as problematic when it was written and explained by Willis as well), I think that Willis’s explanation of a form transgressing its content is relevant to why these paintings somehow seem refreshing in a climate where kindlier, gentler art, (i.e. the occasionally misguided social practice work) has been institutionally supported and valorized or at least dispassionately tolerated.
To me there seem to be wider issues at hand that, perhaps tenuously, relate to this show. In the final chapter of Art Power titled “Europe and Its Others” Boris Groys discusses the nature and consequences of European cultural identity based on humanistic values of respect of human rights, democracy, tolerance of the foreign, and openness to other cultures. He points out, “Because the dominant discourse on European identity asserts both things—that humanistic values are universal and that they are particular to Europe—the European psyche is incurably torn between moral superiority and paranoid fear of the other. “ It is, in part, this lack of a position of moral superiority that makes a show like No Painting Left Behind seem more relevant in a time when these values that are based in certain European Enlightenment ideals ring incredibly hollow and paradoxical. These values also to contribute to massive inconsistencies between American political dialogue and action once again brutally exhibited by the recent emergence of information about Afghan civilian murders.
I am not saying that all art should aspire toward the antithesis of humanistic ideals. I would also not contend that the No Painting Left Behind show represents a more sound ideological or ethical system, which is kind of the point. Rather, like Ellen Willis’ articulation of her affinity for punk over folk music, that certain aggressive expressions of affect may validly comment on the dominant ethos.