Computers and the identity crisis of painting

Every new generation of artists, curators and critics seems to feel the need to defend painting. It makes sense: painting on canvas, good for little else, is basically synonymous with great A-art. The painting represents the angels and demons of art, their optimism and attentiveness, their arrogance and solipsism.

The Painter’s New Tools at Nahmad Contemporary in Manhattan shows how far contemporary artists have pushed new media without abandoning the security of what is legible as art. Curators Eleanor Cayre and Dean Kissick, who bring together 57 works by 31 creators, claim that new technologies have irrevocably redefined what it means to paint, while asserting that painting remains defined by the pursuit of beautiful things. Attempting to espouse both ideas simultaneously, the show embodies the cryptic, ambivalent embrace of tradition, from cottagecore farm life to Catholicism, practiced by a subset of mostly young, very online Kulturati. Painting is at stake – and the conservative lust for the old avant-garde.

It is true that painting is and always has been technology. Just as the invention of oil paint, which dries more slowly than tempera, gave artists a revolutionary palette of new effects, so the lens and the transistor—photography, video, and computer graphics—brought profound, irreversible changes in the way artists and all of us, the world, worked see.

The floating brushstrokes and dizzying layering of an emerald green Laura Owens canvas glorify Photoshop techniques. Ei Arakawa’s tribute to Owens hangs nearby: an image of one of her paintings displayed on a tapestry of low-resolution LEDs. In a cutting-edge anatomical study by video artist Kate Cooper, the camera moves layer by layer through a digital model of a human body, like Leonardo playing with an MRI machine.

Cayre and Kissick provide an in-depth survey of painting’s ongoing identity crisis, whether or not the artists themselves feel they are painting. The exhibition is conceptually bound on the one hand by artists who are breaking out of conventional painting into digital territory and on the other hand by artists who are creating animations and unpainted objects that are smuggled into the society of painting because they walk the wall.

Known for applying Renaissance methods to contemporary idioms, painter Julien Nguyen represents those trying new tools. His digital portrait of a likeable teenager smoking in the tub does without a brush and palette for an iPad. The strokes Nguyen places on the screen appear as a tangle of oily, paint-like marks on a monitor installed front and center.

For the latter, there’s Jordan Wolfson’s pixelated print of Dorothy and her companions in Oz. The outdoor eaves frame is aggressively styled with hearts, crosses and a Star of David pendant, as well as devotional blurbs like “Surrender to God.” The words “GOD IS GOD IS GOD IS GOD IS…” creep around the border. Although no color is used, the untitled play combines several of the medium’s conventional themes: Christian hagiography; homage to predecessors (namely Ashley Bickerton, a leading assemblage artist of the ’80s); and enough logorrheic confidence to make an Abstract Expressionist blush.

Kissick is a New York City critic whose regular column in Spike Art Magazine jumps like a stone between the classic and the ultra-modern – from contemplating a Fragonard to contemplating NFTs (non-fungible tokens) without ever failing the frick to leave Madison. Cayre is an independent art consultant specializing in the 1950s to the present day. Both are interested in the contemporary – what it means to live nownot then.

New is not always progress. “Imago” (2022) by Ezra Miller – an artist, art director and web developer – is a washed-out abstraction that develops in real time on a grid of four monitors and looks like driving into a rainy Monet with the wipers off. A distracting black cross runs through the center of the image where the screens meet. Up close, there are no brushstrokes, but the black gaffer tape covering the seams. Give me a dusty Rothko for a new media experiment whose physical presence appears beaten up and reluctant.

Speaking of Rothko, “Disc Buddie #4448,” an NFT by Tojiba CPU Corp, manifests itself on a square screen: a crude, digital cartoon of a thick disk with white hands and doves for shoes, the words “Rothko Maker 2” on his face . NFT projects like this, which create thousands of unique images by combining properties, push the idea that art should be simple and repeatable. Let the old guard whine about bad taste. This is “the new painting” because even ugly paintings can be good investments.

Beauty is still possible, of course – the exhibition includes intoxicating, wall-to-wall abstractions by Seth Price, who squeezes painterly gestures from industrial processes; Wade Guyton, who paints by abusing inkjet printers; or delicate moiré surfaces by Jacqueline Humphries or Anicka Yi. These are among the smartest updates on painting’s tendency to talk to itself and ignore the whole world. The tone here is reverent, not iconoclastic.

The strange urgency of the age condenses in a 2022 image by Jessica Wilson, Perfectly Clear – a near-photorealistic 3D rendering of a hand drawing a squeegee across a foamy windowpane. It is a UV flat print on Dibond and is one of the least painterly objects in the exhibition. Yet its austere composition, our view from the outside, the scintillating tactility of the blade scraping away the soap, reminds us that the medium doesn’t matter. What matters is art’s fundamental drive to transcend life’s duty.

The painter’s new tools

Until September 24th. Nahmad Contemporary, 980 Madison Ave., Manhattan,

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