Painting, Love, and Irony

John Haber
in New York City

Cynthia Daignault, Helene Appel, and Meyer Vaisman

Cynthia Daignault addresses her audience as if they were lovers. Is her real love painting?

Almost surely, and she is not alone—and not just among those holding out for good old-fashioned realism and good old modern abstraction. Sure, painting is back, after decades of irony, but irony is not going away. Artists who cannot resist a knowing wink could be winking because they know something about vision. Helene Appel makes a point of illusion, but the illusion of canvas awaiting her mark. Even Meyer Vaisman is lavishing attention on paint these days. An urgent direction in art has given way to market pressures and diversity, but at least that makes it harder for hard-core ironists to resist simple pleasures and sharing them with you. Cynthia Daignault's The Sun Is the Same in a Relative Way (Lisa Cooley gallery, 2013)

Whose shadow?

You have seen this before—the big paintings, the all-over abstraction, the thick commas of pink and white oil that the artist might have made with her tongue instead of a brush. Not to name names from the past or to hold them responsible, but I want you to know. I want you to know, because Cynthia Daignault wants you to know something else again: "I want you to know that I made this for you. About you. Because of you. Even though you are not here."

That must sound like an awfully sentimental and unconvincing statement in lieu of a press release, especially since it begins, "Dear So and So and So and So." I, for one, consider myself merely a so-and-so, but art is like that: even the most personal work addresses a multitude of others, just as drips for Jackson Pollock set a standard for postwar art or a portrait commission for Diego Velázquez negotiated between empires. Daignault may mean it, too, when she speaks of your not being here as a matter of "distance"—"the shape of air between two bodies," "the compaction of time," and "the unreality of space." Insert an image into real space and time, and before you know it, it becomes representation and, for Daignault, a lovely and elusive show.

Almost all her work is representational, too. She leaves untitled the one abstraction, but it does not take much to think of it as flesh toned. It serves as a field for recognizable images of cracked brick, a human shadow, shutters, the light passing through them, a mirror, and a pool of light from the sun. Each stands for something that might be falling there and leaving its own image for only a moment. In turn each conforms to a formalist's demand for flatness and to old metaphors for representation—as a window, a mirror, sunlight, and shadow. The show's title merges them all at that, for "Which Is the Sun and Which Is the Shadow?"

They also reach out across the gallery, from linen to walls that may or may not exist or from shutters to their very image. On the exhibition Web site, a man stands viewing the painting with a human shadow as if it were his. One has to doubt it, since the painting's title recalls others entirely: I Think of the Painters Who Are Better than Me and the Men Who Broke My Heart. The theme of sunlight continues in the back room with three full walls of paintings of blue sky and clouds. Maybe one of those better painters is René Magritte.

Maybe the right question, then, is whose sun and whose shadow. Daignault is not saying, but you may as well take them as both yours and not yours. That places you within the work and the work within the gallery. It accepts the familiarity, the cleverness, and the convincing illusion. It tackles derivative abstraction, some of which can actually look pretty good, while leaving rejects from Abstraction Expressionism safely in memory. Besides, her artist statement concludes, "I love you more than one more day."

Daignault is among many artists returning to painting without a simple division between abstraction and representation. She just focuses more explicitly than most on foundations and definitions. To grasp them, as well as to navigate both the sincerity and the irony, one may have to get over the desire to gag oneself with a spoon. Even the image of all-over painting peeled back to reveal cracked walls bears the title You Cracked It, Wide Open. Could this be an update of Postmodernism, Neo-Mannerism, and their knowing air, so that the painter and the viewer get to know one another intimately? Enjoy it while you can, for the shadow will be there after you have gone.

For the love of canvas

Helene Appel is in love with canvas. Maybe every painter is at heart, but she shows it. She leaves plenty of it unpainted. She glimpses it through the illusion of spilled liquid—perhaps awaiting the infusion of pigment so that she can paint. Its weave courses through a layer of light gray, like another fabric laid on top. It enters the further illusion of sewn black thread running in and out.

Actually, Appel prefers burlap or linen to canvas—a linen coarse enough than one can hardly miss it. I was speaking loosely, and she is never less than precise. The coarseness helps identify the painted surface with her subject matter, like that light gray fabric or a blue striped cloth. The first is a cleaning rag from her studio, the second rumpled bedding should she need a rest. Other points of color and light look like ground pigment, interrupted by a nail or two. They represent sweepings from the studio floor.

Ground here has more than one meaning, and Appel works in more than one tradition. A focus on color, light, and the thing itself makes a pretty good definition of late Modernism. Not even Robert Ryman worries more about materials and their support. A concern for art as object also has its mirror in concern for the process of making art, much as Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg competed to describe Abstract Expressionism as formalism or "action painting." Appel represents not just works in progress but what they leave behind. Being German, she cannot help sweeping up.

Helene Appel's Loosely Laid Out Large Blue Fabric (James Cohan, 2013)Her illusions belong to older traditions as well. In past trompe l'oeil, subjects often drew on the artist's studio. The array of bottle openers in another painting should last through a long run of open studio visits. Appel alludes to still-life painting as well. Her smallest works picture sides of beef. Like Dutch still life or Chaim Soutine, they make the point that life is subject to time and decay—and so is art.

Still, she says, "my work is not so much about pretending the real thing is there, but more about the presence of the subject, as well as the presence of the painting in space." Is that why she pushes watercolor and acrylic to nearly twelve feet high? Of course, these days everything comes in quotes, including presence. The illusion of rumpled fabric has its parallel in Sam Moyer and the studio dust in Karla Black. For them and others, painting is no longer dead, but it also no longer runs the show. Unlike them, though, Appel still has her exquisite coarseness.

Tomma Abts has her own ability to fool the eye into seeing folded canvas. Yet another German, Mario Breuer, is still very much into the hard work of painting. He subjects photographic paper to scrapes, burns, tears, and then some. Small works in brown and white insist on the grid. Larger ones have paired fields out of Mark Rothko or Ellsworth Kelly. All these artists risk falling into eye-candy for the age of mechanical reproduction, but tough. Those are the risks for anyone in love with canvas—and the work at hand.

All thumbs

Could Meyer Vaisman be learning to love abstraction? For Vaisman, art has always come in quotes, but it may be okay now to praise his painting out loud. Make that nested quotes, for he came to prominence as artist and dealer amid East Village art, Neo-Geo, and the "Pictures generation." His figurine of a woman a little over ten years ago may pay tribute to his therapist, demean her, or laugh at his own neuroses. The caricatures that first brought him attention could be fat cats—or himself. They occupy a regular array of ovals like portrait miniatures on Victorian wallpaper, only the loose canvas weave behind them is a screen print.

At the 2014 art fairs, though, his abstractions looked just fine sharing a booth with Moira Dryer and Jackie Saccaccio. They occupied a thoughtful middle ground between Dryer's textured spareness and Saccaccio's colorful excess. His new work looks just as fine and just as thoughtful on its own. Vaisman is still considering the front or back of the canvas, to judge by the crossed frames that mimic a stretcher—give or take half a foot in width. When he signs and dates the blond wood, he does so in reverse, as if one could somehow look through them to the front surface. He claims a basis in his signature for what lies within the frames as well.

That is not to say that he takes his painterly gestures as his signature, as in a psychological reading of Abstraction Expressionism. One painting reiterates Ars Longa on all four fields crossed by its frames, presumably because art is long, especially when it comes sufficiently loaded with irony. (Who wants to hear that life is short anyway?) He is insisting on the concept, too, when he leaves his thumbprint, only on the scale of an entire painting. One can compare its ridges to the more colorful swirls on the works beside it. They tempt one to search for his presence, while remaining indecipherable.

Vaisman makes the search worthwhile, without letting go of the mind games. The wide frames recall a formalist's art as object while putting the art in thick quotes indeed. Other abstractions place the swirls at the base of sculptural tubs, for a greater conceptualism but also a greater weight. Even the date and signature can be read both ways. Years in the Hebrew calendars add distance by their sheer unfamiliarity to most viewers, while personalizing the work for a Jew, born in Venezuela and now resident in Spain, who has taken a renewed interest in his heritage.

James Lecce, too, has a penchant for intricately nested swirls, but do not look for a visible fingerprint. He speaks of influences from Art Nouveau and music, but also an "organic-synthetic interplay." He should also leave one in wonderment at how he pulls it off. A muted but shimmering palette becomes more varied the more one looks, and somehow the poured acrylics never once spill onto one another. They are the work of layering, this time of paint rather than ideas. They are also another invitation to pleasure and to thought.

When irony goes out of fashion, then, what happens to the ironists? Maybe artists of the 1980s will always continue with what they were doing, for the cachet of an inside joke still sells, and political art should never lose its value, and besides now anything goes, even irony. Still, one can guess at a growing personal urgency for Damien Hirst in his ever more strident references to death—or, on a more talented note, for Cindy Sherman in her frank record of aging. One can see Mel Bochner as addressing his strong language more and more to himself. One can see the conceptual edge in artists like Vaisman as a token of legitimacy for those too embarrassed to let their "zombie abstraction" stand on its own. Then again, one can enjoy an art that is not all thumbs.

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Cynthia Daignault ran at Lisa Cooley through October 20, 2013. Helene Appel ran at James Cohan through October 4, 2014, Tomma Abts at David Zwirner through October 25, Mario Breuer at Yossi Milo through November 1, Meyer Vaisman at Eleven Rivington through July 3, and James Lecce at McKenzie through June 15.


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