Ged Quinn’s latest pictures at Stephen Friedman Gallery stacked up a kind of bonfire of the painterly vanities. On view were several of the luscious and swarming scenes that have become his hallmark. Sweeping coastal landscapes—bearing a passing resemblance to the pastoral visions of Claude Lorrain—appear littered with odds and ends from the scrapheap of (art) history and cinema, whether Op art riffs or fragments of Pasolini and Godard.
Quinn’s work has tended, until now, to harbor a guiding tension. A macrocosmic image (echoing the style of one or another old master) has been countered by the mass of smaller viral interpolations nestling within it. Certain new works uphold this dualism: in two fantastical portraits, stylistic interjections (Cubist facets or a Bacon-style “space frame”) furl around the core subjects without knocking them off-center.
But we also see Quinn dismantling the familiar opposition, as if chucking his own pictures into a pyre of competing references. In three of the largest works, the representational superstructures (landscapes or a seascape thronging with intricate and incongruous motifs) have been assailed by broad stripes of orange or lilac that traverse the canvas as bold redactions.
Quinn’s work remains a postmodern “art about art.” In Tarsus, From a Distance (2013)—the only large painting not overlaid by abstract bands—a grid of colored tiles is poised weightlessly on the shoreline: akin to Richter’s color charts, although strangely faded and spattered. A checkerboard pagoda at the center seems to be morphing as if under a distortive lens.
The title of the painting refers to the Turkish trading hub where Antony and Cleopatra first met. In this muddled stage set, Quinn dramatizes the way in which we view such sites from a remove that is both historical and imaginative. His scene shares something with Freud’s concept of Rome as a palimpsest, with all its edifices from different epochs piling up (a metaphor for a mind incapable of forgetting). Perhaps there is a metaphor here for painting as an unforgetting medium, a Babelian throng of voices.
The most innovative works were a series of smaller pieces in which Quinn has turned his back on his usual “less is a bore” credo. They collapse together two discordant pictorial voices: hard-edge lozenges of color (copied from drug packaging but also echoing austere abstraction) are coated in a glaze riddled with the craquelure of a far fustier genre. Modernism has been mothballed.
It could be claimed that Quinn is sounding a death knell (albeit a sumptuous one) for his medium, as has been claimed of other painters who cut their teeth in the 1980s, such as Currin, Condo and Yuskavage. But these compositions are too compellingly deranged and too frenetically ranging to be swan songs, suggesting affectionate satires rather than valedictory elegies.
Their target seems to be not so much the medium itself as its long association with high-flown ideologies. Once-serious styles have been demoted to the status of window dressing in Quinn’s art historical caprices. (We find a playing out of Robert Hughes’s aperçu that “the avant-garde is now a period style.”) His willful eclecticism signals an antipathy to “house styles,” whether the sleek formalism of hard-edge abstraction, with its insinuations of hygienic purity, or the breezy monotony of gridded colored squares. Quinn’s dreamscapes stand as an admonition against too-ardent dreams, an elegy for nothing more than the idealism—or pomposity—that painting has too often connoted.