Virginia Woolf called George Eliot’s Middlemarch, “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” Sometimes I apply this to paintings. I look at a painting show and ask myself, “Is this for adults?”
Painting is a friendly medium. Most of us fall in love with art through painting. And there is no shortage of friendly contemporary painting. Friendly painting quotes and imitates the modernist elements that we first fell in love with. It appeals to our younger selves.
Friendly painting arises from generous and generative impulses. It’s responsible and well crafted—a square meal in a rectangle. It’s perfectly fine, but it lacks the quality I like best in contemporary art: it is not engaged in an aesthetic argument with painting’s history, its present, and its future. I prefer a Dostoyevskian painting, the kind that sits in the corner full of ego, self-hatred, and a haunted past, or sparkles too extravagantly to conceal inner fissures. Or a George Eliot–like painting that can only be drastic. I like paintings that appeal to the perversity of adulthood.
I suspect that few Americans fell in love with art through the gnarly tangle of politics that was Futurism, or British Vorticism, which is still obscure and tainted by the political choices of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis. The Guggenheim’s massive Futurism show last year, one of the best museum shows I have ever seen, was a miasma of adrenaline, beauty, and vulgarity. And these are the hyperactive modernist coordinates that Barnaby Furnas’s latest paintings, for me, are calling from. He adds to this a scraped-down surface that looks a bit like tile backing, and overlays it with dry-as-bone washes of color. There is no lush paint, and no flourish of the brush, save for some very lovely washes of color that seem like blueprints for thicker paintings; he even uses blueprint blue to create shapes that want to bleed into invisibility.
Furnas’s exhibition stands out among the September painting shows in New York—beautiful September, always rife with painting. (Video and installation are saved to complement the deep freeze and post-holiday malaise of January and February and the rains of March and April.) His paintings are an exception in their aggression toward painting, and toward modernism. I don’t mean his style is aggressive. It’s actually gentle and a bit geeky. It’s full of special effects and fractures, even rainbows. Sometimes it reminds me of not-quite-artists like Saul Steinberg and Ben Shahn. It’s plotted out, almost architectural. He withholds. Are these new paintings of his cartoons of Kupka? Is an illustration of a modernist sensibility a way of snubbing one’s nose at it? I like love poems to modernism, but I am more attracted to arguments with it, because argument is the true spirit of modernism. Modernism was an argument with tradition that never abandoned the past, mostly because artists are, by nature, in love with the art of the past. Furnas’s paintings drag around the past; they have baggage.
I can name a few other adult painters that I link to Furnas, not formally but conceptually. Matthew Ritchie also creates complex arguments against painting. Furnas and Ritchie share a tendency to populate their paintings with figures and then wipe them out with a tsunami of abstraction. They both employ additive and self-complicating approaches that stand in sharp contrast to modernist distillation. On the less self-complicating side of argumentative painting there are Mary Heilmann and Carl Ostendarp, who just won’t give us the non-referential color fields they seem to promise. They need to crack those color fields and refer to them as images. Heilmann paints them with jarring and deeply subjective color combinations. She paints the sides of her paintings. She makes them pretty enough that she seems to want to piss someone off. Ostendarp insists on equating Hans Arp with cartooning from the 1950s to the 1970s, but with the physical and conceptual dryness of a gun that shoots a BANG sign. He doesn’t flatter our childish desire to be adults. Steven Parrino’s work comes with a conceptual R rating and an inspiring lack of lovability; I have a theory that he isn’t dead, he is busy making paintings and showing them under the names of 20 different artists.
Furnas engages with the horrors of history. From his Sidney Nolan–inspired battlefields to his biblical color fields of blood, he activates his subject matter through his restlessness with painting; a restlessness that signifies the fact that, soup to nuts, he is upset about everything. His Jesus paintings, where Jesus fades into a background filled with historical horrors, are atheistic gestures that poke fun at the atheism of modernism by not giving in to the cliché of blasphemy. There is almost faith in them. They come so close to modern church art that they are their own form of aesthetic sin.
Furnas has spelled out his name on the front of these new paintings in a Bauhaus/Futurist–inspired typeface. It’s difficult to digest, but it works for me, because his name sounds like a character from a steampunk convention and reflects the forms in his paintings, which seem to quote graphics from the era of mechanical optimism. His signature turns his paintings into mechanicals for posters for the exhibition of his paintings, as if that exhibition were occurring in a 1960s movie adaptation of an H. G. Wells novel.
Furnas always seems very back-of-the-classroom to me, impatient to get the course work over with so he can have an opinion on the material. His paintings have an immediacy and a desperation that is adult in its desire to experience everything—before one is, oneself, history.
In 1976, my parents told me not to watch Helter Skelter . I watched it. It was a horrible experience. From that point on, the television was transformed from a nurturing, goodnatured entertainer into a stormy, mercurial god. I had learned the horror of entertainment. Mike Kelley’s work, among other things, speaks of a similar horror.
In the 1980s, when a certain breed of L.A. artists (Kelley, Larry Johnson, and Jim Shaw, to name a few) first started showing in New York, they seemed to come to us psychologically scarred by some unknown childhood trauma. And though their work overlapped formally with what many New York artists were doing at the time (especially those artists who were working with appropriated and staged photography and multimedia installation), there was an essential difference. New York photo-conceptual artists were fundamentally the children of Madison Avenue, constructing a state of Oedipal perversity whereby they simultaneously rebelled against advertising and held it out as an object of desire. In L.A., meanwhile, multimedia artists were reacting to a different daddy: the Hollywood entertainment industry.
In contrast to New York’s sly perversity (and ideological justifications for it), the art of Kelley, Shaw, and their colleagues looked like pure perversion. The L.A. artists seemed uninterested in decoding the messages of the god that teaches us when to laugh, cry, and go to sleep. Rather, they countered our intellectual self-satisfaction with a terrifying proposition: What if it’s all just entertainment? What if we are all just making objects to fill a global casino? The real shocks of Kelley and Paul McCarthy’s 1992 Heidi project, a filmic grenade hurled at the classic children’s story, come from its hollow core. This hollowness was shocking and profound.
McCarthy is a monolith of rage. While everyone was celebrating the Bicentennial, in 1976, McCarthy was punching himself in the face while imitating Sylvester Stallone for his video Rocky. Kelley, by contrast, is a labyrinth. You can climb into his work and move around in it. Frayed threads of ideas lyrically intertwine, creating more of a poetics than an explosion or condemnation. I remember the sparse, lovely, funny, and melancholy 1990 exhibition at Metro Pictures of worn stuffed animals set about on thrift-store afghans. The current show at Hauser & Wirth of Kelley’s “Kandors” similarly allows the poetic eloquence of his work to weave through the installation.
In the Superman story, before Superman’s home planet of Krypton self-destructs, the villain Brainiac shrinks Kandor, Krypton’s capital city, and puts it in a bottle. Superman steals the bottle and carries it off to his Fortress of Solitude, where he keeps Kandor’s inhabitants alive in a bell jar nourished by tanks of Kryptonic atmosphere. This is a legend of isolation and the violent detachments from one’s past that come with adulthood. By diving into the nerdy depths of the Superman legend, Kelley emerged with epic themes that echo the gloomy stretches of loneliness and confusion that constituted the bulk of our childhoods.
For a series of works in this posthumous exhibition, Kelley fashioned illuminated formations of plastic elements into magical Kandorscapes. But they aren’t in their bell jars. They have no atmosphere. These are dead cities. Kelley’s giant bell jar constructions, on the other hand, are full of atmosphere; there has been a rupture. In a room by itself there is a bell jar containing a giant diseased Easter egg. There is a beautiful projection of a bell jar with swirling gases inside it. These are all hooked up to giant canisters of Kryptonic atmosphere. The bell jar is a melancholy and disturbing image, and by focusing on it, Kelley transformed a legend of isolation into an experience of suffocation.
The set piece of the exhibition (a theatrical term, but this exhibition is highly theatrical) is Kandor 10B (Exploded Fortress of Solitude), 2011. It is a cavern exploded from within. Glittering treasure and the ghost of Kandor, represented by a magenta light, are among the rubble.
The Superman legend is entrenched in our culture. It spans generations. Another legend has attached itself to it. This is the curse of Superman; an overwhelming number of actors who have played the role have met with tragedy. The most famous of these fatalities is George Reeves, who, on June 16, 1959, was found dead of a gunshot wound. Christopher Reeve suffered paralysis. The list goes on. On the less tragic side is the recently deceased Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olsen in the 1950s TV show. In interviews, Larson described his overassociation with the role and the suffocating nature of fame. He also happened to be gay in the 1950s, another form of suffocation. Larson is the boy in the bell jar. The Superman Curse seems to haunt Kelley’s exhibition, where the heroic is transformed into the abject.
In Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #36 (Vice Anglais), 2011, a film projected from within the exploded Fortress of Solitude, a band of demented and sexually stimulated characters perform sadomasochistic rites. Are these the mutated good citizens of Kandor? Is this the inevitable end of all civilizations—decadence and cruelty? These are the horrific creatures of entertainment that Kelley brought to the New York art world. Instead of deconstructing pop-cultural myths, instead of trying to control how entertainment unnaturally inflates our lives, Kelley became a mediumistic presence for its horror and an embodiment of the possibility that entertainment is our only nature, our only culture, and our only landscape.
Matthew Weinstein is an artist based in New York.
Barnaby Furnas, “First Morning” runs through October 10, 2015 at Marianne Boesky Gallery; “Mike Kelley” runs through October 24, 2015 at Hauser & Wirth.