After a series of studio visits to up-and-coming talent in this country and abroad, curator Michael Darling began to notice some striking similarities in approach among artists in places as far-flung as Glasgow, Cologne, and Los Angeles. “The things I was seeing in studios were at first confusing, because it seemed all kinds of contradictory work was happening,” says Darling, who is an associate curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles. “These artists seemed to be making a kind of attack on the concept of a signature style and to be engaged in a promiscuous working-through of different genres.”
This phenomenon could be seen as early as the late 1990s, when such artists as the Cologne-based painter Kai Althoff began deploying a wide range of artistic modes in their work. In “Impulse,” Althoff’s 2001 show at Anton Kern Gallery in New York, faux-naí¯f architectural renderings shared the space with expressionistic figure painting, religious vignettes, and appropriated photography. The work referred to everything from Christian iconography to early-20th-century dress codes, and, Darling notes, the “sense of continuous time disappeared in the mix.”
The Los Angeles–based painter Ivan Morley pursued a similar strategy in shows in 2002 at Galerie Ghislaine Hussenot in Paris and Essor Gallery in London, exhibiting works that employed batik, oil paint, thread, and KY Jelly. He used obscure anecdotes from early California history—like the story of an entrepreneur who made a fortune shipping cats to San Francisco for vermin control—as a point of departure for paintings that ranged from cartoonish renderings to prettified abstractions reminiscent of the 1970s Pattern and Decoration movement. And for the past several years, Gillian Carnegie, based in London and short-listed in 2005 for the Turner Prize, has been creating smoothly accomplished still lifes, densely impastoed all-black woodland scenes, provocative, Courbet-like close-ups of her own shapely derriere, and more surreal works like Pií±ata (2004), which features a cheery, cartoonish rabbit figure.
Clearly something was going on, and when Darling found four other artists whose output veers all over the stylistic map, he decided it was time for a survey of painters whose oeuvre included widely divergent genres. The result is “Painting in Tongues,” on view at MOCA through the 17th of this month. In addition to Althoff, Morley, and Carnegie, the exhibition includes Anselm Reyle, Mark Grotjahn, Lucy McKenzie, and Rodney McMillian. The organizing principle of the show is that all of these artists have resisted developing a single recognizable “hand,” or artistic personality.
Dominic Molon, an associate curator at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, has also followed the careers of many of the artists in the MOCA show. “They stretch the idea of what a painting can be and demonstrate how painting has evolved into only one of a number of articulations an artist will make,” he says, noting that in addition to exploring different media and genres, at least two of the artists—McKenzie and Althoff—work collaboratively with others on performance and installations.
Video, sculpture, signage, crude cardboard masks, and found objects, as well as painting, make their way into the galleries assigned each artist in the MOCA show. McMillian, for instance, has three paintings—one a sagging cutout canvas of the U.S. Supreme Court building done in marbleized paint, another a 30-foot landscape with a rupture in the center, and the third a small still life of a rotting apple. But he also has a video and a pair of stuffed baboons placed atop large black columns. “I’m definitely talking about power, symbols of power, ideas of power,” McMillian says. “There’s a fractured sort of narrative or just a nonlinear narrative or maybe not even a narrative. I don’t really know what is concrete anymore.”
Similarly, Morley is coy about the chance of finding any obvious coherence in his group of eleven paintings, which alternate between the representational and the abstract. “I’m putting forward the possibility that there’s something you might call narrative,” he says. In his work, he sees no discontinuity between recognizable imagery and pattern: “a pattern will stand in for whatever the supposed subject matter is.”
Like Morley, the Berlin-based artist Reyle is attracted to materials with a kitschy esthetic. For a show at Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch, he combined abstractions made from shiny sheets of Mylar crumpled over monochrome canvases, hanging assemblages of old neon signs, and freestanding abstract sculptures based on cheap African souvenir carvings. As Darling writes in his catalogue essay, “The entire field of nonobjective art is at Reyle’s disposal, and he aims to use it any way he likes.”
The immediate precursors for this kind of polyglot vocabulary, says Darling, are artists like Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, and the late Martin Kippenberger. Richter famously works in both abstract and representational idioms; Polke (who pioneered the use of found fabrics as a canvas) opts for an even wider range of styles and subjects; and Kippenberger’s activities (which included opening an office, managing a nightclub, and playing in a rock band) represented “an affront to cherished notions of authorship,” Darling notes.
Some see nothing new about the business of crossing stylistic and disciplinary boundaries to dabble in other media and voices. “You had Marcel Duchamp making readymades and painting,” says Nicholas Baume, chief curator at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. “It’s an important tradition within the history of modern and contemporary art.” What is new, however, is perhaps a rebellion against the overload and superficiality of our everyday world: “Althoff’s work, in particular, is very low-tech, handmade, and personal,” Baume says. “It’s a counterpoint to the speed and slickness of digital culture.”
All of these artists, in one way or another, make painting a central process in their work. But it is not the only process. “It is activated and prodded one way or another,” says Darling, “by other things going on in the artist’s mind.”
Ann Landi is a contributing editor of ARTnews.