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The Last Great Painting

Oliver Clegg

Taína Cruz

Aura Rosenburg

Sarah Szczesny

Chase Wilson

June 29 - August 18, 2023

The Last Great Painting

There's often a misconception that beauty equals intelligence, 2022, Oil on linen, 48 x 64 in, 121.9 x 162.6 cm

There’s no slouching toward realistic purity here, just a private pursuit of something that will inevitably be surrendered to the public. Painting’s existential plight, first initiated by the camera’s invention, has continued on into the present day when its situation is under constant pressure to outdo and fundamentally justify itself. In a recent interview with Ben Luke, Jacqueline Humphries expounds upon her initiation into art-making. She entered the fold during the 1980s in New York when the medium was dealing with a serious crisis. As Humphries elucidates, “this was the story of painting that was coming to its endgame,” at a point when “artists were competing with each other for the best last painting.” This beginning of the end very much resonates with the contemporary condition artists must endure, one that is haunted by over-exposure, unbidden market demands, and a general malaise in terms of critical thinking. 

In fall of 2021, Peter Fischli curated the exhibition Stop Painting at Fondazione Prada in Venice. The accompanying text identifies “the five crises of painting”: photography, readymade and collage, the problematics of authorship (put forth by Roland Barthes in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”), an awareness of painting’s commodification, and criticism’s decline. In the accompanying text, Fischli suggests that we might look at the medium as “a Frankenstein with perfect plastic surgery.” He contends that perhaps under certain “new circumstances painting appears illuminated, re-auratized. Painting gains a new radiant power through this media condition and profits from this illumination like no other artistic medium.”

I digress. The earliest work, Aura Rosenberg’s Interview (1974), meets Taína Cruz’s Dinner for Two from 2023. Nearly five decades separate the two, however, they are staged within the same network and ostensibly carry the weights of alternative representational modalities. In Cruz’s painting, her subject dines alongside a dog at a fancy restaurant. The work suggests a diluted hybrid of Pierre Bonnard’s Femme au chien, ou Femme et chien à table (Woman with Dog, or Woman and Dog at Table) and John Singer Sargent’s A Dinner Table at Night. Bonnard’s distinctive intimacy is conjoined with Sargent’s regal portrait of British aristocracy. 

Taína Cruz grew up in the New York underground, welcoming its echo as a muse in her painting. Subcultural reference points fall in line with archival images from the infinite net. The psychic disturbances of horror subjects crash headlong into Cruz’s transcendental studio state. Her painting is free because she rejects the gaze, pouring over her compositions without any mind to outside noise. Recollections of schoolyard play are rendered in black and white, evoking the nature of a faded memory. 

On the other hand, Rosenberg’s collage of the September 1974 Interview cover is set below a horizontal Hollywood actress. The artist, a self-proclaimed “fake painter,” is invested in an enterprise marked by fluidity, producing photographs, sculptures, films, and paintings. The newest “paintings,” Lemon Incest and Cargo Culte are responses to the inheritance of an image-world, encouraged by tablecloths Rosenberg discovered in a Mallorcan marketplace. She took to mixing up painting and throwing it at her “canvas,” which resulted in the relinquishment of medium control.

These works inevitably pose the question: is this object a painting at all?

Alaina Claire Feldman describes Rosenberg’s attachment to the medium as an interest in “the phenomenological substance of painting.” The artist “wanted to see if she could reintroduce a figure that defied illusionism [...] that created a picture plane without hierarchy,” and stretched the capacities of image-making. Take, for example, Blue Jeans II from 1986. Here Rosenberg abandons formal laws, using the body as a vessel for mark-making, its presence sealed within the velvet surface. These imprints reintroduce the figure without literally depicting one, eliding the illusion of space that a figure implies. The resulting composition draws a remarkable association to The Rolling Stones’s 1970 album cover for Sticky Fingers, alluding to Pop Art philosophy. 

Sarah Szczesny, the multi-hyphenate practitioner of performance, music, painting, video, and the like, offers her own vision of imaginal legacies. This particular body of work was developed during her time in La La Land, with particular attention paid to the history of Disney’s studio system. The unsung heroes of the color and illustration departments have chiefly been women, toiling away during the very early days of animation. Szczesny implicates fragments from the 20th century production Alice Loses Out while pursuing the frameworks set forth by artists Jacques Villeglé and Raymond Hains. The artists’ décollage strategy transformed the rhetoric of artistic production. 

Benjamin H. D. Buchloh elucidates the form’s history, describing its players as “an anonymous vandal of product propaganda [and] an artistic agent whose aspirations to intervene in public space have diminished drastically.” The latter derives their materials from the interventions of the former. As Buchloh surmises, through the “random gesturality of tearing, and [...] seemingly infinite repetition of that gesture bringing with it a potentially infinite seriality in the resulting ‘work,’” a new structuring of the image-plane was born. Through public interventions, and the “participation” of anonymous players, a social dimension injected itself into the principles of collage. 

All sorts of things are lodged in the space between edges - for instance, Sarah Szczesny’s Wishing Well Tree appropriately displays the title’s three words, “WISHING WELL” and “TREE.” The language is caught up in the throes of cuts and paint, like a screenshot from a distorted VHS tape. Szczesny employs fragments from pop culture within a practice that oscillates between construction and destruction. Per Fionn Meade’s examination of Szczesny’s process, “painting often takes its place within the exacting ricochet of animations, mood-bending audio, and elegant costume and décor motifs.” She situates herself within the vortex of collage, while expanding its potential to the moving image. 

Oliver laughs in the middle - his series of Happy Meal toys and a 2021 exhibition of cat motif paintings as evidence. His canvases are also wracked with mementos from his life. Such is the case with Falcarindiol doesn’t change my opinion, in which he reproduces his daughter’s drawing in paint while invoking trompe-l’oeil aesthetics vis-à-vis the snowman’s carrot nose. Alternatively, Edouard Manet’s predilection for ornamental details, such as in A Bar at the Folies-Bergère and Young Lady in 1866, is brought into the contemporary dimension. The cool-toned painting There’s often been a misconception that beauty equals intelligence sees its subject’s collarbone decorated with a glimmering necklace. Clegg has decisively cropped in on his own amulet of sorts: a silver and black cross pendant rendered with exquisite care. Where the composition fades into the body and its backdrop, swathes of color and traces of Clegg’s brush provide space for the enjoyment of pure paint. 

Chase Wilson’s tangled headphones are a recurring motif across his canvases, as is the collapsing image of a Viking ship’s flag. His paintings are non-denominational, floating between objective and subjective frequencies, tethered to rhythms instead. Personal signifiers mix with public-oriented ones, as tangled Apple products dance beside vague interiors. He works by sorting through quotidian registers alongside historical precedents. Observationally bent, Wilson pursues the space outside of painterly discourse, instead focusing on the precise visual situation. The image event and its reverberations also relate to the disjunctures between particularization and universalization, as interpretability has surrendered to individualist sentiment. Shadow is a particularly moving composition, in which a hulk of paint looms against a sky blue background. What is rendered and its subsequent perception is irrevocably unstable. However, the pop sensibility is an undercurrent, with its purported legibility of subject. 

Oliver Clegg, Taína Cruz, Aura Rosenberg, Sarah Szczesny, and Chase Wilson are at the roundtable here. They’ve not been assembled to reinvent the wheel, but rather, to deal with it in terms of its ongoingness.

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