Paul Manes, Departure, 2013, oil on canvas, 264.1 x 396.2 cm
Brussels—It’s being billed as a “manifesto exhibition,” and the curator, my friend, the art historian and filmmaker Barbara Rose, is happy to say “This is a polemical show.” Indeed, the first line of her catalogue essay reads:
This exhibition intends to prove that painting as an autonomous discipline can still make fresh, convincing statements as a living, evolving and significant art form that communicates humanistic values in an increasingly inhuman, technology driven globally networked world.
The idea that an exhibition can “prove” anything strikes me as the most controversial part of this sentence; but when I thought about it a bit longer, I found myself happy to concede that this show of large works by eight Belgian and eight American painters, though of course of varying quality, amply demonstrates the truth of the argument that painting is not “dead, dying or of diminishing importance.”
Barbara Rose put the enormous, important show together with the painter, dealer, collector and art historian, Roberto Polo, when each sent the other material from exhibitions they’d recently visited, and she said, “Together we have stumbled on the future.” Polo summarised the argument in a note to me: “Barbara and I hope to prove that every time that painting is declared dead it returns stronger, in a grander manner, than ever before; and that there is a new painting, sourced in our Western artistic heritage, but which, contrary to Postmodernism, does not directly quote and recycle it.” Barbara Rose has said that though it was “odd to find coincidences” between the Belgian and American artists in the show, perhaps it’s because most of them live “far beyond the madding crowd” with respect to biennales and art fairs. It’s apt that this show should happen in Belgium, where the first modern painter that springs to mind is the Surrealist Magritte, as there’s a touch of the earlier movement even in many of the abstract paintings on show – the space they create is other-worldly, to say the least. “Maybe,” says Rose, “it’s a reflection of the times in which we live: no stability, all flux, uncertainty.” (And is there any other way to regard Donald Trump’s preposterous Presidential campaign? It would have delighted Dalí and perhaps Duchamp, irritated Max Ernst, and driven Buñuel barmy.)
All the work on show at Vanderborght, a recovered and restored Modernist building, formerly a department store with an atrium, facing the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert (there is another part of the show at the Cinéma Galeries), has sufficient vitality and vigour to challenge the simplistic notions that photography, or any of the –isms, from Surrealism to Minimalism, or schools and movements from Pop Art to Postmodernism or Poststructuralism, have killed off painting, or made it impossible. Most of the paintings displayed in Brussels are abstract, but there are three striking exceptions by Paul Manes, the massive tree trunk in The Fifth Seal, 2006, and the depiction of stacked bowls, as well as another of the bowls, both at rest and hurtling through the pictorial space of Departure 2013. I was lucky enough also to see Manes’ massive, three-panel, James Ensor-inspired, apocalyptical The Entry of Christ into New York, II, 2006, which was on its way to be hung in Brussels Town Hall. This is not just figurative painting, but contains multiple portraits, used in a metaphorical mode that alludes to philosophical arguments, art history and even music, in a fashion that will be relished by those who also like the work, for example, of the late R.B. Kitaj.
There are several impressive figurative paintings, or paintings that incorporate figurative elements here by one of the Belgians, Jan Vanriet. The Horse, Frozen, 2015 is a haunting image of a man half bent-over with her head touching the mid-point of a standing woman, so that the shadow is equine.
Lois Lane (don’t bother telling her you can never forget her name – she’s heard it a million times) also employs figuration, a female form, a cross, flowers, leaves, a suspended sheep (or beast of some sort). But she uses this imagery in the service of pattern-making that is near abstraction, with deep dark colours that are always verging on black. The intense indigo of Moon Shadow, 2010, the picture I liked best, looks as though textile dye as been poured on a cloth that has been intricately folded or perhaps waxed to keep the pigment from staining portions of it. It is, in fact, oil on linen, with its porous tactility. Some of the artists have apparently been included because their work resonates with that of another painter in the show. Polo sees these affinities in the art of Paul Manes and the Belgian Werner Mannaers. I find a stronger bond between the patterning of the paintings of Mannaers and those on display by Ed Moses.
Werner Mannaers The Costello Series Chapter 4 2016 mixed media and collage on canvas 193.5-x-162.5-cm
The exuberance of Paul Manes’ work, though, is complemented by the tragedy of the sometimes almost empty canvases of the Belgian Marc Maet, whose brief dates, 1955-2000, apparently reflect his despairing mistaken belief that painting had died. It is difficult to assess the impact of his work from the splendid big catalogue of this show, because Maet’s work is the most difficult to reproduce of any of the sixteen artists, so that his Catholicism, Black, 1989 and Passion, 1990 come out almost totally black, and EST, 1989 more or less white.
This makes Maet a key figure in Barbara Rose’s show, which is intended particularly to challenge the contention of the American critic who dominated post-War thinking about art, Clement Greenberg (1909-1994), that painting’s defining aspect was that it is addressed solely to the sense of sight. To comprehend Maet’s work, the viewer has to appreciate the tactile qualities of the paintings – you have to want to touch them – the impasto’d white dots that spell EST backwards on the 1989 near-white canvas. Of course, this is a public show in a public space and you’re not allowed to touch them. Rose accommodates this by associating the tactile with the “haptic” – the vibrations – or whatever it is – that the paintings give off that make you long to touch their surfaces.
This demonstration by ostension that Greenberg was wrong reminds me of one of G.E. Moore’s “proofs” of the existence of the external world:
I can prove now, for instance, that two human hands exist. How? By holding up my two hands, and saying, as I make a certain gesture with the right hand, “Here is one hand,” and adding, as I make a certain gesture with the left, “and here is another.” And if, by doing this, I have proved ipso facto the existence of external things, you will all see that I can also do it now in numbers of other ways: there is no need to multiply examples. [“Proof of an External World,” Proceedings of the British Academy 25 (1939).]
Rose and Polo could almost be accused of blunting Occam’s Razor in this show, as they multiply examples over six floors of Vanderborght, most of them displaying the same tactile or haptic attraction. This, of course, is not the end of the story, or of their argument; they also counter Greenberg by claiming that many of these painters reorganise the space of the picture plane, or at least explore spatiality. This is obviously true, in the sense that few of them pay much attention to the “laws” of perspective, vanishing points, crossed diagonals or any of the business that was so relevant before Greenberg’s “the travesty that was Cubism” subverted it definitively. But Rose means something more interesting than that. She is thinking of the pre-1950 Jackson Pollock’s abandonment of the paintbrush, “which emphasized the tactile stroke,” and seemed to favour “brilliant color over physical gesture.”
Walter Darby Bannard chucked out the paintbrush “in favor of squeegees, rakes and brooms, which he used to apply mixed media and gels that thickened the surface to literal relief.” His several works are among the most touch-me-demanding in this show, with ridges begging to be caressed in work dating from 1986, while the luscious colours of the two enormous paintings done this year (2016), come near to taunting the viewer to taste them.
Larry Poons’ work occupies the entire ground floor of this show, which is apt, not only because he mastered the Pollock-point of “controlled accident”, but because, like many of the artists in this show, his paintings exemplify the painterly possibilities of rhythm. In the course of a few days in Brussels, I got to know some of the artists, and Poons and Manes told me they nearly all agreed in their appreciation of Country and Western music. Poons trained originally as a musician, and our first conversation (of several, extremely enjoyable ones) was about chord shifts in “Salty Dog,” though our next was about the cadenza of the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No 1 (which we heard in an eccentric, but completely convincing performance by Alexander Melnikov). In 1999 Frank Stella said, in connection with Poons’ work, “Touch and its individualized and general aspects seem to be the gestures that best identify art for us.” Stella went on to say that it has caused surprise that abstract art has actually extended “the expansive range of expression that’s available to realistic painting” and that no painter has “extended and expanded the range of pictorial expression more than Larry Poons.” I am particularly taken by Glass Coach Louisville, 2007, in which there seems to me, along with the impasto and subtle use of a vast palette of colours, to be some distinct drawing. I availed myself of the privilege of having been born 90 miles away from Louisville to be cheeky enough to ask the painter to explain the title, which he did willingly, saying it was based on two subjects, Muhammed Ali (born Cassius Clay in Louisville, KY) and a poem by Wallace Stevens. This last is number eleven of Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird:
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
As I look at the catalogue reproduction of this painting, figures seem to emerge, but the reason Poons is fundamental to this show is clearly tactility, as shown in Southern Exposure, 1986 and Grin (Francisco), 1991, which are done with acrylic and (as the catalogue says in its deadpan way) “inert materials,” three-dimensional objects attached to the canvas.
The Belgian Mil Ceulemans has his attractive recent work described as “mixed media on canvas.” He’s a controlled dripper, and looking at the plates in the catalogue, I detect a lot of perspectival depth – I was probably not far enough away from the pictures as they hung in the gallery. Karen Gunderson has found a way of using black oil paint alone to convey tones of silver and white and plenty of greys, while in paintings such as Three Quarter Moon, 2010-14, she uses the qualities of the linen support to make you yearn to touch the lunar craters. Martin Kline’s recent work has taken a path that makes it doubly tactile. He works with encaustic, pigmented and heated wax, which makes, as he says, “a sculpture in relief,” automatically endowed with shadows, and movement from the fact that the medium was once liquid. This assures that when it becomes solid it alludes to “drips and pours, swirls, and pools.” Kline made encaustic on linen behave something like honeycomb in Milk and Honey, 2014, and I admire both Dream, 2016 and Plus Minus (II), 2016 for the supple gorgeousness of their otherwise very different patterning. In works shown here dating from 2013 in his Not Art but Work series, he doubles the tactile bang of some pictures by pouring and working the encaustic onto panel, and incorporating the rings and strings of “naval World War II canvas hammocks.”
Melissa Kretschmer’s work is “at the crossroads of the sculptural and the painterly…[they] exist both on a plane and in a space all at once,” as she says in her catalogue entry. Her work is the most abstract, seemingly simple, but most complicated to describe, in this provocative exhibition. Sound, made this year, is “vellum, gesso, gouache, beeswax, graphite, and plywood.” Since she has recently “introduced a new element of sawing and cutting” it is difficult/impossible to separate the media from the support. This metaphorical aesthetic syncretism is of maximum clout in this mighty show, as the point of most of the work is to show that the future of painting is in the hands of those artists who are engrossed and enchanted by what can be done with paint and support (and to whom it never occurs to think that the possibilities are exhausted).