There's a kind of contemporary painting that examines what it means to be making a contemporary painting. Highly recursive, it mines art history and the visual record for intense, sometimes injurious remixing. Its grandpappy is Gerhard Richter, whose 40 years' worth of paintings were on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York last year: mostly interpretations of photographs, with sometimes subtle, sometimes heavy alterations. (Even Richter's abstractions seem to have gotten their start as mushed-around photographic images; this fooled some smart people into thinking that he worked in a wide variety of modes.) If Richter is this style's granddad, Laura Owens is the precocious big sister. Owens was the subject of a big show at the MoCA Los Angeles earlier this year, proving that she could recombine everything from Chinese painting to faux-naif illustration into enormous paintings -- ten and twelve feet on a side -- that had no impact. (Unfortunately for her, the show ran opposite a Lucian Freud career retrospective that would have pounded a stronger painter into jelly.)
Two more practitioners of this kind of painting, looking like Richter and Owens respectively, are Daniel Scheimberg and Craig Kucia, whose exhibits, "De-Focusing" and "What Fun Our Life Could Have Been," are on display at Kevin Bruk Gallery. Scheimberg makes soft-focus images derived from photographs. His angle is to take advantage of the fact that defocused light sources mix in the atmosphere in front of the viewer. Pointillism à la Seurat comes to mind, but this is a little different; he's interested in the way colors mix as light rather than pigment. (It's a different color wheel. The pigment primaries are red, blue, and yellow. The light primaries are red, blue, and green. There's a ton of stuff about this on the Internet if you're interested.)
It's a neat trick --- a picture such as Remuh (2000) has oranges going out of focus next to blues, forming a fuzzy strip of green between them that gives everything a surprising intensity. I wonder, then, why he bothers with three monochromal works that deprive him of the opportunity to use his color effects. One of these is a giant matzo rendered in sepias; defocused, it looks like burnt parchment from a 1940s photograph. Opposite is a wall of tombstones inscribed with Hebrew, in Vaseline-smeared black and white, and a Richter-esque image of empty theater seats. The out-of-focus look seems to be trying to evoke nostalgia, but the effect is unintentionally schmaltzy. Another color piece -- a beach scene in the front office -- is more engaging and more interesting visually. Angst doesn't work for every artist.
If Laura Owens could make better work out of her material -- heavy quotes of art history and illustration, weird spaces that only exist in the realm of painting, and what's-wrong-with-this-picture oddity -- the paintings would look like Craig Kucia's. The branches in these invented landscapes are disturbingly similar to those of Owens, but his handling is more lively and original overall. One of the more successful pieces in his show is Apple Blocks Curved Under the Wistful Carpets and Spoke to the Trees, which pictures crossed branches in front of a blue sky that rains caterpillars, blobs of brightly colored paint, and cigarette ashes (the last of which fall from a cigarette perched under something that could be a bird's nest or an obese sea urchin; it's hard to tell). The titles derive from the artist's effusive poetry and give a sense of the emotional states that inform his work.
Another successful one is If You Look Too Deeply Everything Breaks Your Heart, in which a mound on a tabletop is encrusted with dragonflies and other crawling unidentifiables, and the sky is peppered with flicked lumps of paint that resemble imaginary insects. Half of the mound has been obliterated with a dark impasto into which "I loved her" has been scratched with a palette knife. The painting is a messy amalgam of emotional energy translated through a vocabulary of art quotes, but the feeling seems sincere.
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On October 15 Maria José Arjona completed "Vault" at Dorsch Gallery. This is the Miami iteration of a performance work that took place in Bogotá and Marfa, Texas, demanding Arjona's signature intensity and No-like understatement. She arranged a long line of hunks of charcoal, picked one up, walked slowly around to a bamboo ladder, climbed up, drew a field of short curves onto the wall until the charcoal was gone from her fingers, and repeated -- for hours at a time.
As she scratched the concrete, I got the impression that "Vault" was a giant human-powered kinetic sculpture, in which black marks moved at a cloudlike pace from the floor to the wall via an intelligent agent. At the end, the wall was covered with an abstraction that recalled a scorched meadow. A video of the Marfa performance played on an adjacent wall while she labored. I would put Arjona's work up against that of any performance artist anywhere; she has a thrilling ability to convey the eternal through her choice of materials, her seismic movements, and her burning focus. Rumor has it that she will be performing again soon; if it comes to pass, see her.