Art Writing 101

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Reviews: “Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out” at White Flag Projects

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Friends, Saint Lunatics, countrymen, lend me your anuses.  Your vaginas will suffice as well.  Only one painting by Carroll Dunham is displayed in White Flag Projects’ latest painting-centric show, Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, yet Dunham’s Mule – positioned, as it is, in the bright entry alcove – acts as an attention-grabbing opening line to a well-planned speech about what it means to be a cosmic being.

“Did someone say ‘cosmic being’?” asks a painted photograph by Ashley Bickerton. Red Scooter Nocturne by Bickerton is our big blue alien guide away from the awkward, small sexual space that Dunham literally presents to us as a conversation starter.

After the slight laugh has worn off, Peter Saul’s Cold Sweat takes us inside the weight of our pink, anxious brains, and we become psychologically aware of what it means to be a human being. Lots of cold, dripping sweat in a psychedelic world, according to Saul.

But our Austronesian guide on his glamorous red scooter, and the gallery itself, want us to get out of these confined voids and into the boundless. As we look up into the white nothingness provided by Markus Amm’s canvases, we quickly question our decision. Then, Joyce Pensato’s dripping enamel wails one last earthly utterance via the barely discernible cartoon mug in The KKK Took My Baby Away.

Awww, what the heck – off into the unknown. There, Ryan Sullivan provides us with our first view from outer space in his two extensive, solar galaxy-eque paintings. Joshua Smith and Julia Rommel then confirm what cutting-edge physicists have speculated: the atmosphere is over ninety-five percent empty space. Their moderately-sized and monochromatic paintings in celestial black, blue, green and purple display the colors of emptiness.

Where’s one to go now? Maybe a place to pause and reflect before our ideas of the universe are concluded. Ah, yes. Up a winding staircase to a small show of Elaine Cameron-Weir’s marbleized canvases and brass bamboo. I think I will stay here in this lofted, art book library for a while. We all like a good view. The expansiveness of space provided by White Flag Projects has satisfied this earthling. 

- David Baker

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Consisting of eleven paintings by eight artists, Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out is exemplary of White Flag Project’s programming, in which the work of established and mid-career New York artists is imported into the heart of fly-over country and trotted out for the benefit of St. Louis collectors. The exhibit can be best characterized by a tension between repression and exuberance, the former by a slew of minimal formalist paintings-about-painting, the latter by hedonistic depictions of grotesque bodily forms. All of the works were made within the last fourteen years (the majority in the last two), yet the exhibition is so marked by deference to stylistic convention that any expectation of vitality is promptly quashed.

The only unbroken horse of the lot is Ashley Bickerton’s consumerist nightmare, Red Scooter Nocture, a commanding presence in the middle-right of the space. For its self-aggrandizing surfboard company-style posturing (Bickerton’s name appears ten times on the frame alone), and Caribbean-psychedelic histrionics, it is essentially a heavily manipulated photograph affixed to a wood backing with beveled Swiss-cheese holes pockmarking both the picture plane and the frame. A maniacally grinning obese man coated in blue paint is depicted driving a red scooter with two naked, oiled women squeezed into the little remaining space on the back of the vehicle’s seat. It’s the old fat-man-in-a-little-coat gag enrobed in a camp veneer. Daubs of paint reminiscent of a Yikes! Pencil color palette placed in a seemingly arbitrary fashion complete the composition, nominally qualifying it for inclusion in an exhibition otherwise consisting of Paintings.

Red Scooter Nocturne is both the lynchpin and low point of the exhibition. Being the loudest piece, its caterwaul dictates the tone and terms by which the surrounding works are viewed and received. It lends an air of calm restraint and easy-going grace to the others, making them look much more dignified, even effete, by comparison. One is left to question whether or not the remainder of the works succeed because of or in spite of this particular context.

- Serhii Chrucky

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The current exhibition at White Flag Projects features eleven paintings ranging in approach from figurative to color-field and abstraction, all exploring the material expression of paint. The title is derived from a quote by jazz composer and poet-philosopher Sun-Ra, alluding to an unnatural phenomenon – something improbable, impossible; penetrable and yet ineffable. Perhaps it is a way of making sense of nonsense. Here, canvases do not sit on the floor or lean on walls. You do not see the support of the canvas or the underpinnings of a painting. This exhibit has other concerns - it reintroduces the idea of taking painting at face value.

The works collected in this exhibit are concerned with surface construction. Subject matter is secondary, while the act of creating volatile surfaces – and unlinking them from objective content – is primary. Figurative works – such as those by Carroll Dunham and Peter Saul – attempt to be obscene, grotesque or flamboyant – depicting exposed orifices, oozing pores, abject sexuality. Abstract paintings, alternately, may appear unassuming, but have tremendous physical presence; they are not windows but screens. As in Julia Rommels works, canvasses are painted, stretched and re-stretched to include their often-ignored margins. And textures – as in Ryan Sullivan’s pieces – infer fragments of space – i.e.  paint reacting to wax and latex, rather than the artist’s brush. Painting, here, is transformative without being representational. It’s a means of letting go – letting the paint form on its own by minimizing the artist from the equation.

These works are not radically different from their Modernist predecessors. Take the exhibition zine-styled checklist; follow the viewing order it suggests. Navigate through its biddings to alter, extend or break-down painting’s not so distant conventions. Find their common dissatisfactions with Modernist limitations. And if you listen closely it is not the invariable features of Jazz you will be hearing, but the collective improvisation of Free Jazz.

- Jose Garza

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The current show on display at White Flag Projects, Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, confidently assesses the “problem” of painting in an information age stuttering with pervasive imagery. Featuring a wide array of painterly of styles, the show lends a freshly spasmodic pace to the act of viewing, highlighting the rhythmic undercurrent beneath the static and silent surface of painting.

Dead-center on the wall immediately to the right hangs Ashley Bickerton’s Red Scooter Nocturne - a mixed media painting and digital print of two bronzed females and a bloated blue man riding a motorcycle through an ambiguous urban setting. Bickerton’s name is tattooed in calligraphic text on the female figures - and again decorates the frame, which itself resembles a casing for a handheld video game system.

Sandwiched between Red Scooter Nocturne and Joyce Pensato’s painting - brazenly titled, The KKK Took My Baby Away - is a strikingly subdued work by Markus Amm. In this space, the quietness of Amm’s Untitled  is palpable. The buckling canvas and the light washy surface of blue hues suggest an image that has evaporated. It effectively creates a vacant space for contemplating the ephemerality of a material gesture amidst the bookending chatter. 

Between the fragile surface and visceral imagery in Carroll Dunham’s Mule, and the frozen, tactile layers of paint and sand in Ryan Sullivan’s October 15, 2012 – November 25, 2012 lies a common interstitial space which speaks to the powerful residue of movement in painting. Through this kaleidoscopic view of contemporary approaches to the painterly gesture, Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out seems to suggest that that static, “dead” nature painting, its nothingness, has been inverted and never was.

- Meghan Johnson

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An eclectic mix of two-dimensional works forms the newest show at White Flag Projects. Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out features the work of eight artists who approach two-dimensional production in noticeably different ways. The works closest to the gallery’s entrance are saturated with image and color; fleshy figural paintings by Carroll Dunham and Peter Saul share a wall with a digital print by Ashley Bickerton, in which a blue figure on a colorful scooter is surrounded by an intricate purple frame. The intensity of this first collection of images forms a confounding relationship with the more abstracted images in the show. More minimal canvases with hazy greys and ghostly traces of color by Markus Amm and Julia Rommel seem to function as visual breaks for the eye at first glance. Yet with closer inspection, the paintings reveal a collection of dots, folds, and fissures that are perhaps more noticeable after viewing the more eccentric portraits. 

Moments that could be defined as imperfections become critical details, as is the case of Ryan Sullivan’s cracked surfaces and the unpainted edges of Joshua Smith’s canvasses. Ridges and breaches in Sullivan’s color combinations begin to look like landscapes or topographical interpretations of rugged terrain; Sullivan’s October 15, 2012-November 25, 2012 even looks three-dimensional from a distance, and the canvas flattens out only as one approaches it. Joyce Pensato fully embraces the drip as a muscular mark, using shiny black and white pigments to construct a face with cartoonish eyes that are far too large to be human. The abstractions in this show are richly detailed, embracing more conventional definitions of imperfection. while the painted quality of these details question the line between real and unreal, imagined and observed. 

- Bridget Purcell

Image: Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out installation shot, courtesy White Flag Projects.

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