“Painting in Tongues,” MOCA’s new international survey of young practitioners of the world’s second-oldest profession, claims a distinguished pedigree from among the more subversive, idiosyncratic and visually gifted artists of the modern era. My desert island list of 20th-century painters would also probably include Francis Picabia, Sigmar Polke, Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen and Jim Shaw. Gerhard Richter I can take or leave — his work’s pretty and clever enough, but for all his genre-busting, his ideas seem narrow and authoritarian. Still, I wouldn’t kick him out of my art-bed. And as part of a lineup of standards against which to frame a cluster of international emergy painters, he, like the rest, cuts a pretty formidable figure.
I doubt if any of the seven “Tongue” painters would choose to be assessed in such company, though a couple of them could plausibly ascend to the same league given time. Pieced together from an assortment of fashionable hometown, British and German approaches to contemporary painting issues, the exhibition succeeds foremost as a showcase of distinct individual practices, ranging from the washy convention-fetishizing belle-époque slacker doodles of Kai Althoff to the alarming twin monkey tower sculpture by Rodney McMillian, which could only be included in a painting show whose premise is militant heterogeneity within individual painters’ oeuvres. The Toungists — Mark Grotjahn, Gillian Carnegie, Lucy McKenzie, Anselm Reyle and Ivan Morley are the others — “keep their painting practices open and viable,” writes curator Michael Darling, “by embracing impulses and conditions that may make their work appear outwardly inconsistent.”
There are a couple of problems with this hypothesis. First, it isn’t describing — as it seems to imply — some innovative art-making strategy, but rather the basic working approach of most artists before marketplace forces squeeze their output into a signature style. Second, in many of the bodies of work included here, the evidence of this multivalent methodology seems either forced or nonexistent. While among the most accomplished and exquisite in the show, Carnegie’s paintings — particularly her Modernist-tweaking monochromatic forest landscape Black Square and her heavily impastoed Blue Cheer, a verging-on-abstract depiction of a treeline reflected in rippling water— don’t suddenly become postmodern interrogations of the authorial “I” by being hung next to her sketches and small-scale portraits. Conversely, Reyle’s oddly scaled crazy-quilt collage-paintings and squiggly neon clusters are short on aesthetic chops and long on formulaic pluralism. McMillian’s miscellany seems more organic, but I wish some of his more outré “paintings” — especially those incorporating sections of filthy old carpeting — had been included, if only to bolster the strength of his most painterly work here — the limp, collapsed cutout The Supreme Court Painting.
Probably the most successful embodiment of the exhibit’s thesis is found in the first gallery, occupied by Whitney-bound local Mark Grotjahn. Grotjahn’s — ahem — signature butterfly pieces appear here in their recently improved monochromatic incarnation, as well as a large-scale example of the clumsy flower paintings based on his shrink granddad’s drawings, a selection of cardboard masks, and one or two of his recent ethno-psychedelic Face paintings. In this case, the sum of the parts is truly synergistic. Yet conspicuously absent is documentation of his most interesting effort to explore the boundaries of painting practice — the ongoing Sign-Exchange Project where he trades his own professionally painted re-creations of “Don’t Ask for Credit” or “This Isn’t a Library” signage for local merchants’ originals.
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Although the subtle variegation within his oeuvre is hardly manifesto-thumping, Ivan Morley is the clear breakout talent in this show. Obsessively crafted, conceptually quixotic and formally dazzling, Morley’s peculiar illustration-souvenir-artifacts are based on shaggy-dog tales about shiploads of cats or windblown bullets (unarticulated in this installation) but operate at the intersecting vectors of any number of pop-culture and art-historical narratives. Incorporating technically accomplished kitschy-crafts like embroidery and batik and ranging from all-over abstraction to Lowbrow-quoting faux signage, Morley’s paintings are simultaneously laser-sharp and category-blurring. Rather than wearing their multiple personalities on their sleeve, they compress them into a deeply funny, deeply critical, deeply decorative gumbo that acknowledges and embraces the mundane schizophrenia of art and life.
While “Painting in Tongues” is largely successful in endorsing the idea that painting has this kind of potential, it isn’t hard to find equal or better exemplars of its curatorial premise out on the streets. Linda Stark’s recent show at Angles consisted of three discrete bodies of work in her laboriously built-up bas-relief oil painting style, including process-designed curtains of bug-clogged “amber,” a chamber of overhead pyramid landscapes, and a roomful of larger hypnotic iconic “Oracle” images of the artist’s mother(The Lady in the Lake) and the artist’s late pet cat (Samantha), a vortex of black widow markings, and the back of the head of a cobra.
Simultaneously, in what could almost be read as a parody of the widespread curatorial need to support painting with neon crutches, John Kilduff — cable-access host of Let’s Paint TV and now a UCLA graduate student — staged an awesome performance during the school’s quarterly grad reviews in Culver City. Addressing the crowd with the same enthusiasm that makes his TV show so refreshing, Kilduff did a live demo easel painting from an enormous, naked male model sprawled in a chair and clutching a sword — while jogging on an exercise treadmill. This month brings solo exhibits of two of L.A.’s most gifted dissociative painters — Mark Dutcher at The Office in Orange County, and Steve Roden at Susanne Vielmetter. But for those who want the quintessential experience of virtuosic visual Babel, hold out for MOCA’s spring retrospective of the Combine paintings of Robert Rauschenberg, an artist whose outer inconsistency is matched only by his transcendent inclusiveness. And close to the top of my desert island list.
Painting in Tongues | Museum of Contemporary Art | 250 S. Grand Ave., dwntwn. | Through April 17