In a contemporary art scene that's come to be dominated by interactive social practices and the ephemerality of performance and site-specific installation, it's become fashionable in certain circles to dismiss painting — the ultimate manifestation of the old-school preoccupation with static, venerated objects — as irrelevant and out of place. How can a simple painting possibly engage an audience like social practice does, or surprise/challenge its viewers like performance or installation?
Inveterate painters Joshua Aster and Kristin Calabrese have come up with one intriguing answer to these questions: organize a group exhibition of “Unfinished Paintings” by peers they admire, and show it at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), a nonprofit art space known for experimental programming.
Through brainstorming and networking, the couple (who also have works in the show) have assembled a collection of 38 paintings that are considered unfinished by their artists — perhaps these are failed pieces, or pieces currently in progress, or pieces that have been lying around the studio for years without quite coming to fruition.
Each painting in the show falls into the same medium-size range, and all are hung in a continuous row around the circumference of LACE's main gallery. They are also hung in alphabetical order according to each artist's first name (thus painting no. 1 is by Alex Grey and painting no. 38 is by Xylor Jane). This flat, systematic installation, according to Calabrese, was devised to put the focus on the paintings, not on their arrangement in the gallery.
Like Mat Gleason's Tel-Art-Phone show, which was reviewed here a few weeks ago, Unfinished Paintings succeeds in re-invigorating the exhibition format by making aspects of the artmaking process transparent to the viewer. Tel-Art-Phone, in which artists made their pieces in response to other artists' work, invited viewers to observe the morphing of ideas and motifs as they leapt from the hands of one artist to the next.
In “Unfinished Paintings,” you are led to a multitude of questions both philosophical and prosaic. What stage is this painting at? Why is it considered unfinished? Why did the artist choose to show this particular piece? What will it look like when it's finished? What does it mean for a work of art to be finished?
If you are familiar with the artist, you might reflect on the work that you know and compare it to the piece in front of you. If you don't know the artist, you might be inspired to seek out some work that they consider finished. Both “Tel-Art-Phone” and “Unfinished Paintings” are notable for curatorial concepts that make the artist's process accessible, and that inspire dialogue and engagement.
Cary Smith's Splat #3 (Green) is one of the most clearly legible pieces in the show. It's a simple rendition of a white shape on green, reminiscent of American mid-century abstractions by the likes of Karl Benjamin or Lorser Feitelson. One discreet corner has been left unpainted, turning the contours of the shape into a line drawing on white. Interestingly, Smith received an offer on this painting at the show's opening reception, and last we heard, he was planning to sell it as-is. In a way, this completes the painting, but not in the way the artist originally intended.
Graphically speaking, Loren Munk's Ferus Gallery, Its Artists and North La Cienega Boulevard would appear to be finished, with its clean outlines and vivid colors. But the image functions as a narrative, which is never quite complete. And sure enough, at the opening reception, Munk got to talking with someone who knew the Ferus Gallery scene intimately and told him about many details that were left out of his painting. Munk now plans to add what he learned that night to the work. A New York-based artist and critic, Munk also happens to be the man behind the well-regarded James Kalm Report, a long-running series of video art reports on YouTube.
Noah Davis' Self-Portrait and Salomon Huerta's Study for Black Nude, situated next to each other, make for an interesting pair of works. Davis' bleary figure, its details not yet defined, appears to be emerging slowly out of the abyss of a black background, most likely to assume the shape of a relatively traditional self-portrait.
Huerta's piece, which consists of a light sketch of a reclining female nude accompanied by taped-on scrap images from magazines, evokes the playful irony of John Baldessari's early photo manipulations, and could be mistaken for a completed conceptual work. But the real irony, divulged to me by Calabrese, is that Huerta, who is known for his richly realized paintings, is actually “still looking for a black model to fit this pose,” as he has scribbled on the canvas.
I do love the fact that this dynamic, intriguing exhibition is taking place at LACE, a progressive space with a highly varied program that rarely includes typical object-based shows. If LACE is going to do a painting show, this open-ended project is the way to go. In Calabrese's words, “Unfinished Paintings” circumvents normative judgments of “good” or “bad” — generating instead questions of why, how, where and when.
Coincidentally, LACE's front gallery is now featuring a commissioned site-specific work by Margie Livingston titled Twenty Gallons. Festooning the inside of the archway leading from the front gallery to the main gallery, this piece is made out of 20 gallons of poured acrylic paint, which were sliced into candy-like strips and arranged on the surface of the archway. Enlivening its surroundings, Twenty Gallons is a beautiful and vibrant work that dialogues nicely with the collection of unfinished paintings on the other side.