In Search of the Worst Painting on the Lower East Side, December 19, 2020
7. Justine Neuberger & Yasmin Kaytmaz - Night Shift - 17 Essex - ****.5
Coming securely in last place as the least worst paintings I surveyed are those by Justine Neuberger. I'm always harping on about the need for a reinstatement of traditional forms in art, and this is exactly what I have in mind. Rather than a superficial approach to historical painting that makes itself explicit by, I don't know, recreating a Fra Angelico with "modern techniques," Neuberger's work is grounded in a technical classicism that doesn't rely on referentiality for its effect. In a word, her painting is expressive, which is precisely what painting should be and now so rarely is. Her use of pictorial space, texture, weight, color, etc., is a means to an infinite end: the sensitive articulation of paint as a medium. One painting recalls Da Vinci's Virgin of the Rocks, another Cézanne's Bathers, a third a scene of heaven out of Tiepolo or Tintoretto, but this is done not by copying these artists but by achieving similar formal effects. One could accuse her figures of being slightly cartoonish, but to do so would be to misunderstand the history of European painting. Artists learned their figures from paintings and engravings as much as they did from life.* Representation is a skill that aspires towards expression of objects through paint, not photorealistic imitation. 4.5 stars only because the show would have been better without Yasmin Kaytmaz's sculptures, even though they're good.
6. Kim Jones - RATS LIVE ON NO EVIL STAR - Bridget Donahue - ****
Sympathetically twisted art. Unlike younger artists that tastelessly fetishize abjection, the darkness here seems to be an earnest fact. The figuration is done with care and a deep sense of iteration that nears the energy of an outsider artist but without the naïveté. This is psychological work driven by a compulsive need, honest in a way that's impossible for artists who were taught in college to stitch conceptual justifications onto everything.
5. Amanda Boulos, Peter Dreher, Dominique Fung, Louisa Gagliardi, Molly A. Greene, Stephanie Temma Hier, Greg Ito, Vincent Larouche, Kenny Rivero, Water Robinson, Samantha Rosenwald, and Brittney Leeanne Wiliams - This Sacred Vessel (Pt. 3) - Arsenal Contemporary Art - ***.5
I was expecting this to be terrible but it's not too bad. It's basically a still life show, food, flowers, and domestic objects painted in a wide range of ways. What's interesting is how the show palpably displays our collective void of meaning; no matter how hard each of these artists tries to imbue their objects with significance by their "singular" painting styles, they just succeed in underscoring how arbitrary it all is. Regardless, most of it is pretty alright. A few are bad, for instance Peter Dreher's six water glasses are from an iterative project where he painted the same glass over 5000 times, which is impressive in the way that a hot dog eating contest champion is impressive. The press release makes some ludicrous claims about the works being about time, nostalgia, Asian femininity, anxiety, etc., which I won't hold against the artists. Even if they actually do believe that rhetoric about their own work it's the fault of that college mindset that Kim Jones doesn't have.
4. Clark Filio - Heaven Ship - King's Leap - ***
Filio can obviously paint but, like the fantasy artists he loves, his technique is more about a polished veneer than attention to detail. It's aestheticized, less concerned with nuance than the overall image. Similarly, the vague political dimension given to his bucolic landscape piece (inspired by a Le Guinn novel) by using his DSA organizer friends as models invokes the political mode of aestheticization, ideology. An idea of an agrarian communist future is just as flat and escapist as ideas of sci-fi space stations and sexy demon women, and I'm categorically against the suggestion that such fantasies instantiate a kernel of the possible outside of the real. The utopian is trite; imagination is a sleight of hand that tricks the mind into accepting a dolled-up replica of reality as something other than itself. An idealized dream is no substitute for material analysis, just as a porn-y nude, a romantic vista, or outer space, i.e. images of the unbounded, are substitutes for the sublime. Sublimity in painting does not come from showing an image of a mountaintop, it is the subtlety of invention with paint that gives one a glimpse of the unbounded potential within the bounded space of the canvas. That fleeting impression is the closest we can come to utopia, a thought that moves us like the real view from the top of a mountain.
3. Greg Ito - Life's A Trip - Arsenal Contemporary Art - *.5
It took me a minute to figure out why this felt so outdated and stale, then I realized this is just a shameless ripoff of Alex Da Corte. If you're going to bite someone, why him? All these flat, illustrative images of keyholes, hands, spiders, candles, crows, are incredibly trite. I wonder if he's a Scorpio.
2. Blake Rayne - Dog Ears - Miguel Abreu - *.5
It's around here that the question of "worst" gets complicated, or just arbitrary. Is bad abstraction worse than a style that was trendy six years ago? This and Greg Ito's show are both bad because they're vacant and dull. Most art is boring, so passing judgment on what show is one more degree of boring than another begs the question of what the point of the exercise is, or if I actually care enough to have an opinion on it, a problem that's obviously integral to the whole enterprise of these reviews. You can do worse than boring, but it's perhaps surprising how rare truly bad art is in a sea of the middling. At any rate, these abstract paintings are made "through the use of different iterations of the fold," and I don't really get what that means but apparently that's how he makes the diamond shapes on the canvas. Also, "these paintings can be understood as markers of expansions and compressions in time," because they look like dog-eared pages of a book, I guess. I don't get that either, I'd need someone smarter (or stupider?) than me to explain it. It doesn't matter though because they look like shit. The color palate seems almost arbitrary too. That's why Blake wins out over Greg, this is actually pretty ugly where Greg's show is just lame.
1. Jamian Juliano-Villani - Mrs. Evan Williams - JTT - *
Here we are, our big winner, easily the most fucked paintings I've seen in a long time. I'll be blunt: why would anyone like this? I like abjection less than most of you freaks but this is just so wholly unpleasant that I can't stand it. The hellish non-sequitur logic is applied to an indulgently disgusting sensibility and ends up feeling affectively like getting hit in the head with a brick. I spent a long time trying to think of what this gleeful dysphoria made me think of, all I came up with is someone who thinks smoking crack is cool or your worst drunk friend which, considering the title, might not be too far off the mark. It's like the Royal Trux of art I guess, but I never liked them even when I was a noise-rock teenager because I've never had the impression that dissolute stupidity leads to anything interesting. In person the paintings have clear technical problems, faces and details clash because the more detailed portions are overworked in contrast to the background. The "sculptures" of a stepladder, a pencil sharpener, a pillow, and a microwave are just crassly stupid in what I can only assume is a joke on the mixed media painting trend that died out years ago, but I don't see the humor. It's almost compelling, boundaries are being pushed and the work arrives at some kind of uniqueness, but the push is entirely in the most horrible direction possible. What's strange is that this is closer to good art than your average anonymous commercial gallery art and simultaneously so, so much worse. My personal choice for the very worst painting in all of the Lower East Side is Give It To Someone Else, whose combination of Raquel Welch, the State Emblem of the Soviet Union, a snail with teeth, a sort of pie monster, some inexplicable blue patches, all over a choppily painted ocean, is made even worse by the press release's insistence that Raquel Welch is a feminist icon and that Juliano-Villani's work has some connection to Soviet nonconformist art because Rutgers has a big collection.
* For an enjoyable example, compare the figures in the lower right of Marcantonio Raimondi's Judgment of Paris with Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe.