Painting is back

Shunned for two decades as 'decorative,' works on canvas resume their place.

Those who didn't know that painting was out of favor may be amused to learn they are so far behind that they're in the vanguard again.

In the past two decades, cutting-edge galleries and museums have focused on everything but painting. The halls were chockablock with installations, photo-based work, conceptual art, new media, and digital and video art.

But a fundamental shift has taken place. For a survey exhibition of contemporary work at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Charlotta Kotik and her cocurator looked at thousands of works by emerging artists. Ultimately 198 artists from Brooklyn - the current hot spot for new work - were chosen for the show, which teems with works in oil, acrylic, and watercolor.

"The taste of the art world is changing," Ms. Kotik says. "Suddenly painting is allowed to exist again."

"We're living in an extremely fruitful and exciting time for those captivated by contemporary art," says Dan Cameron, senior curator at New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art. "I've been in the trenches for 20 years, and there's more good art being produced in more places than I can remember at any one time. We're in a sort of Golden Age."

No one claims painting ever disappeared. But the critical spotlight had shifted, leaving its practitioners in the dark.

The first hint of this demise came in the late 1960s, when the conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth declared painting dead. When it revived in the 1980s with neo-Expressionist painters like Anselm Kiefer, Julian Schnabel, and Eric Fischl, Mr. Kosuth remarked that it was still dying but taking longer than expected.

In the 1990s, his prediction seemed true as paintings became conspicuously absent from the forefront of critical discussion. Theory, more than objects, prevailed.

"Photography was pervasive, and before that, installation was ubiquitous," says Nicholas Baume, chief curator at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art.

Now that painting's been declared "undead," the question arises: Can an art form that's been around for centuries still express the zeitgeist? Or "Is it a vampire, feeding off the blood of its history?" as John Weber, curator of education and public programs at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, puts it.

In other words, is the new painting more about nostalgia - a throwback to a time of greater stability - or is it vital and original, shaking up one's assumptions and forcing the viewer to feel and think about the present?

It depends upon whom you ask.

"They are not tackling very difficult issues, although they are first-rate stylists," Robert Storr, professor of modern art at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts, says of the new painters.

Professor Storr sees none of the younger generation attacking social injustice like the established painters Gerhard Richter or Leon Golub. "New narrative paintings by younger artists are not addressed to large world problems. The new work is much more antiheroic or deliberately modest in ambition."

But some aren't afraid to tackle issues in the headlines. Terry Marks, a committed figurative painter who has a solo show at Brooklyn's Koi Gallery through June 2 certainly feels that impetus. "I saw the Towers fall on 9/11," she says. "It was a huge kick in the pants to get on with important stuff. It's now or never."

The new artists merge the political with the pictorial. In their quest to make painting communicate modern complexity, they twist art history in new directions. L.C. Armstrong's painting at the Brooklyn Museum, "Approaching Storm - Paradise," portrays tropical flowers that bloom out of barbed, black stems. It's a fantasy landscape with overtones of disaster. She creates the thorny stems by burning bomb fuses on canvas. Ms. Armstrong describes her work as a "post-apocalyptic, floral, resurgent Eden," with the flowers as metaphors for the indomitable human spirit.

"There's a sense of urgency to reflect and understand the world we live in today," says Tumelo Mosaka, who cocurated the Brooklyn Museum's "Open House: Working in Brooklyn" (on display through Aug. 15). "What does it mean to make art? What's its social impact?"

That doesn't mean that the current crop of painters is out to save the world, says Shamim Momin, cocurator of the 2004 Whitney Biennial. Yet she insists their art can be activist. "The art made now shows an openness, plurality, purpose, and passion that's against simplistic conservatism," she says.

Paintings in the Whitney Biennial, Ms. Momin says, are "visually engaging but have serious political content, which may be coded or buried."

But it's not just canvases with a message making a comeback. Decorative quality is no longer anathema. According to Gary Stephan, who teaches at New York's School of Visual Arts: "The young generation's mantra is: 'What I'm doing is decorative and that doesn't bother me.' "

"Beauty was a dirty word in contemporary art," Ms. Kotik says. "You were considered not appropriate if you painted something beautiful, but now beauty is coming back."

In terms of aesthetics, the new painting style forges no single movement or "ism." Abstract and figurative work, as well as stylized, flat images influenced by Japanese anime, abound. What many have in common is a lush, seductive, sensual surface.

The overall impact of handmade paintings exhibiting personal gesture, bravura craft, and lush texture provides relief to people steeped in the virtual world of digital media or the sleek surface of photography, film, and video. Some artists say their work is a reaction against the slick, high-tech production popular in recent years.

In the '90s, art was self-consciously artful and elitist, infused with strategies of deconstruction, distancing irony, and cynicism. Now artists feel free to inject emotion and messages into their work, even though the content may be veiled.

The new painting - whether narrative, figurative, abstract, decorative, or somewhere in between - aims to trace a middle path between highbrow and low.

"It's like a return to pleasure," says Mr. Baume. "Earnestness and intellectualism can feel unrewarding in terms of the senses. You'd have to be a real grouch not to acknowledge a place for pleasure in the visual arts."

Like the novelist John Steinbeck or film director Alfred Hitchcock, today's painting desires a large audience but has a larger purpose: combining beauty and passion in an authentic attempt to picture our world. And that's an exciting prospect for younger artists.

Painter Christopher Reiger, who received his MFA from the School of Visual Arts in 2002, used to feel marginalized in art classes, where three-quarters of the students worked in video or sculptural installations. "I sometimes felt I was painting myself into a corner," he recalls. Now he's represented by the Jeff Bailey Gallery in Chelsea, N.Y.

Canvases offer a unique form of communication with the viewer, he says.

"A painting combines the solitude and absorption of reading with the visual punch of a good movie."

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