Don Voisine, Ava, 2006. Oil on wood panel, 50" x 40."
Every now and then I see a show that gives me a boost just in the nick of time. "Progress" at the Whitney was not such such a show. As I stood in front of Paul Sietsema's 2002 dollhouse diorama of Clement Greenberg's living room, complete with Paintings I Like, I thought: "Wow, like, fuck. How many more years do you think it will be possible to have the main part of your artistic practice consist of sneering at Modernism? Wasn't this settled, oh, about thirty years ago? Or more?"
I left the Whitney with that singular feeling of the blues that I get when I've seen yet another show of murky, aesthetically neutral art. Then I cut over to Fifth Ave. and ambled uptown to the National Academy to see their 183rd Annual Exhibition, which I had heard good things about and which comes down in a week. This is where I got the boost I was needing.
There it was, painting after painting, without apology and mainly sans ctritique, and much of it quite marvelous. David Reed's #528 from 2003-'05 showed his characteristic razzle-dazzle: the unexpected color combinations, the weirdly photographic transparency, and that freewheeling gesture which paradoxically never looks like it was made by a person. It was especially nice to see that he doesn't require big scale to make a painting fully engaging. He's a modern master.
Don Voisine's Ava from 2006 used black on black to create a constantly flipping figure then ground then hole-in-the-support type of space which refused to give a stable account of itself. It yielded up a surprising amount of surprises given the wholly Spartan vocabulary the painter employs. David Leka's highly disciplined use of color and geometry was balanced beautifully by a painterly depiction of warm, swelling light in Placid Motion from 2005. A Google search of the artist indicates that he's a young guy, and this is always a good sign - the health of any creative activity can be pretty accurately gauged by the number of talented young people who want to participate in it.
And the list goes on; there were nice entries from David Collins (Klaxon Call, 2008), Jeanette Fintz (Turnabout #1, 2006), Andrea Champlin (Huddle, 2006), Bill Scott (Winter Garden, 2008), Leah Montalto (two untitled canvases from 2007), Melissa Meyer (Klothko, 2008), Barbara Takenaga (Angel [Pink], 2008), David Berger (Sky Over Roses, 2007), Lisa Hamilton (Wrapped, 2007), plus others that I'm sure I'm forgetting. So much to like.
I think that the reason painting survives despite the near-constant drone that it's dead is its unique ability to synthesize whatever ideas are in the air at a given time. The digital obviously loomed large over this particular show, which is not surprising since much computer generated imagery bears a strong resemblance to geometric abstraction but without the baggage. But that's not to say it was all glowing color and masking tape, either; there was gesture, representation, impasto, and many of the other enduring motives and techniques associated with ordinary painting materials. As long as there are good painters, painting will keep reinventing itself, and none of the funereal chants will matter a bit.
It was really great to see all this stuff together, especially after the Whitney. I'm tired of crummy-looking art, and I think a lot of other people are, too. The National Academy show stays up until September 7th, and I highly recommend it.