Book Reviews: Peter Schjeldahl / The Village Voice


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Friedrich Petzel Gallery

26 Wooster Street

Through February 24

New York is so great. The other day in the Petzel Gallery I ran into art-folk acquaintances, and we fell to burbling about topics in the Times science section that morning: the identification of a "brain in the digestive tract and a theory of how the brain in the head forms and edits "stories" about reality. We agreed that, yawn, we knew all that already. As aesthetes, we study neurology in ourselves all the time. Could scientists save trouble by consulting art criticism? Sure.

It was giddy talk with a beat to it that talk in galleries often has. Art can be a rhythm machine for thinking about anything, to which it lends conjectural chutzpah: endorsing gut feelings and cerebral fictions. Plato deplored poets for giving us experiences of truth minus the truth. Artists are even better, or more deplorable, at this because they do it with truly existing stuff. Art sets your gears spinning, and in New York you always meet somebody to mesh with.

At Petzel, there is a spectacle conducive to physiological gossip, among other joys. Critic and curator Joshua Decter has mounted a painting show of big names and strong newcomers, 32 in all. Smallish paintings are densely hung in suites that generate formal rhymes and thematic notions. Decter supplements the art with a video, on two monitors, that montages shots of the hanging with media-derived images and with passages of writing, by himself, that propose analogies between painting and television. To press the point, there is a TV set tuned to regular broadcasting.

Ambitious small galleries relish this type of group show, which whips up a nice promotional froth by convening artists with different art-world constituencies that may turn out to make the opening a swell party, if nothing else. Such shows churn reputations in ways that entertain reputation watchers while smacking inevitably of commercial jockeying. Despite its novel conceit, Decter`s "Screen" departs in no essential from the genre of these things, of which several occur during any given month in New York. But it`s a wow.

Decter, 33, belongs to a generation of art intellectuals who came of age in the 1980s with more education than anyone knew what to do with. Critics schooled in rigor entered a money-besotted scene whose use for intelligence was slovenly when not cynical. If repelled, they could join anticommercial academic movements marked by puritanical rigidities and unreadable prose. Or else they could simply wander around bumping into things--by sheer luck, an ideal preparation for the `90s, whose rule seems to be that everything shall happen incessantly to everybody.

Implosive in the `90s, the active art scene is regrouping around low-profile galleries, where it usually does best and where the picture-literate services of a Decter come in handy to frame snapshot reflections of current practice. "Screen" is an exceedingly discriminating show, though hardly contemplative. It is like a pinball machine whose careening sphere is your attention. Amazingly, nearly all of the works light up smartly when struck--a tribute to Decter`s selectivity and, beyond that, to his flair for staging contests between artworks in which each wins by the nose of its unique vitality.

The big news of "Screen" is a sense of collective energy and even common cause among painters of widely disparate generations and factions. What do Gerhard Richter and Alex Katz have in common with each other, let alone with kids like Elizabeth Peyton and Gary Simmons? Talent, this show suggests, and distinctive solutions to the problem of making a pigmented rectangle hold its own intelligently and beautifully in a world grown hostile to painting. We are informed how painting lives now: grittily, tough-mindedly, with aggressive pizzazz.

The show unfolds a spectrum of styles from materials-based, object-like abstraction through conceptual, politically tinged sign-making to romantically irritable figuration. The hanging`s modulations of sensibility, shifting aesthetic tone and emotional temperature along the walls, are terrifically pleasurable. Again, what`s remarkable is a feeling that all these artists are reading from the same page of history, up against the same challenges--notably including a glutted visual environment dominated by television.

Decter suggests that today painting happens in a continuum of visual experience with television, not preciously removed from it. The two mediums offer different velocities of seeing: he writes, in service to "absorption and distraction" (painting) and "distraction and absorption" (TV). This is not a heavyweight idea, as Decter knows, modestly terming his proposition of it "a rhetorical gesture. But jamming painting against television pays off here, if only by exasperating the show`s paintings into declamations of their obdurately nontelevisual powers.

Nothing but a painting gives us a world of thought and feeling at a glance and then holds us, with surges of complicated pleasure, over time. The time may be brief, as with a painted verbal joke by Richard Prince or Glenn Ligon (two artists provocatively juxtaposed), or extended, as with an intricately jazzy Lari Pittman or a caressingly lovely Udomsak Krisanamis that gives the feel of a nocturnal cityscape without describing anything. But the time is directed and full, unlike the torpid Bermuda Triangle of looking that is television.

"Screen" favors abstraction, but its group of figurative work is a particular treat. Decter discovers unexpected sympathies among brooding pictures by youngsters Peyton, John Currin, and Luc Tuymans and signature works by veterans Katz (a portrait of poet Vincent Katz) and Richard Artschwager (a gorgeous black-and-white vortex). Helping to bring it off is the interjected clang of a strident abstract by Peter Halley, whose slick barbarity forces the figure painters to one another`s defense.

Other artists weighing in to remarkably good effect are Alexis Rockman, Sue Williams, Jonathan Lasker, Mary Heilmann, and Laura Owens. A fantastic little Sigmar Polke joins the crowd like a touring jazz great sitting in, with radiant magnanimity, on a local jam session. Meanwhile, there really isn`t a single clunker in the show, a fact so surprising I had to check repeatedly before accepting it.

One last news item before I end in the way appropriate to "Screen"--breaking off in the middle of a conversation soon to be resumed. Smallishness (roughly, less than three feet per dimension) is a hot physical condition of painting now. This show`s compact units do not feel like minor works by the artists represented. On the contrary, they feel like the cutting-edge real deal. Our culture seems to have run out of patience, and thus out of walls, for big paintings. Maybe we need painting to hunker down toward the size of TV screens, the better to battle their baleful spell. At any rate, now is the time to invest in easel futores.

COPYRIGHT: Copyright Village Voice Feb 13, 1996. Provided by Proquest- CSA, LLC. All Rights Reserved. Only fair use as provided by the United States copyright law is permitted.

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Friedrich Petzel Gallery, 18th Street - USA / New York / Chelsea
Friedrich Petzel Gallery, 18th Street
456 W 18th Street
Chelsea - New York, NY, USA
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