PX – A Purposeless Production/A Necessary Praxis; PX – Snow Falls In The Mountains Without Wind

Genevieve Allison, Guy Benfield, James Cousins, Simon Glaister, Kerstin Gottschalk, Katharina Grosse, Simon Ingram, Imi Knoebel, Tumi Magnusson, Paul McCarthy, Judy Millar, Ben Morieson, Gerhard Richter, Nedko Solakov | Whitney Bedford, Richard Bryant,
St Paul Street Gallery, AUT, Auckland
22 August - 14 September 2007; 20 September - 12 October 2007 (respectively)

In his introduction to a panel discussion on painting, Thick and Thin (2003), Robert Storr speaks of painting metaphorically as ‘a big and oddly configured’ house; a ‘once grand but still liveable hotel’.1 Considering this analogy, one cannot help but imagine the first exhibition in ‘PX’, Leonhard Emmerling’s ‘A Purposeless Production/A Necessary Praxis’, as a rather rowdy tenant, spending all its time arguing in the hallways or beating down the walls, but stubbornly refusing to move out (maybe even secretly enjoying itself). On the other hand, Jan Bryant’s contribution, ‘Snow Falls In The Mountains Without Wind’, seems happy in its sprawling and ill-defined residence, perhaps throwing the odd party to celebrate it, but for the most part taking only what it needs and quietly going about its business.

Held over two months at St Paul Street Gallery, ‘PX’ was to be read as one exhibition presented in two parts with an abiding interest in creating a dialogue that would benefit both constituent shows and a wider discussion about contemporary painting. A daunting and perilous task by all accounts, considering the inexhaustible flow of debate around the medium’s status, and the growing resistance to those overbearing discourses. What eventuated were two very different shows that divided along lines of approach—both curatorial approach and approach to painting itself.

While the accompanying text to ‘A Purposeless Production/A Necessary Praxis’ heralded a return to the modernist debate about painting’s status as bourgeois commodity, as ‘purposeless production’, the show did not appear to follow this mandate and, in practice, read more as an inquest into certain relationships and attitudes contemporary painting has with/to its embattled history.

The main gallery, dimly lit and noisy, was the site of the infectious, almost irresistible, rigour that not only defined but became the source of both power and problems for Emmerling’s show. Taken together, Paul McCarthy’s Painter, Simon Glaister’s kinetic chairs and Guy Benfield’s videoed performances felt stifling in their referentiality, and the subtleties of surrounding works were drowned in their gleeful didacticism. The usually endearing and fragile balance between ambivalence for tradition and affection for paint was lost from both Judy Millar’s Abstract Expressionist-style canvasses and James Cousins’ soft-focus dot matrix grid landscapes. And quieter, less guarded works, like Imi Knoebel’s Projection X, were all but forgotten in the mêlée.

The more gratifying pieces in ‘A Purposeless Production/A Necessary Praxis’ were those that managed to evade the noisy shouts of dissent from their neighbours. Simon Ingram’s painting machine was perhaps the only work in the main gallery that did not suffer and his large linen canvas retained its mesmerising tension between the alluring viscosity of the paint and its mechanical application. Nedko Solakov’s ironic, glib play on the myth of Abstract Expressionism (a large patch of yellow in the foyer accompanied by the text ‘I ordered this yellow blob from the exhibition assistant but later forgot the reason for this’) was a welcome respite from the abject, antagonistic humour of McCarthy and Benfield. And in the smaller gallery Millar’s and Cousins’ work regained their charm and Kerstin Gottschalk’s humble staple gunned blue dots provided a pleasing scale counterpoint to Katharina Grosse’s large, brightly coloured faux dirt pile that graced the entrance way.

The title of the second exhibition, ‘Snow Falls In The Mountains Without Wind’, is a line from Dante’s Inferno discussed by Italo Calvino in his chapter ‘On Lightness’ in Six Memos For the Next Millennium. In this particular passage Calvino compares the line to a very similar phrase in Guido Cavalcanti—‘snow falling without wind’—and argues that, while both suggest a ‘light, silent movement’, the concepts represented are very different. According to Calvino, with the addition of ‘mountains’ the language and imagery gains ‘consistency and stability’ while Cavalcanti’s remains a ‘suspended abstraction’. We know the snow to be truly light in Dante’s version because weight is ‘precisely established’.2

Similarly, Bryant’s show greatly benefited from following Emmerling’s; the lightness of touch that it favoured starkly contrasted the weightier rigour of its predecessor and it gained consistency and cohesion from the conversation. Despite presenting a wide range of styles and strategies, ‘Snow Falls In The Mountains Without Wind’ effectively managed to break down its weighty subject and offer a morsel of what contemporary painting might feel like—a shared sensibility marked by humour, modesty, wit and of course, lightness.

For the most part humble in tone, the works attempted to scratch out a place for themselves in painting’s history and assert their independence. And herein lies the power of Bryant’s show—it offered up a refreshing version of contemporary painting that relied on the strength of its individual practices. While it may not have had the immediate impact or sparked as much debate as the first show, ‘Snow Falls In The Mountains Without Wind’ was perhaps more optimistic—it spoke less of what painting was and more of what it can be, making room for potential change and growth.

In saying that, Bryant’s show was not ignorant or naïve of painting’s abiding conventions, nor did it labour its relationship with them. In fact, much of the work found ample resource in traditional modernist concerns of surface, image, illusion and material. Having begun life as chocolate box landscapes or paint-by-numbers, Saskia Leek’s small pastel canvasses are, via a series of re-paints and removals, distilled to their essential painterly components of tone, composition and stillness until they cease to look like anything but themselves. Nearby, Patrick Lundberg’s delicate engraving, the pattern derived from the architectural configuration of its surroundings, did quiet violence to the institutional wall while the precision of the artist’s process was unravelled by the contingency of his materials. At the entrance to the large gallery, Dil Hildebrand’s hypnotic series of receding frames put the viewer into an abyss of impossible perspective only to be pulled back by the fabricated glint on the canvas surface that pointed to the presence of both imaginary framing device and viewer.

Meanwhile in the main gallery, three luminous canvasses from Richard Bryant complemented the loud, exaggerated artificiality of the Michel Majerus piece, What Looks Good Today May Not Look Good Tomorrow. Using torn pages from magazines (usually fashion and bodybuilding) as subject matter, Richard Bryant made an attempt to reconcile the glossy’s immediacy and disposability with painting’s distance and autonomy. The failure to bridge the gap only intensified the effects of the painting process, and the resulting abstract surfaces displayed a healthy reverence for the act.

In retrospect, the two parts of ‘PX’ undoubtedly benefited from their proximity. In healthy opposition, each highlighted the strengths the subtleties of the other’s approach. What was perhaps most rewarding about the endeavour was that the exhibitions together evidenced a medium, despite the interrogations and battle scars, showing no signs of fatigue—whether looking backwards or forwards, hitting the ground heavily or lightly.

notes: 

1. Robert Storr, ‘Thick and Thin’, Artforum, April 2003, p.176.

2. Italo Calvino, Six Memos For The Next Millennium, London: Vintage, 1996, pp.14-15.