Neo-News Is No News: The Broken Mirror

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It was hard to tell what this exhibition was trying to be. A showcase for the already familiar? A legitimization exercise for painting generally, or for this particular group of painters (even though the works presented did not hang together, either perceptually or conceptually, and in fact were wildly discrepant)? At best, the show proved only the pluralism of painting today, saying little about its value and sidestepping the problem of ranking the artists included by any critical criteria whatsoever.

The curators--Kasper Konig and Hans-Ulrich Obrist--said they wanted to eschew the "Besserwisserei" or "We-know-better-than-you-do" mentality, and to avoid creating a hierarchy. But the result, rather than the archaeological layering of various approaches to painting they seemed to be after, was chaos. In any event, the process of selection itself inevitably set up a hierarchy of insiders versus outsiders--the most tedious, irrelevant of curatorial cliches. The painters shown became representative of the current painting situation only because they were selected for the exhibition. Their relationship to one another within the spectrum of painterly possibilities was never spelled out.

While Konig and Obrist seemed to believe that they were proposing a new view of painting, the criteria for admission were all too familiar. In the words of Paul Virilio (quoted in the catalogue introduction), "The mirror which art used to be able to hold up to reality has been broken." That happened over a century ago. "Painting in the course of the twentieth century has been intent on questioning its own premises." Why is questioning still privileged over answering, especially when the same old questions are asked? Why is self-doubt better than self-assertion, self-effacement better than a brave new face, even if it is the product of plastic surgery? Why is painting about painting better than painting that reflects the world, especially if it does so in a new way? Can painting still be "caught between the traditional form and the rule-breaking impulses of modern art" when all the rules have been broken and traditional form has become meaningless, except when it is appropriated for modern purposes, usually without being understood? The curators seemed to be unaware that the Modern has become traditional. (This is part of what it means to be post-Modern--to traffic in irony and fragmentation; to privilege concept over percept; and to repress beauty, all in the name of a new authoritarian academy.)

The exhibition's motto, a quote from French writer Jean Paulhan, captures the jadedness and tepid hopefulness that informed the exhibition: "Everything has been said; but words change their meanings and meanings change words." The fact of the matter is that everything has not been said--certainly not in science, whatever rut art and the humanities are in--and the interplay between words and meanings that Paulhan talks about isn't enlightening, just clever.

Anyway, here's what did and didn't impress me. Some artists--Francesco Clemente, Malcolm Morley, and Edward Ruscha--were predictably present with works that were meant to make an impact, and they certainly did, even if in ways predictable for the artists. And there were magnificent, not entirely predictable works--however familiar their ingredients--by "old masters. …