Magazine article Art Monthly

A Fugitive Calculation: Can Art Be Simultaneously Anachronistic and Yet Current Asks Adam E Mendelsohn

Magazine article Art Monthly

A Fugitive Calculation: Can Art Be Simultaneously Anachronistic and Yet Current Asks Adam E Mendelsohn

Article excerpt

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WHEN I ORIGINALLY ENCOUNTERED MICHAEL WETZEL'S PAINTINGS SEVERAL YEARS AGO--PICTURES OF EXQUISITELY PATTERNED WAR TENTS PITCHED ON STATELY GROUNDS--I WAS SLIGHTLY THROWN BECAUSE THEY SEEMED ANACHRONISTIC AND CURRENT AT THE SAME TIME. More recently, this has become a frequent occurrence and many artists, specifically painters are making traditional-looking work using traditional techniques that may or may not be seen as current depending on where they are viewed. Does the modern gallery, by virtue of white walls and concrete floors, make the work contemporary?

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This is the rather tired question of context. Whether or not some of Wetzel's work might easily fit in any collection of American 19th- or 20th-century painting at, say, the Metropolitan Museum or the Frick Collection is key because it is fairly certain that it would not fit, even while belonging to a tradition of illusionistic representation. Whereas the work of painter Walton Ford, who makes extremely elaborate and accomplished pictures after John James Audubon, pictures that are also burnt and made to look old, would. The term I use to describe this type of thinking is 'a fugitive calculation' by which I mean that the artist makes calculated, strategic choices without perhaps being entirely aware of them.

All too often, though, contemporary art is a kind of game in which a type of intelligence which refuses to be categorised, named and catalogued must be demonstrated. Using a biological analogy, contemporary art must operate in the same way that a virus does--constantly evolving to evade the parallel evolution of antibodies. Or maybe it is the other way around. The more aware an artist is of making calculated and strategic choices in the work, the more contrived it becomes, and the less it will be of its own time unless contrivance and paradox are the markers of our time. This is precisely why a fine balance exists in the work of Wetzel and other artists who find themselves in this situation. On the one hand their work is very self-aware and conscious of its strategic thinking, and on the other it deals intuitively with paint and illusion.

Wetzel's work is emblematic of a moment in contemporary art that is compelling because it is relevant without necessarily appearing new. It is a failing of many contemporary artists today that they strive to look new for no other reason than that. It has become increasingly difficult to untangle objects that seem current through the use of techniques and materials from objects which are of their time for more fugitive reasons. If you believe, as I do, that all cultural production (including painting) is simply ritualistic behaviour that has been tweaked, inherited and corrupted over the course of history, and that there is no such thing as a 'new art' or 'new painting'--only altered versions of the same ritual--then we are left with the images alone, and from these it is possible to measure their contemporary-ness, if that is the objective.

Perhaps a bolder statement to make is that what we are really dealing with when we think of contemporary art today is a kind of secular religion that has economic benefits, as well as having the same poetic, arcane and ritualistic qualities that orthodox religions possess. This is also reflected in the attitudes of most critics, who are rather evangelical in their ability to quote chapter and verse but never produce any actual ideas of their own. The constant renaming of old practices has run its course. How many times must we hear a distant 'movement' rebranded for today's audience? How many times must we hear post- or neo- applied to just about anything going? What remains relevant now, as always, is the rhapsodic condition in which an artwork is made and received.

For Wetzel's last show at John Connelly Presents he exhibited a new body of paintings incorporating images of Rome burning, Macquaque monkeys, Vesuvius, pasta dishes and fruit to create a broader statement that is utterly in synch with our time. …

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