A curmudgeon whom even close associates described as “a mean-looking little man,” Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) used remorseless observation to move painting beyond fusty allegory and ponderous historical narrative. The Englishman’s major breakthroughs are foreshadowed in an 1812 scene of a snowstorm slashed by dramatic shafts of light and obscuring swipes of black, through which an orange sun burns like a jack-o’-lantern. This search for the sublime—a popular theme of the day—became less melodramatic and more intrinsic to Turner’s vision in an 1828 view of a lake, in which white crusts of pigment form ripples, gray daubs create clouds, and the butt end of a brush traces umber branches amid ocher leaves. Like his sometime rival John Constable, Turner was forging an inseparable bond between his imagery and the physicality of his materials. Although he made detours into cumbersome history painting (an 1824 scene of the Battle of Trafalgar is stagy and leaden), Turner at his best stripped painting to its essentials. In 1834, he and thousands of other horrified Londoners witnessed the nighttime destruction of the Houses of Parliament, and his swift watercolors of the conflagration remain marvels of near abstraction. These nine-by-13-inch compositions are reportage from an ethereal realm—the dark towers and peaked roofs of England’s government edifice rimed with red and surrounded by barely moored collisions of blue and yellow. In a larger oil version, the rampaging flames turn Westminster Bridge bone-white and the sky a roiling lavender. Although a critic complained that such bright illumination was over-imaginative, Turner was faithfully recording a phenomenon that modern urban viewers well understand—light pollution. The artist’s work was also attacked for its sketchiness, but where weekend painters may leave a canvas unarticulated because they lack the skill and discipline to convey a scene, Turner’s spareness is of a piece with his content. His fleeting watercolor flourishes depicting a harpooned whale capture the way that a sudden, violent event can leave a vivid palimpsest in the mind. It’s no surprise that this “uncouth” visionary became the namesake for the coveted prize that young British artists strive for in our own day.
Jamisen Ogg: ‘Conscientious Objectifier’
Ogg doesn’t let his conceptual framework (“tie-dye = expressionistic intellectualism”; “cubes = academic intellectualism”) overshadow the calibrated thrill of his lovely drawings and paintings. Layering geometric stencils of Modernist architecture with the pseudo-chaos of tie-dye drips and blobs, Ogg creates a dialogue that alternately shouts across the room from garish, interlocking compositions, or whispers by way of occluding sprays and delicate pencil lines. Neither the ’60s nor utopian architecture ultimately lived up to their billing, but this spirited show updates their promise to our own sardonic age. Hudson Franklin, 508 W 26th, 212-741-1189. Through July 25.
DOG OF THE MONTH
‘Painting: Now and Forever, Part II’
I didn’t see the original 1998 version at the Pat Hearn and Matthew Marks galleries, which this show reprises (with only the reliable Mary Heilmann appearing in both incarnations), but I can’t imagine it was as enervated as this cynical mélange. Josh Smith’s small, muddy abstractions begin the current proceedings in Matthew Marks’s side gallery (522 W 22nd, 212-243-0200, through August 15), and things don’t get much better in the larger space. Karen Kilimnik’s white-on-white tondo, the snow Queen causing a blizzard in Siberia, proffers a smattering of glitter on a bare surface, taking her usual washed-out affect to its nadir. Some people find Martin Kippenberger’s rambunctious torrent of multimedia images invigorating, but his sole painting here, a big blue concoction featuring gold outlines around a warship, is flabby and bland. Bearing the conceptual baton to some ever-receding finish line, the flaccid smears of blue and green in Michael Krebber’s 2001 Contempt for One’s Own Work as Planning for Career are a Sunday painter’s dream: Five minutes of work, and you’re hung in a major gallery. Wade Guyton’s inkjet-printed sheets of linen provide a bright spot, perhaps because their stuttering layers of black reveal arresting subtleties in the glitchy degradations of desktop publishing.
Things at Greene Naftali (508 W 26th, 212-463-7770, through August 15) are a tad more colorful, but slathered plasticine knockoffs of the Mona Lisa by Gelitin and Bjarne Melgaard’s painting of gushing purple penises feel like grad-school work at its most annoyingly exuberant and amateurish. You might be pulled in by the bravura black spray-blot on a yellow field by Stephen Prina, but too much of this work offers thin gruel, such as Sophie von Hellermann’s watery vision of a shapeless nude behind a motley throng. This duplex exhibition yearns to be suavely sage, but it ultimately offers those embittered folk awaiting painting’s always-imminent demise new reason to hope.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 23, 2008