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Life After Death

Scott Barber, untitled (2004)

The death of art is a well-worn idea. Once the anti-aesthetic rallying cry of so many pious avant-gardists, declaring that art has met the grim reaper is another way of saying "where's the price tag?" In a rather cynical turn of events, it would seem that the avant-garde has revealed itself to be but an integral part of the logic of capital. The pull of the avant-garde trigger sounds a charge equally toward a newer and more radical artistic form and a cooler, more à la mode trend for the marketplace. The destruction of art's sanctity through contamination--by fusing form with as many media as possible, from elephant dung to frozen blood--has become grammatical. Killing art is a means of making fast-food mincemeat pie: easy swallowing for an ever-voracious culture industry.

The most immediate example of such profiting-by-death is the work of Saatchi-backed artists, including Damien Hirst's maggot-wrought cow's head, the Chapman brothers' phallic-emphatic child mannequins and Chris Ofili's painted Madonna with manure dabbled on top. It is work most famous in the United States for raising the hackles of one virulently Catholic mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, during the 1998 Sensation show in Brooklyn.

Another important moment in the history of art's death throes is Conceptualism. In what amounted to one more Oedipal act of killing off Daddy, aka Abstract Expressionism, Conceptualists in the 1970s dissolved art to its bare-bones matter, the idea. Artists such as Mel Bochner, Joseph Kosuth, John Baldesari, Marcel Broodthaers and Martha Rosler reduced art to text and turned the white walls of gallery and museums on their heads. What would the holy precincts put in their Plexiglas boxes if art had been reduced to words and ideas?

While each orchestration of art's demise is accompanied by an attitude of heretofore-unseen, the belief that it is utterly the newest thing on the block, it is an idea that goes all the way back to one Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the 19th-century German philosopher, evolutionary thinker and great granddaddy of art history. According to such thinking, the disappearance of art was part of the march of history, its ever-forward trudging movement toward truth and understanding, or what he called Spirit. At some point, art would be logically and mirthfully superseded by religion and philosophy. Unhindered by art's material form, Spirit would be free to take hold in the afflatus of words and belief.

Barber/Kincaid/Pomara, now showing at Barry Whistler Gallery, reveals that Hegel had it all wrong. In a radical replacement of Spirit with technology, the three artists of the show, Scott Barber, Ted Kincaid and John Pomara, have pulled the proverbial rabbit out of a hat and deflated Hegel's spiritual dream of progress all at once. Their work proves not so much that art is alive and kicking but, more radical yet, that painting surges forth vibrantly once again. And they do so by way of the technologic image of the photograph. For each artist, the highly mediated photograph has become a fount for new painterly forms and icons. The work is flat, shiny and colorful like painting past but fuzzy, pixelated and humming with the visual white noise of today's frenetic image economy. Their work makes no moral bones about progress. It just harnesses forces and runs head-on and full throttle, brilliantly heedless about direction but always producing good results.

Barber and Pomara approach their surfaces by way of similar processes. Each artist manipulates a photographic image on the computer to the point that it becomes a sort of abstract vapor. In a provocative rerouting of Pop-era silk-screening antics, they print their abstractions as stencils that, in turn, become the basis of each artist's photographic-cum-painted images. The work requires Leonardo-esque invention by way of the individual fabrication of tools--carefully tailored brushes and squeegees--combined with the steady hand of a surgeon pulling paint over aluminum panels. Their metallic surfaces and industrial-grade paint perform a collective wink to Minimalism past, its obsession with seriality and materials, and culture present--the throwaway but efficient utility of mass production. Yet the similarities between the artists' work end there.

Turning himself inside out for all to see, Barber makes public a deeply internal matter, namely his struggle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. NHL is a cancer of the lymphatic system diagnosed by examining one's chemically stained cells under a microscope. Barber's paintings result from the photographic mediation of images generated from his pathology slides. Hung on the left wall of the main gallery space, Barber's paintings are large (6 feet by 4 feet) and almost bubbly on the surface. The two paintings now showing, both untitled, are magnetic in presentation, as the camouflage-like play of color and thin landscapes of paint on metal plateaux call for close-up inspection. Barber explains that these works mark an inversion in the ongoing series of cells he's been painting. Instead of the nuclei and cell walls being given the greatest attention in color, Barber has emphasized the surrounding foggy soup of fluids, rendering one in varying hues of green and the other in yellow and the surrounding spaces in grays, purples and almost-whites. Barber explains that the subtle bubbling of the surface comes from applying variations in pressure while deftly pulling paint across the metal planes. Flatness becomes a trope for the generation of form. Those really are flat surfaces you see--not layered.

If Barber's work elicits a slow rumination over subject and surface, Pomara's paintings seem inspired by Speedy Gonzalez on crack. Hung across the wall from Barber's two are Pomara's nine--seven small red panels book-ended by two large white panels. All titled "Digital Discount" and numbered one through nine, they are placed on the wall in a rhythm that mimics the sputtered and scurrying rhythm of looking. Central to Pomara's work is the new Cyborg-subject who sees many things at once, the spectator who is both human and electronic. Vision here is determined by the interplay of rapid eye movement and swift shots of pixelated information, at times beamed down from satellites above to your television below, at others blasted tele-optically through cables onto various household flat screens. These paintings mimic and respond to the ongoing and almost simultaneous economy of interlocking vision, from orbiting machines up above to the electronic Godbox in your living room to the ever-more-digital facets of your mind. While generated from highly manipulated photographic odds and ends, the images in Pomara's paintings, especially the bright yellow "Hotel California" in the adjacent gallery, are forthrightly architectural. His paintings look like blurred architecture seen while zooting rapidly through space. Yet, paying subtle homage to past invocations of chance in art from Duchamp to Cage, the bleeding-architecture appearance of his works is a vicissitude of image formation and coddling. You'd never know that those buildings on the run came from the digital scraps of once-real advertisements and photos.

It is the real, its fundamental mutability and unreality, that interests Ted Kincaid. Kincaid's broad, baby-blue Plexiglas panels make you long for strawberry-sheen lip gloss, the soft beat of ABBA and the long-ago libertine existence of the pre-AIDS '70s. In "Seascape 10," large green droplets of water form a floating undergirding above which hovers a firmament of blue sky and puffy clouds. While they look supremely unreal, these are real images, generated from photographs of real geographies. That they are photographs but seem like paintings tells us equally that painting in its umpteenth incarnation can be anything flat--a photo, an advertisement, a screen, a shower curtain or even a box of cereal. Kincaid works through a vocabulary of plasticness to comment on the protean nature of reality. Kincaid's framing heightens the sense that reality is but a theater of the real. Borrowing from advertising, Kincaid attaches the photograph directly onto the Plexiglas surface by a transparent glue-like adhesive. The result is a type of infinity on the surface: As you gaze into the endless space of the cloudy atmosphere, you are simultaneously caught in the flat uni-dimensionality of the plastic plane. Reality doesn't fall flat but is flat for Kincaid--flat yet subject to manipulation, like the picture planes he creates.

Whether progressive or not, painting moves in the present, and it moves fast. That its vehicle happens to be photography forces a shift in the fundamental definition of painting. Yes, painting is still colorful form on flat surfaces, but to be good it must be mediated: Painting must not only confront our collective digital existence but also those questions of authorship and authenticity that are part of the territory of photography from the get-go.


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