Technology has heralded the art of the actual

As painting appears to lose its relevance, the small screen irrevocably alters our relationship to imagery.

January 14, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

There is a small, cranky, iconoclastic voice in me that occasionally wonders whether painting any longer has much relevance to the future of art in America.

I say this, of course, in the full knowledge that any report of the demise of painting is almost certainly premature. In an earlier incarnation at this newspaper, for example, I once took a kind of perverse delight in announcing the death of poetry, say, or the end of jazz.

Well, poetry and jazz still soldier on -- though somewhat anemically, one might argue, given their illustrious pasts -- so far be it from me to consign the art of painting to a similar fate.

Moreover, it was only a century ago that painting was still indisputably at the vanguard of the modernist revolution in art.

The great modernist painter-revolutionaries -- from Manet to Cezanne to Picasso to Jackson Pollock -- repeatedly and radically upended the 19th century's quaint notions of what a painting should look like. And indeed for most of the 20th century, every new development in art has been heralded by a new style in painting.

That does not seem to be the case today, however, and on reflection it seems to me that painting as an art form has been in a parlous state since at least the 1960s.

Not in the sense that artists haven't continued to make paintings, of course -- they have, including some very fine ones -- but rather in the sense that the potential for continued formal invention and expressiveness in the medium today seems sadly diminished, with the result that a great deal of painting one sees these days seems hopelessly ossified in stale academic formulae and frivolous pastiche.

I suspect the curators of "Media / Metaphor," the 46th biennial exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, share similar misgivings, because for the first time since the series began in 1907, the museum has abandoned the tacit assumption that the most important developments in recent American art can be charted in terms of painting alone.

Instead, the curators have put forth a show in which photography, video, film, installation and computer-related media carry the major burden of defining the cultural moment, beside which the relatively few examples of contemporary painting look decidedly obsolescent.

The show features 14 artists presumably chosen for their status as bellwethers of where American art is likely heading as we enter the new millennium.

Some of them, like New York artists Chuck Close and David Reed and Washington-born photographer Nan Goldin, are already well-established figures in the contemporary art world.

Others, like computer animation artist Jennifer Steinkamp and video-filmmaker Michal Rovner, are younger, emerging artists near the beginning of their careers.

What they share is an approach to image-making shaped by the explosive technological advances of the past 30 years. The artists use a variety of tools -- from photography, video and computers to multi-channel video projections and the Internet -- to explore the relationships between traditional and contemporary media.

The first piece the viewer encounters on entering the show, for example, is Steinkamp and composer Jimmy Johnson's "Loop 2000," a huge video installation projected against the walls of the museum's imposing second-floor rotunda.

In this grand circular space, six video projectors illuminate the gallery's gently curving walls with Steinkamp's computer-generated images of what appear to be brightly colored strands of rope that slowly dance and sway to the mesmerizing, oceanic rhythms of Johnson's computer-generated music.

The effect is utterly enchanting, inducing a sort of hypnotic, trance-like experience in the viewer, whose presence in the space casts animated shadows against the walls opposite the projectors.

A quite different kind of experience greets the visitor on entering the gallery where Goldin's autobiographical photographs are installed.

Goldin's pictures of a young French family with whom she lived for a year in New York and Paris in the late 1990s are a continuation of the intimate portrait series she began 25 years ago as a sort of visual diary documenting the lives of her friends and lovers on New York's Lower East Side, then a seedy and disreputable section of the city that nevertheless gave birth to a remarkable flowering of the arts in the late 1970s.

Goldin's large color pictures of her friends lounging around the house nude are unsettling, provocative and almost voyeuristic in their detailed recording of domestic and sexual arrangements. Yet they never feel intrusive; Goldin's subjects obviously feel completely at ease exposing their most private moments to her camera's gaze.

This is a militant art of the actual whose frankness borders on shocking. It is saved from being merely pornographic by Goldin's painterly intensity of expression and an empathy for her subjects that one feels springs from a genuine commitment to her role of bearing witness.

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