New American Paintings: An Overview

There are a lot of “firsts” happening at Elmhurst Art Museum. This is the initial post for EAM’s new blog, of which there will be several to come on a range of topics. It gives a firsthand account of the next “first,” the 113th edition of the New American Paintings publication, of which EAM is the first institution to host an exhibition of paintings included in the juried selection. Our chief curator Staci Boris selected the forty artists included in the publication’s 2014 Midwestern iteration and curated individual works into thematic groupings for the New American Paintings exhibition. Not only is it inspiring to see artists awarded for their dedication to a particular, and very traditional, medium, but viewing the works in person and in relation to one another offers a revitalized reading of contemporary painting in the Midwest.

Installation shot: Santiago Cucullu, Green Hell, 2015 (Center), Rachel Hellman, A Window to Lean On; Down the Edge, Mirrors on the Wall, 2014 (Right), Diane Christiansen, Untitled Painting (Product of stop-action animation), 2015 (Behind)

Some concepts that arise from seeing the paintings together in an exhibition translate differently from its book form alone. At its core, New American Paintings is a regional collection of contemporary American painters. Therefore, regionalism, or local determinisms, is a lens through which one might view these works. The geographical location in which an artist lives and works influences his/her/z’s practice, and though it is arguable whether or not location is a driving concept that informs these artists’ production, there does seem to be a particular tie to form and media throughout these selected artists’ works. Of course, there are a multiplicity of styles that is unique to each artist's approach to painting, but the attention paid to form and medium is constant. Paint, or responses to the medium and act of painting, is the ultimate ground from which viewers can read works both individually and collectively.

Boris’ curatorial decisions make each gallery readable in terms of the individual style of each artist as they relate and respond to one another in a group setting. Entering the exhibition viewers will find an explosion of color and form evocative of contemporary formalism. Santiago Cucullu’s site-specific Green Hell (2009/2015) initiates an explosive, postmodern perspective on minimalist painting, specifically in response to the geometric stylings of Frank Stella’s Black Series. Geometry vibrates off of Mark Pease’s canvases, whose calligraphic paintings Untitled (Orange 26) and Untitled (Purple 25) illusionistically resonate on the viewer’s retina. Form and process translate into shifts in color and form in the paintings of Cheonae Kim, whose tetris-like shapes build an appreciation for the blank linen left visible in between.

Works in the next gallery respond to landscape and nature, but hardly naturalism. These paintings play with organic abstraction, even denaturalization. Terrence Campagna’s Sundial for Shukke (2014) creates a nice transition into the gallery with its geometry, but its painted wood slats and raw bark detail introduce elements of nature into the space. Molly Briggs’ Humboldt Park: Wet Prairie (2012) continues the natural/surreal dichotomy with her forested landscape painted in unnatural, radioactive pink flashe and sparkly grey tempera. Diane Christiansen’s process-based work on paper Untitled Painting (Product of stop-action animation) (2015) carries Briggs’ uncanniness into an abstract etching of layered and scratched away paint to reveal both its materiality and ephemerality.

Uncanniness, ghosts perhaps, threads its way into the abstractions found in the next gallery. Eddie Villanueva’s monumental I don’t want to be a lawn cutter no more (2015) combines fragmented panels with blown-up photograph of found graffiti, mirrors and other found objects to create a spectacle of rock ‘n’ roll, materiality and masculinity. Elijah Burgher’s hanging, pigment saturated Year of Swords, Conclude! (Neither peaceful nor monumental version) and A White Rainbow (2013) arouse the mysticism in their cryptic symbolism. Linda King Ferguson’s and Dyani White Hawk’s paintings respond to space both physical and historical, with comments on personal and art histories reminiscent of Chicago Imagist painters Christina Ramberg and Roger Brown, respectively. Allison Reimus’ small but dynamic group of canvases compel the viewer to inspect their curious material, shape and imagery.

Kevin Goodrich, Homage to Mary, 2013 (Left), Ben Murray,  Reception, 2015 (Center), Russel Shoemaker, Ruby Beach, 2014 (Right)

Liminal spaces in the next space continue to distort viewers’ perspectives on familiar sights. Unexpected jabs of paint on John A. Sargent III’s The Reign is Over (2012) break the illusion of a calm sunset, while the illusionistic seams and use of inkjet in Kevin Goodrich’s Homage to Mary (2013) recall Jasper Johns’ Corpse and Mirror II (1974/75) or Christopher Wool’s silkscreens. Ben Murray’s large, abstract canvas Reception (2015) invites back ghosts of the previous galleries into an uncanny, abstract but familiar space that could either be alien or domestic.

The exhibition ends on a realist note, with figurative and socially conscious works. In Heidi Draley McFall’s highly naturalistic Karem, Kristy and Isabel Practicing Sign Language (2014), monotone pastel renderings of the titular young women evoke a nostalgia similar to Gerhard Richter’s blurred memories. Photorealism again in David J. Eichenberg’s Aimee in Hoodie III (2015) reminds of Thomas Ruff’s stark photographic portraiture of everyday subjects. Curtis Goldstein’s Hurricane (2014) questions the definition of painting by collaging refuse into the form of a landscape that has suffered disaster, which could either have been the product of a natural disaster or destructive human pollution. Conversely, but perhaps similarly, David Holmes’ photorealistic Under the L (2013) portrays everyday urban living, reminding viewers of the spaces they inhabit and places in which they create and live.