Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Painting is persistently and emphatically alive and well. Indeed, the notion that it is dead – or, more kindly, moribund – is so vapid and hidebound that merely saying that the notion is a cliché is itself a cliché. Yet in putting the lie to it one more time, the Bushwick gallery Transmitter’s succinctly penetrating group show “Material Mutations, part one: The Canvas” brings fresh insights in what might otherwise be an eye-rollingly redundant conversation.
Kathleen Kucka burns precise but non-uniform holes in her canvases, irregularly surrounding or filling them with paint or shadowy smoke residue and situating them in manifestly calculated patterns. The net result is a deliberate and kinetic look, aggressively imparting transition. Visually, the holes resemble Didier William’s ominously iterated eyes, but they scan as less personal. Kucka’s process seems an exercise in artful destruction, of sustainment against risk, more daring than ordinary painting. A stray brushstroke can always be erased or painted over, but an errant burn hole that impinges on an adjacent one would disintegrate the entire piece. Within the canvas, this is swashbuckling work, adventurous but meticulously controlled.
Lily de Bont imbues her work with the spirit and substance of the French Supports/Surfaces movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, conflating those two basic elements of a painting. Changing its expected shape by intentionally distressing the canvas, she, like Kucka, overtly engages in controlled destruction. But Kucka constructively redeems that effort with precise configuration and has not disturbed the basic geometry of the work. De Bont, having already disrupted it, resolves her pieces by reclaiming the support, however altered, for its original purpose as a platform. There is no going completely back, of course, so her works are unusual hybrids: visual emblems of outside-the-box thinking brought to a coherent conclusion.
Combining the subtlety of Ellsworth Kelly and the audacity of Elizabeth Murray, Jan Maarten Voskuil arrays convex and concave, distortedly rectangular canvases, erratically tilted along the z axis, into largely symmetrical geometric compositions that seem to undulate and, by extension, to echo. The pillow-like panels’ slightly differing shades of white suggest divergent values among them, which in turn implies a purposeful function, though it remains mysterious and therefore subjective. For some, Voskuil’s works might just constitute a painter’s experiments with the boundaries between painting and sculpture. For others, they could have contemporary substantive resonance – conjuring, say, phased-array radar for weather surveillance or missile tracking.
The three artists represented in this small but admirably nuanced and deftly focused show started their careers back in the day, when, in the buffeting wake of Minimalism, conceptual art, photography, and performance art, the “painting is dead” assertion was a more urgent challenge. They have nicely risen to it, and in so doing reinforced painting’s perpetual vitality.
“Material Mutations, part one: The Canvas,” curated by Rob de Oude. Transmitter, 1329 Willoughby Avenue, 2A, Bushwick, Brooklyn, NY. Through October 24, 2021.