While Cheryl Donegan has long explored painting issues in video to much acclaim, her actual paintings garner much less notice. Given her mode of working, her choices of materials and forms, this isn’t so surprising. Donegan’s last show of paintings in New York, “Luxury Dust” in September 2007 at the now-defunct Oliver Kamm/5BE Gallery, included about a dozen works on 24-by-18-inch pieces of corrugated cardboard. Some of them feature crowded, triangle-laden compositions executed in water-based oils; in others she covered the cardboard with gold or silver tape and then sliced away at the tape to create spiky, reflective arrays. The cheap materials, generic imagery (Donegan’s claustrophobic Cubo-Futurist compositions sometimes include clips grabbed from eBay), modest size and hasty-looking facture seem to beg for the works to be dismissed. The title of the show should give us pause. These are just about the most unluxurious paintings imaginable (an effect heightened by the fluorescent lights the artist requested for her show): as such they can be interpreted as detritus of the boom or as strangely prophesying a post-crash economy.
Restless painters tend to work in several different manners at once or embark on new approaches in serial order. Jacqueline Humphries does the latter. Each of her phases displays her gift for linear mark-making and a curiosity about paint’s material possibilities, though one feels she never lingers as long as she could. Yet, her show in winter 2006 at Greene Naftali in New York was one of her best. In silvery oil paintings, gestures seem to erase one another in a flurry of marks, always obliterating some underlying composition of greater order and grace. Though long based in New York, Humphries is a New Orleans native, and it doesn’t seem far-fetched to read these turbulent paintings as visions of a location overwhelmed by chaotic natural forces. There are clear echoes of Wool’s self-erasing gestures in Humphries’s paintings (as well as borrowings from Rosenquist’s shard paintings of the 1980s), but her cancellations are more immediate and less self-conscious than Wool’s.
Wendy White also employs the obliterative qualities of paint, though she is more likely to use a spray-gun than a brush. The paintings she showed at Leo Koenig in New York last summer are multipanel, with three to five variously sized canvases abutted in irregular formations. Dense, sooty accumulations of black spray paint are randomly dispersed across the panels, sometimes partially covering more open tangles of Day-Glo lines. Echoing the irregularity of the outer edges, the units of paint avoid neat enclosure; their edges fray, disperse and fade out, as if the artist simply runs out of paint. The sense of random defacement evokes graffiti art, but one could equally think of Tàpies and Motherwell—as in Humphries’s work, there is an affinity between some kinds of provisionality and gestural abstraction.
Provisionality is visible in a number of current artists nominally identified as sculptors, including Sarah Braman, Alexandra Bircken and Gedi Sibony; much of the work in the New Museum’s “Unmonumental” exhibition of 2007-08, which included Bircken and Sibony along with many others, embodied the provisional sensibility in three dimensions. Although not present in “Unmonumental,” sculptor Peter Soriano has recently been making extremely provisional three-dimensional works. Each consists of a length of aluminum tubing projecting from the wall. Steel cables stretch from the tube to anchors on the wall. These points are linked by spray-painted lines and arrows (mostly in bright colors), and sometimes marked with circles and Xs or crossed out with brief squiggles. Usually executed by the artist, these wall works can also be made by others following a set of instructions. Owing as much to Con Ed street markings as to conceptual wall works (LeWitt, Bochner), Soriano’s structures diagram their own making, but with their cancellations and misdirections (arrows sometimes seem to be suggesting a particular element, or even the entire work, should be moved over several feet), and work-in-progress status conveyed by the spray-painted signs, they also entertain the possibility that they could be remade in another way. This comes about not only because the metal structures and spray-painted marks must be constructed afresh for each showing, but also because the viewer is always being invited to second-guess the artist’s decisions, to imagine other configurations.
At times provisional painting overlaps with “bad painting,” a mode with roots in the 1970s that continues to offer artists means of engaging the medium without having to take on all of its unwanted trappings. When Kippenberger employed techniques that give the impression of haste and clumsiness, it allowed him to mock the market along with the medium (though he also snuck in some virtuosic painting that doesn’t seem pretentious). But provisionality can also be taken to a point where there is not even a remote possibility of “bad” concealing “good.” That seems to be where Joe Bradley’s intent in the “Schmagoo Paintings” that he showed at Canada gallery in New York last fall. A distinction needs to be made between Bradley and the other artists I have been discussing here. Their work may at times come off as uncertain, incomplete, casual, self-cancelling or unfinished, but each of them is fully committed to the project of painting. If they seek to break existing, perhaps unspoken, contracts with painting, it is only in order to draw up other protocols that will renew the medium. Bradley’s work, which sometimes shares the guttersnipe esthetics of artists such as Dan Colen and Dash Snow, seems more like a willful artistic gesture than part of a painter’s necessary process.
Provisional painting is not about making last paintings, nor is it about the deconstruction of painting. It’s the finished product disguised as a preliminary stage, or a body double standing in for a star/masterpiece whose value would put a stop to artistic risk. To put it another way: provisional painting is major painting masquerading as minor painting. In their book Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (1986), Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari described how Kafka’s linguistic and cultural condition (as a Jewish author writing in German in Prague where the type of German he spoke was “minor” in relation both to the locally dominant Czech language and to standard German) involved the “impossibility” of writing in German and the “impossibility of not writing.” Kafka’s solution was to fashion a mode of writing that seemed to erase all literary precedents, and to create an oeuvre that barely survived into the future. Faced with painting’s imposing history and the diminishment of the medium by newer art forms, recent painters may have found themselves in similarly “minor” situations; the provisionality of their work is an index of the impossibility of painting and the equally persistent impossibility of not painting.