Some say Manet’s Le Bain (1863), later called Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, inaugurated painting’s modern era. The star of that year’s Salon des Refusés, the canvas grafts studio-bound artifice and then-shocking subject matter. Iconographically, technically and historically it is a pastiche—a poke in the eye of observers longing for harmony and serenity. Jaw-droppingly prescient, its wanton hybridity was roundly castigated in its day.
In five large paintings (all 2009) in oil, acrylic and gesso—and some with ink or graphite—on linen, Caragh Thuring, born in Brussels and now resident in London, deconstructs Le Déjeuner,pulls it apart, takes it to the cleaners. Each work recombines selected elements of the Manet, retaining its mockery of expansive, pastoral space but jazzing it up with disjunctive stylistic approaches. The show’s title, “Assembly,” suggests a puzzle, but once the visitor recognized, in the very first painting, the distinctive pose of Manet’s formerly offending nude, the game was pretty much up.
The canvases are titled 1, 2, 3a, 3b and 4, but they were hung out of order. 4 plays with the Manet’s kinky origami of crotches, knees and ankles, though the young men are missing; the distant female figure, indicated by a few pale, scrubbed strokes, is disproportionately large (even more so than in Le Déjeuner). 3b places the cane, the watch chain and the seven spilled cherries in a wilderness of splashes and squiggles; 3a quotes the distant dinghy, the men’s neck- and headwear, and, at downstage right, the straw basket’s looping handle (minus the shapely ass it echoes in Le Déjeuner). Thuring turns the dark tree that leans left in the Manet into a ladder that leads out of the picture, as if to explain where the missing parts have gone.
Thuring’s paintings aren’t much to look at. She handles paint as if she doesn’t like or trust the stuff. She outlines shapes and fills them in, and renders objects (or parts of objects) with a crabbed, pedestrian touch. She is too easily satisfied with her drips and splatters, with the easy hum of daubs of saturated color against acres of unremarkable, unprimed brown linen. Visually inert despite their art-historical huffing and puffing, these paintings can only confirm long established understandings that distinguishing abstraction from representation is an unprofitable exercise, and that recent art arises from earlier art. Certainly these are clever paintings, and studious too, but that doesn’t make them good.
Caragh Thuring: 4, 2009, oil, gesso and acrylic on linen, 57 by 751⁄2 inches; at Simon Preston.