Merlin Carpenter: Paint-it-Yourself
On ViewReena Spaulings Fine Art
January 21 – March 1, 2020
The explosion of angst begins here with a “Dear Reena” letter to the gallery: Merlin Carpenter states, first, that he will not be attending the opening, however “strange a social situation” it might provoke. Of course, since Reena Spaulings is a collective enterprise, the position Carpenter takes is broadly directed; he is critiquing an abstraction. Carpenter says he is reacting to the “sameyness” of much painting today (“figurative formalism,” he clarifies), and the artist-perpetrators are a lot of “older white men going around talking about “real” painting, which they are finally “allowed to do.”
Afraid of being associated with a—or does he mean this—gallery’s “boring conservative atmosphere,” he suggests that Reena, and by extension, viewers, “paint-it-yourself.” He adds, “it doesn’t matter what it looks like anyway.” Even though Carpenter has already made the paintings, he further confuses the idea of the “absent” artist and “active” viewer. To that end, he has planted a carton filled with paint tubes in the center of the gallery. The gallerists and viewer-artists are being asked to interpret Carpenter’s ambiguous, widely targeted intentions and join his attack on everything—art, commerce, all art institutions, money, white men, painting styles, and so on.
The artist explains in his letter he was doing two parallel shows, one in Los Angeles, one in Amsterdam; the latter decidedly not in Trump’s USA, he says. Actually, Carpenter says he was changing his practice to avoid doing “business as usual” and showing it here in his own “language.” Please pardon all the quotation marks, but “the work” is so utterly pretentious that it elicits their use. So, as he explains, he did a project in LA and Amsterdam devoted to showing how the political situations in Europe and in the USA mirror one another. Carpenter might tune in to BBC America for a different take—unless of course having cable is some sort of no-no.
This show offers nothing savory—which is fine. The walls are covered with dirty white canvases festooned with scrawls and furious exclamations—bearing repeated words stacked masturbatory-style up the canvases along with dollar signs, a vomiting face, a crossed-out sentence that says “Can’t sell it for 500 that’s just too low,” and a blue butterfly with a human figure in the center suggesting the flight of the soul.
Carpenter’s brightly satirical, audience-teasing paintings, like This is What Happens When You Collaborate with Nazis: Professor Martin Heidegger Trying To Escape By Bike From The Approaching U.S. Army, Spring 1945, (2019), are not in this show. Nor are his readymades. Such figurative, pictorial expressions are indeed guilty of easily engaging us, but they do help focus our understanding in ways that are more generous than pretentious.
What is most unclear is how Carpenter’s new works embody his institutional critique, beyond expressing outrage and identifying the obvious. How can an absent artist ameliorate the situations he laments in his letter? And what is new about this approach? Simply to scream from a soapbox accomplishes nothing, unless your audience is hard of hearing.
Carpenter’s particular nihilism, whereby all systems are equally pernicious and neo-liberalism is as bad as extreme right-wing conservatism, the Left, and ineffective middle-of-the-roadism, is frustratingly limited. Reena Spaulings should write back to him: “Put your body where your words are.” But, of course, Reena Spaulings is not a real person, but an anonymous collective whose projects encompass both commercial and fictional endeavors and spaces. In the end, Carpenter’s unresolved attempts to move his viewers through a declarative letter stands alone as a rhetorical gesture.