On ViewGreene Naftali
April 28 – June 26, 2021
Whether or not it’s acknowledged, the primary fault line beneath the phenomenal surge of new painting is whether or not the medium still has a subject other than itself. Setting aside for the sake of argument those painters for whom a tangible subject has always seemed firmly within grasp since the first day they handled a paintbrush, the problem becomes what creative moves remain for all the others, those whose artistic trajectory is primarily speculative, uncertain, and open to never-ending conjecture? Is it possible to sustain a painterly investigation based on a position of unknowingness and prolonged uncertainty, and if so, what might that project look like?
In Monika Baer’s second exhibition of new paintings at Greene Naftali, familiar tensions are teased out between her fluency with the norms of academic realism, and an apparently superseding interest in the painting as a handmade object that can be perceived from a multitude of varied perspectives. In the 2015 exhibition preceding this one, Baer showed a pair of atmospheric canvases that included realistic depictions of liquor bottles, alongside black monochromatic works that incorporated mirrors, pieces of quartz and other objects within their interior. In this body of work, titled loose change—she has mostly jettisoned quotidian objects—excepting works on paper at the entrance with glued-on coins, but the cumulative effect is still a feeling of encountering two markedly different bodies of work.
Eight large canvases are on view in the central gallery, all adhering to a vertical format and comparable sizes. Five of the paintings are enigmatically titled Yet to be Titled (as opposed to “Untitled”), and depict variations of the same motif: a single, leftward-leaning tree trunk with a garden wall obscuring its lower portion, set against strikingly different skies: in one dappled streaks of pinks and baby blue, and in another a chalky orange matter suggesting the density of plaster (out of which a sketchy male profile emerges). Two of these paintings also have rigid foam shapes resembling tears attached to their surfaces, which seem to provide the function of visually complicating the illusionistic framework within the picture. Given Baer’s tendency to provide her works with meticulously finished surfaces, the three-dimensional additions seem almost impulsive, as if they were selected to appear as out of context as possible.
The three remaining paintings in loose change play a contradictory role relative to the first five, which is similar to that of the objects attached to the pictures’ surfaces: the imposition of a paradoxical equivalence where one doesn’t naturally exist. Compared to the tree trunk paintings, these are almost completely emptied out of naturalist references, other than the blue- and red-tipped wooden matches that appear to either float atop the pictures’ surfaces, or line up in formation within a vaporous, half-articulated space. These color fields serving as backdrops for the matches are so delicate and cloud-like as to seem half-finished, which serves to provide a neat contrast to the crisp precision with which the matches are rendered.
Some mid-career painters reach a point in their development where the theoretical framework that energized their emerging body of work starts to fall flat, what was once a reliable source of tension becomes loose, and they are left with no option other than to focus on what they do best. While it may be premature to pigeonhole Baer’s recent paintings on this basis, it bears asking whether the sensual interplay of colors and textures in her tree trunk paintings isn’t in fact the takeaway revelation from this show, since they so fully satisfy any conceivable desire for evocative form and persuasive detail, and without the pictorial equivalent of scare quotes—attached objects, floating matches—to distract from their seriousness.
What this group of paintings inadvertently demonstrates is that the methodology of the conceptual trickster within Baer’s practice becomes markedly less convincing over time, as any residual dialectical tensions melt away in the awareness that left to their own devices, paintings do derive a considerable portion of their meanings from other paintings, leaving many of her strategies to appear less about the painting’s subject and more about its style. Baer’s dilemma is somewhat different from other artists’, as well, because almost as soon as found objects make their appearance within the pictorial field, any incentive to bring the work to a difficult but challenging painterly conclusion seems to become diminished, i.e., the match paintings. Conversely, the standout works in the exhibition are those where nothing happens other than a tree trunk beginning to list precariously to its side, which, within the broader range of contemporary subjects where painting typically seeks its meanings, generates an intensity of heightened visual engagement for the viewer that no superimposition of extraneous matter is able to dissipate.