by Kevin Mahoney
Chaos and Awe: Painting for the 21st Century is an exhibition of works by nearly forty artists at the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, Tennessee. Curated by the museum’s Chief Curator, Mark Scala, the majority of works in the show tend to illustrate a very specific notion of the sublime. Many of the paintings are bright and huge and busy and complex. This is the sublime in the 21st century, and this is how paint can convey the terror and helplessness of our current condition.
I question the capacity of paint to convey the unfathomable power of god and nature. I also question a painting’scapacity to convey chaos. In contrast, the work is presented deliberately, even ordered, and consists of one, mostly homogenous mode. Busy, visually complex to the point of over saturation, the work can become overwhelming.
Guillermo Kuitca’s work seamlessly combines maps of cities, many of them, creating a seemingly endless network of roads, bridges, and neighborhoods. This absurd, sprawling map conveys the unfathomable chaotic power of expansion, but it also echoes natural processes of entropy and the cracking paint on the hood of my car. The work brings up questions about the divide between humanity and nature, a distinction that is at the very heart of these notions of chaos and the sublime. The sublime suggests that nature is separate from humanity, something at which to stare, awestruck, while chaos is an external force necessitating domestication by humans. These perceived divisions are becoming increasingly blurred, and Kuitca’s piece champions this blurriness.
The work of Anoka Faruqee systematically recreates the lines of color found when photographing digital screens; reexamining the op(tical) in op art, the work focuses on the media that now affect visual perception. Faruqee’s work is visually complex, becoming more complex as process is revealed. The lines of Faruqee’s paintings are created by dragging a tool across the surface to reveal the canvas underneath the paint. This process is repeated several times in layers to create the work’s illusory effect. However, when the tool is scraped across the surface, some of the painting becomes displaced and drips over onto the edge of the frame, an example of an attempt at an ordered, somewhat mechanical process succumbing to chaotic, natural forces. Some of her paintings will contain little drips or smudges within the lines, breaking both the structure and illusion by revealing evidence of the artist’s hand.
The studio is a space hidden from audience view, a place where the alchemical processes of art-making allegedly take place. This peculiar mythology is taken up in the work of Rachel Rossin, the only augmented reality piece in the exhibition and one of only three works that approach painting through nontraditional modes. Upon putting on the headset, you begin to float through three-dimensional renderings of the artist’s house and studio. The gaps in the rendering reveal the paper-thin quality of the architecture. Within this virtual space you float towards and then through these walls into adjacent rooms. You can look up and see an image of Rossin painting or glance to either side to catch likenesses of stairs and houseplants. Although not rendered in oil or acrylic, Rossin’s execution is quite painterly, fallible in a manner that is decidedly human, not machine. Information is left out, mistakes are left in; just like the paintings of Anoka Faruqee, the medium reveals itself. With this work Rossin also lets us into her home and her studio and allows us to have some semblance of agency while we look around, uncloaking the studio’s shadowy secrets.
Author: Kevin Mahoney is an interdisciplinary artist and educator based in North Florida.