What, How, Where, Where To?: A Review of Chaos and Awe: Painting for the 21st Century

by Bridget Bailey

Dean Byington, The Inquisitors, 2011. Photo by Bridget Baile

Curated by Mark Scala at the Frist Museum of Art, June 22 through September 16, 2018

The paintings that have taken flight, swept or digitized into the main gallery at the Frist Museum of Art this summer embody chaos and awe, indeed, as the title suggests. More than anything, though, they represent a dystopian and cosmopolitan view of the world at present; the work is dystopian as in dizzying – as in unstable – as in shaky – as in where are we and what is going on here?

The show makes both social commentary and philosophical inquiry, posing formal questions about the position and function of painting in the 21st century. There is humor and there is strife. Most of the show is painting, indeed, but some incorporate projected video, altered photography, VR, and sculptural—even 3D printed—elements.

Race is examined, notably in the Radcliffe Bailey painting, Western Currents, 2012, (Image 1) in which collaged African figurative sculptures cross the ocean in a (slave) ship, conspicuously tossed and lost along the way down into the blue depths. A socially and politically symbolic painting, it harkens to historical paintings such as Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, but it reimagines them with loss of African identity and disregard for human life.

Wangechi Mutu, Untitled from Tumors, 2007. Photo by Bridget Bailey

Nearby and in dialogue – a witness to the present – is a work by Rashid Johnson, Untitled Anxious Audience, 2016, a painting made with black soap and wax on white tiles. Reminiscent of subway tiles or a bathroom or a generic clinical space, it depicts charactered and deskilled black faces seemingly wrought in anxious haste with expressions of anxiety; one foreboding, empty space implies loss of a person—a black person—in the climate of the current day. Visceral and haunting, it is awesome in its chaotic marks and clear subject matter. Works are connected to others in the exhibit through the brave terrain they inhabit and animate: Neo Rauch’s painting Waiting for the Barbarians depicts eerie violence against that which is “other.”

There are flashy lights, body parts, sea creatures, the Simpsons, anime characters. Chaotic and awesome in its expanse, the library scene in Bibliotheque/CDG-BSL by Corinne Wasmuht, 2011, is emphatic in emphasizing the tech in the bibliotheque and the comings and goings of people and information. It is a little like a horizontal Times Square but less gritty and sleeker. Meanwhile, slimy-slick and grotesque is the whimsical world of Wangechi Mutu, in whose paintings pink-and-red flesh forms mix and bubble with tarlike toxicity; a rhythm of formal compositional dance is punctuated and punctured by motorcycles in Untitled from Tumors, 2004, (image 2). Mutu’s Funkalicious fruit field, 2007, depicts a scary living landscape above which a witch-like, boot-clad figure soars.

The action-packed works of Ali Banisadr imply battle scenes that harken back to the chaos, awe, and fraught meaning of battle paintings of old, making them new, eerie, and ever relevant with the saturated palate, anonymity and myth of players in the horror of war. Are there animals? Dragons? Spears? Birds? Oceans? Its whimsy is sobered by its own implied violence as well as the explicit violence found in the nearby work by Korakrit Arunanondchai, Untitled (Body Painting 9), 2013, in which a human figure is burning.

Two video works depict foiled dealings with the realities and repercussions of the world. The first centers on the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose built by the widow of the Winchester Rifle fortune, reputedly haunted by the blood of the money; the violence and convolution of the woman’s mind plays out in the labyrinthine house’s mystery rooms and doors to nowhere. The other video piece is inspired by scenes from Paradise Lost and seems to depict a Beatrice, roaming the world, trying to be a guide to us all.

Less impactful are the sparse, abstract paintings primarily exploring the formal qualities of paint and space of the canvas, but it is perhaps the act of searching performed by both artist and viewer – as symbolic action and metaphor for how to act and how to be and how to continue on with positive impact in the world – that becomes a force for good and positive, humane acts in the entropy. Pushing these constraints of abstraction is Franz Ackermann’s large-scale, brightly colored work, Untitled (yet), 2008-9, depicting an uninhabited space in a state of disrepair with broken wires and intertwined, adjacent forms ringing a central module. It reads as a Star Trek setting or a dystopian cartoon but, upon closer inspection, the viewer encounters areas of thick paint and painterly fissures disrupting its flatness, inviting moments of contemplation and admiration.

Radcliffe Bailey, Western Currents, 2012. Photo by Bridget Baile

A gem and touchstone of the show is Rachel Rossin’s interactive VR installation in which the participant viewer explores a painting studio, of sorts, in a post-industrial, warehouse-like space. The viewer passes through walls, descends, ascends, and dons a cloak of invisibility while spying on a ponytailed sitter working on a MacBook, all the while looking at visceral, painterly surroundings.

A timeless sort of rest – or unrest – is offered up by Dean Byington in The Inquisitors, (image 3) in which images borrowed from old prints and drawings are collaged in a sprawling wasteland of landscape and architectural elements. While, perhaps, being slowly inundated with water, above this wasteland sits a house on stilts. It is the emblematic and dizzying setting of past, present and future folklore.

The penultimate works in the show are two paintings by Pedro Barbeito depicting the Large Hadron Collider in 3D printed form and the Higgs Boson Particle (or the God Particle). This work is necessary and important just as, in a gross understatement, the God Particle is necessary and important, as it gives mass to everything in the universe. The formal simplification and examination—as well as artistic and technical meditation—on the Hadron Collider is symbolic: it pays homage to and incites fascination with the project of proving the God Particle’s existence, which is, in and of itself, oxymoronic and poetic.

Author: Bridget Bailey is an artist and educator in Nashville, TN.