Since the late 1970s and 1980s, works by Barbara Kruger have been unmistakable for their distinct visual language that combines black and-white found imagery with bold, insistent texts, often rendered in color, and most commonly in bright red. This direct, straightforward aesthetic sets the stage for complex questions of power, influence and politics to emerge and impact the viewer. In Untitled (Value) (2013), Kruger returns to her iconic montages juxtaposed with a provocative text: encompassing the length of the picture plane is a woman in profile gazing enraptured at a piece of jewelry which rests in her hand, framed in her signature red. The word—‘value’—stands between the figure and the object, serving as a biting reminder of the dark underbelly of capitalism and solidifies Kruger’s role as a consistent and critical observer of identity politics, human desire, mass media and consumerism. A bold and simplified composition, the work is humorous, vigilant, sympathetic and acerbic as it warns of a collective voyeurism and narcissism that characterize contemporary life.
Anne Imhof, winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2017, is recognized internationally for her innovative approach to art-making, which often involves working with collaborators to collectively produce performances, films and installations. In the oil painting, Rise I (2023), a distinctively nebulous shape erupts from a green background. Imhof’s painting method involves layers upon layers of paint, which fully saturate the canvas, yet are blended until the painting’s atmosphere recalls those of the artist’s performances: artificial, disarming and seductive. Similarly to the explosions that appear throughout her oil paintings, the cloud-like shape seems active and full of dramaturgical license as it unfurls across the pictorial plane, with a shock of blood-red paint crowning the top of the canvas. The climactic billowing presence which emerges from the foreground, shrouded and powerful, animates a space that resembles a digital creation yet is rendered in the traditional medium of oil paint.
An exhibition highlighting Imhof’s practice will be on view at Sprüth Magers, Los Angeles through May 6, 2023.
Henni Alftan’s practice stems from a deep engagement with the medium of painting, its methods and its histories, resulting in pictures of daily life that are intimately familiar and yet intriguingly unknowable. Based on a process of observation and deduction, her figurative paintings are precise and carefully cropped, culminating in a studied economy of means. In spite of her pared-down aesthetic, Alftan’s experiments with color, texture, scale and perspective produce canvases rich in layered meanings that double as metaphors for seeing and comprehending the world through the physical properties of paint. Nosebleed (2022) makes up part of Alftan’s Déjà-Vu diptych series, which sees the artist create two sequential actions within the same scene, resulting in a tugging sense of unease, of underlying tension and anticipation. These canvases are always installed in different rooms or even locations in order to be seen separately and to activate the viewer’s memories, allowing them to experience a sense of uncanny recognition while emphasizing the space and physicality of her canvases as objects in-and-of themselves.
Occupying one of the central positions in the landscape of American painting for the past forty years, George Condo creates works that bridge an array of aesthetic gestures, moods and influences from fields such as art history, music, philosophy and popular culture. Combining elements of Old Master painting, Cubism, Surrealism, Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism with imagery from mass media, his unique pictorial language synthesizes sources from across the spectrum of Western art history. Spatial Diagram (2015) demonstrates Condo’s mastery of color, composition and image and imbues his creation with a unique vision of humanity. Here, bold geometry creates an idiosyncratic assemblage of a face—features begin to appear: wide open eyes, protruding ears, gnashing teeth emerging out of the dissonance of shapes. The subtly muted palette lends itself to the chaos which unfurls across the picture plane as daubs of vibrant reds, blues and yellows spring from the canvas. Executed in acrylic, metallic paint, charcoal and pastel, his painterly language is rife with a freedom which blurs the distinction between drawing and painting and conveys the full spectrum of human emotion as well as the complexity and contradictions of human life.
In his series All Z’s (Picabia/Mondrian) (2017), John Baldessari adopted fragments from the visual heritage of two figureheads of twentieth-century art, overlaying and juxtaposing their iconic compositions with his own interventions. As Baldessari noted in 2017: “Picabia and Mondrian . . . I felt it was the time to put the two together. Collision is a working principle of mine. When you collide two things, you see what makes them special or different.” Known for his pairing of words and images that push against one another in a dance of meaning and metaphor, Baldessari appropriates art reproductions by each artist and puts them in dialogue with plain captions below, presenting each as equal elements that form the starting point for a new reading—but also whiting out portions of the image so as to frustrate reading as well. In All Z’s (Picabia/Mondrian): Zebu, Baldessari references words that begin with the letter Z and whose meaning is not immediately apparent: “Zebu,” “Zap,” “Zarzuela,” “Zealot.” As Baldessari noted, “I don’t think Z enters our life very much, except for in jazz.”
Emerging in the 1990s, Sylvie Fleury’s early “shopping bag” installations laid the foundations for a body of work that became as provocative as it is playful, tapping into our sentimental and aesthetic attachments to consumerist culture through installations, sculptures and mixed media works. Fleury heralded a new artistic trend by subverting the codes of consumption, creating an interplay between fashion and art, while interrogating the relationship between desire and fetishism. Patrick & Piet & Kenneth (II) (1996) juxtaposes the work of three men: Kenneth Noland’s iconic concentric circle compositions—but transposed into a pedestal—with shoes designed by Patrick Cox that mimic the celebrated lines and colors of Piet Mondrian’s paintings. Fleury nudges pointedly at the concept of display, a primary presentation mechanism both in clothing stores and galleries and museums, and brilliantly merges these worlds into an object that is as cutting as it is stylish and attractive.
Part political statement, part formalist work of art, Unavailable (2023) belongs to Jenny Holzer’s ongoing and ever-evolving redaction painting series. The panel reproduces a heavily censored page from a report, released to the public under the Freedom of Information Act, pertaining to the USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act), drafted before portions of the law were set to expire in 2005. The USA PATRIOT Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2001 as a response to the September 11 attacks; its intent was to deter and punish terrorism by expanding law enforcement surveillance abilities, improving interagency counterterrorism communications, and increasing penalties for terrorist crimes, among other provisions. This is an entirely redacted page from a section on obstacles to sharing information between intelligence investigators and criminal agents and prosecutors prior to the PATRIOT Act. Holzer meticulously reproduces these declassified documents—most of which are redacted, in this case fully—silkscreening or tracing their contents onto canvases and then covering swathes of the surface in opulent metal leaf. By reproducing and enlarging the contents of these reports so carefully, the artist brings attention to the deliberate erasure and concealment of information by the government. She also evokes a long history of abstraction—in particular the Constructivist movement’s notion that art could be directed towards social purposes—as well as the gilded panels of medieval religious icons.
Since the late 1980s, benches and footstools have formed a crucial part of Jenny Holzer’s work, which regularly combines texts with everyday forms in the public sphere. Each sculpture features a thought-provoking phrase written by the artist, in this case from one of her most iconic series of texts, Truisms. Written between 1977 and 1979, the series distills complex ideas into deceptively straightforward statements, many of which cut to the core of our trust in the systems and institutions around us. “Unquestioning love demonstrates largesse”—the text on this carrara white marble bench by Holzer is an ambiguous one-liner which can be both powerfully motivating and uplifting as a sentiment as well as revealing of the sometimes adverse effects of contemporary culture. The heaviness of the stone adds to the symbolic weight of Holzer’s words. By prompting the viewer to slow down and consider their own positions on the statements she offers, Holzer harnesses the power of language and transforms an otherwise mundane experience into a moment for reflection.
Photographs of artwork created by other artists have been the subject matter of Louise Lawler’s oeuvre since the late 1970s, when she began her complex photographic investigations into often overlooked or tacitly aesthetic forms of art experiences in museums, collections, auction houses and storage depots. Lawler moves beyond documentation and captures the often uncanny moment where highly recognizable modern art masterpieces undergo a shift in the situational relationship with their surroundings and, by extension, how the meaning of artworks change depending on the context in which they are seen. Evening Sale (2010/2015) was taken at Sotheby’s, Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 12 May, 2010 in New York and depicts two paintings: Self Portrait by Andy Warhol (Lot 9) and Number 12a, 1948: Yellow, Gray, Black by Jackson Pollock (Lot 12). The photograph is tightly cropped and allows the viewer only a glimpse into the scene. The visual landscape within the work becomes abridged to a taxonomy of signs, whereby one can distinguish Warhol’s iconic wig and the signature drip of Pollock on a far wall even with the removal of contextual clues. Lawler relishes details like these, which question the ideas of authorship and originality, as well as the notion of identity invested in works of art and their display.
One of the most important representatives of figurative painting, sculpture, video and installation in the last four decades, Karen Kilimnik continues to produce work that is as wide-ranging as it is groundbreaking. The artist brings together historical cultural references—including ballet, the aristocracy and Romanticism—with the spheres of books, music, film and television. The figures and animals in her compositions are recognizable to many from the realms of art and world history, fairy tales, pop charts or the pages of magazines, yet they are rendered surreal and often unnerving through the artist’s deft manipulations of both content and painterly material. the emerald sea + the beach (2022) is indicative of Kilimnik’s lush style of painting that achieves a feeling of cheeky opulence via bold colors, velvety brushwork and luxurious, curious characters. The canvas highlights a verdant setting, with a view of the sky, sand and sea shaded in pastel greens and blues beyond. This work is noticeably larger than her other series of paintings yet remain completely her own due to her balanced sense of color and form. Kilimnik’s refined use of medium and penchant for fantasy are apparent, as is her playful approach to style and substance.
An exhibition pairing Kilimnik’s paintings and drawings with Old Master works that inspired them is on view at Sprüth Magers, New York through March 18, 2023.
The late Kaari Upson created a groundbreaking body of work that delves into the deep-seeded motivations and urges that inform the human experience. In meticulously composed drawings, haunting paintings and engaging sculptures and installations, the artist explored the nature of our relationships with ourselves and others, and with the spaces we inhabit. Untitled (Grandpa Table) (2019), first displayed in the 2019 Venice Biennale, is a key example of Upson’s sculptures cast from domestic objects that she transformed into uncanny, sometimes grotesque forms via the casting and mold-making process. A side table, cast from one belonging to the artist’s grandfather, sits on its side, covered with transparent pink objects and protrusions in the form of lamps and irons—old-fashioned-looking belongings that harken to a different era. The work’s pale creams and pinks liken it to flesh, albeit a ghostly kind, and tap into the notions of repetition, doubling, domesticity and familial ties for which Upson was best known.
Kara Walker’s candid investigations of race, gender, sexuality, and violence through silhouetted figures that have appeared in numerous exhibitions worldwide have cemented her as one of the most complex contemporary American painters of her generation. Widely known for her use of cut-paper silhouettes, drawing remains central to her practice and reveals the scope of her artistic processes which are rife with art historical references. Executed in 2022, The Origin of the World (Juried Art Competition) makes pointed reference to Gustave Courbet’s painting of the same name (1866), while rewriting the original intent for one of his most allegorically laden compositions, The Painter’s Studio (1855), now in the collection of the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, to feature a Black painter at the center of the work. Here, the artist’s muse becomes the artist, vaunted by her beret, occupying the center of the visual tableau. A masked man to her right, a child and mysterious creature on her left take up the rest of the pictorial plane and invert the original work to offer the viewer an allegory of the personal history of the artist.
With a focus on the conceptual implications of craft, Rosemarie Trockel investigates cultural codes and social roles as well as the long standing hierarchy between craft and fine art that challenges our narrowly conceived social norms regarding the idea of the male artistic genius, gender roles and cultural philosophies. Like all of the mediums she tackles, her paintings have taken on many iterations. Trockel first gained renown in the 1980s for her “knitting pictures,” wool works that were machine produced but whose materials were associated with women’s work and more traditionally feminine handicraft techniques. As with a painting on canvas, which from afar displays a scene or composition but up-close shows its visible brushstrokes, so too do Trockel’s wool works reveal their materiality upon closer looking—an illusion that is alluded to with the work’s evocative title, Inotherwords (2012). Taking their place among the canon of abstract painting, Trockel’s monochromes project a warm presence, adding a grounded, human element to this long-standing, and largely male-dominated, history.
As one of the most innovative American artists of the postwar era and a seminal figure in the Los Angeles art world during this time, Craig Kauffman created painterly and sculptural objects that continually experimented with form, color, material and space. In his series of Constructed Paintings from 1973 to 1976, Kauffman deliberately returned to basics and challenged the rectangular format of painting. The works from this series reflect his life-long interest in unorthodox supports for painting, as well as a striking and luminous sensibility of color. As is characteristic of the series, Wooster Orange (1975) sees Kauffman develop a personal vocabulary of shapes by implementing a lightweight but dimensionally stable wood called jelutong to form the structural elements of the frame. Canvas and muslin attached to the front and back of these supports, with areas left open to expose and make use of the wall and space between the painted elements. Kauffman’s use of color, linear structure and shape with which he achieves the architectural presence of the series, bridge the gap between painting and sculpture and cement the series as one of his most significant groups of works.
Every one of these pieces started as a drawing, even though the final painting may seem to have an improvisational feeling. Each construction can be traced to a sheet within a sketchbook, of a single structure in line form, without gradation or shading. Some drawings are taken from a sheet of paper with four or six images. The date range of the drawings is from 1973 to 1974.
Regarding the structure, when questioned about the relationship of the linear wood and painted areas to the negative space of the Constructed Paintings, Kauffman simply stated that “the structure is the image, the beginnings of the image. And it’s self-supporting, and independently strong. That’s been a preoccupation of mine since the plastic pieces; those were all self-supporting.”
An upcoming exhibition highlighting Kauffman’s practice and focusing on his Constructed Paintings series will be on view at Sprüth Magers, London from April to May, 2023.