Heroic Painting

at the Chicago Cultural Center, through March 15

Gaylen Gerber

at the Chicago Project Room, through March 21

By Fred Camper

Because our culture has little use for heroes, with the occasional exception of a basketball player or movie star, I was curious to see the “Heroic Paintings” exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center, 16 paintings by eight contemporary artists. But this traveling exhibit, organized by North Carolina’s Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, is more antiheroic than traditionally heroic. Here we’re given unconventional heroes equivocally rendered: an African-American Civil War soldier, several Native Americans, Japanese farmers in Hiroshima just before the bomb. Some works subtly indict cultures based on heroic ideals–Nazi Germany and the USSR–that turned to mass murder. And in a witty parody of hegemonic art, Mark Tansey depicts one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most controversial designs, the Guggenheim Museum, as a Civil War gunboat.

What we don’t get is anyone or anything to admire. But then, admiration for national leaders–like straight portraiture–is no longer a vital part of our vocabulary. Among the worst contemporary paintings on view in Washington, D.C., are the depictions of our last few presidents in the National Portrait Gallery. Hard as it may be to make a hero out of Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan, it’s harder still to make a good “heroic” painting that expresses both admiration for and subtle doubts about its subject. For one thing, the whole idea of admiring anyone–except a pop icon–is now questionable. Tatsuya McCoy in a Chicago exhibit a year and a half ago turned Batman’s cape into a canvas-filling icon, but similar views of contemporary noncartoon figures are rare. Indeed, it was a deifying painting of the late Harold Washington in the clouds that “inspired” an art student to paint him in ladies’ underwear about ten years ago.

Bo Bartlett in Civil War (1995) attempts to create new kinds of heroes, showing two women mourning fallen soldiers. The wife of a Confederate soldier is in the background, while the center is occupied by a white woman cradling a bare-chested black Union soldier in a pieta pose. Her body rises centered against the sky, and together with her reflection in some water and a large patch of snow, her head and torso make a crucifix shape. But the fact that Bartlett doesn’t paint these figures very well undercuts his effort to ennoble them: their bodies display none of the rhythmic verve one might find in a Renaissance religious scene, and his colors are flat and stale, with none of the depth and complexity of a Corot or Courbet, whose compositions Bartlett dimly recalls. Though Civil War is interesting for its content, as a painting it’s a dud. Here the failure of the heroic stems from a simple lack of skill–but this isn’t quite as accidental as it sounds. Painters today are rarely trained as they were in earlier centuries; “heroic” artistic skill itself is little admired. In our readymade world, any old appropriator can be an artist.

Walton Ford’s provocative paintings suffer from a similar deficiency. A Faulty Seat (1992) shows a white man whose horse seems about to throw him while black servants–or slaves–attempt to rein it in. As curator Susan Lubowsky points out in her catalog essay, the painting replaces the traditional mastery of the heroic equestrian portrait with its opposite. But when equestrian portraits work it’s because of the way they’re painted. Great painters from Velazquez, with his rhythmic intensity, to Paolo Uccello have made men on horses spring to life with startling force. But Ford’s horse isn’t even convincing in its unsteadiness; his depiction is as bland as a magazine illustration.

Three painters with greater skill offer parodies of traditional heroic paintings, but unfortunately it’s not easy to tell they’re parodies. Collaborators Komar and Melamid in Lenin Proclaims the Victory of the Revolution (After the First Version by V. Serov) (1982) give us the oft-seen poses of Soviet art: Lenin’s frown and outstretched hand emphasize his iron forcefulness, while Stalin is horrifyingly avuncular in light of subsequent history. The painting’s very presence in a U.S. fine art exhibit is provocative: like a readymade, it’s out of place, and its tongue-in-cheek title adds to the irony. But I wondered if the painting wouldn’t have passed unnoticed in a Soviet gallery.

Lawrence Gipe’s massive Triptych No. 1 From the Century of Progress Museum (1992) offers straightforwardly heroic views of industry. A gigantic black steel ladle is genuinely powerful, and the smoke rising dramatically in an outdoor industrial scene underscores the way heavy industry almost magically transforms its materials. These pictures made me think of King Vidor’s great 1944 film, An American Romance–a paean to American steelmaking that ends with a celebratory view of World War II warplanes. But where Vidor was unambiguously admiring, Gipe is not. He’s printed German words at the bottom of his pictures, which the wall label explains were used to greet the slave laborers employed by industrialist Krupp during the same war as in Vidor’s film. Though in the catalog Gipe calls the Krupp family “heroic,” it’s clear he doesn’t genuinely admire them. Yet what he calls an “aestheticized portrayal…reinforc[ing] the myth-making agenda of large-scale painting” might well have appealed to Herr Krupp himself. Like Komar and Melamid, Gipe fails to incorporate his critique into the way he paints, relegating it instead to the context supplied by his text.

Mark Tansey’s even more pointed depictions of imaginary historical scenes made me smile, at least at first. His Constructing the Grand Canyon (1990) shows that famous natural wonder being carved out by men who chip rock with a jackhammer or load crushed stone into a railcar. The rock faces are covered with mostly illegible words–among the few readable phrases are “imperious subject” and “our representations”–and the laborers are apparently being directed by literary critics and deconstructionists, including Michel Foucault and the Yale School. While Tansey’s monochromatic tint recalls early photography, his composition refers to the monumental 19th-century landscape paintings of the west by Albert Bierstadt and others. But his point seems to be to create, contra Bierstadt, an antiheroic, antiromantic view of landscape. All views are human constructions, he seems to say, the products of our cultural history. Yet it’s also true that the Grand Canyon is made of rock, not words–its canyon walls can be hiked, its river kayaked or rafted, physical facts that Tansey’s circular joke seems to deny. His paintings, always provocative on first viewing, do not seem to grow or deepen on a second or third.

Lubowsky mentions in her essay the difficulty she had “finding women artists whose subject and style fit the heroic theme,” citing as a possible explanation Suzi Gablik’s observation that “heroism was the linchpin of patriarchy.” Perhaps the six male painters on view are uncomfortable with heroism for that reason, but the one painter whose work does not fall flat in some way is Julie Heffernan. Her allusive pictures blend witty parodies of past ideals with layered images, often sketched over the main scene, to create a skein of clear and enigmatic allusions so dense that it never collapses into itself.

Heffernan combines several narratives in Self-Portrait as Infanta Maria Teresa Playing Coriolanus (1995): giving herself the elaborate hairdo of Velazquez’s famous infanta, Heffernan plays Coriolanus, a Roman warrior who refused to show his wounds to a mob, though she shows us the bandaged wound from a recent ectopic pregnancy. Painting herself nude amid a “mob” of bulls and dogs, she seems a powerful, sexually liberated figure, in contrast to the infanta, with her restrictive clothing and pose. Heffernan also insets a few color images and many red-and-white line drawings of figures, including a glowing superhero and others less decipherable.

Though Heffernan’s multiple narratives undercut the idea of the hero and his singular story, she paints the central figure with the same subtlety and richness as the background landscape: the old masters are her models. And though there’s irony in her historical references, her nude also stands proudly in the present, a fount from which all the other images seem to spring. “Embedded in any creative act is an implication of heroism,” Heffernan told me, and indeed her work seems to revel in the imaginative triumph of multiple images and stories. This artist replaces such linchpins of patriarchy as the single equestrian hero with her own multivalent creations–an approach in which each of us can be a hero.

All of the work in “Heroic Painting” relies for much of its meaning on historical and cultural references. And with the exception of Heffernan, these artists primarily critique past culture. Is “heroism” then doomed to find expression only in the negative?

Well, no. A wide variety of young artists have been turning their modest ambitions into a theme in itself, rather than letting their approach seem the product of a satirical mind or insufficient skill. This emergent art consciously takes up less space, unlike viewer-dwarfing old master portraits and Bierstadt landscapes. This is an art that redefines the viewer as an equal participant with the artist, retreating from the grandeur of the equestrian statue towering above our heads.

Chicago artist Gaylen Gerber decided to hang only three works at the Chicago Project Room. In a space that could easily accommodate 30 such pieces, he built a wall only a bit higher than eye level, sealing off the larger portion of the room, and hung them there. Even in the smaller space Gerber created, his paintings feel less like the room’s focal point than like selected incidents in a mostly blank space. One of the works is a plain gray; the other two contain ghostly images so insubstantial they almost force the viewer to “construct” them. Each is a 31-inch square “photograph” mounted within a Plexiglas frame: though Gerber began with eight-by-ten black-and-white negatives of a blue sky, he then had each printed a neutral gray. One of the works remains that way, but Gerber added graphite to the other two, rubbed or dropped through silkscreens made from snapshots he took.

Born in McAllen, Texas, in 1955, Gerber has been making paintings with faint images for over a decade. He began exhibiting photographic work only recently, and looking at his work, I saw influences from painting. His reference to blue sky, for example, is in a way very close to early modernism with its idea of transparency–one thinks of the suprematist compositions of Malevich. But Gerber explicitly opposes such absolutism, trying tentatively to find another, more qualified kind of image making.

The images he does create are faint, variable, often almost decayed looking. Clear Sky/Garden Addition shows the side of a house so nondescript it could be anywhere. Since the graphite seems to have been applied irregularly, there are lighter and darker areas and variable textures that dominate the image’s wood siding. White blotches at two edges look like water damage. Several flowers in the foreground of Clear Sky/Flower recall Warhol’s flower paintings–and Gerber cites childhood exposure to pop art as an important early influence. But he offers an antifetishistic alternative to Warhol’s sensuous fetishization of color and paint. The graphite is so irregularly applied that in itself it’s hardly a subject. Some flowers are bright, some dark, and some seem almost lost in smudgy gray powder. This extreme variation makes the viewer aware of the accidental nature of all representation, the result of local conditions at the moment of creation. (In fact, one influence Gerber cites is On Kawara, who paints blank fields except for a clearly lettered date–the date each was painted–replacing the “externality” of color-field painting with the specificity of a single day.)

What’s most immediately compelling about Gerber’s images, however, is also what differentiates them from the works in “Heroic Painting” (except Heffernan’s): they refuse to lie flat on the wall. The varying thicknesses and densities of graphite create images that hover at various levels depending on the angle and distance of viewing. And the Plexiglas distances the viewer from the work, making the graphite more suggestive, more spatially ambiguous. We see the hint of an image, but we’re not sure where it is: on the paper? in our minds? The artist consciously reinforces the transitory nature of art viewing, dependent on the viewer and his circumstances: this picture will be “completed” only when we see the room and ourselves reflected in the Plexiglas.

Though the three works are separable, the whole exhibit can be taken as a single work. As such, the blank gray image, Untitled (Clear Sky), hung alongside the others asserts its equality with them. Emptiness, the pure sky from which it’s drawn, and actual images are all alike, no better and no worse. All are occasions for isolated moments of perception with no meaning beyond fleeting contact with the endless flux of existence, which when stripped of hubristic attempts to connect it to grand meanings is but a series of instants.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Self-Portrait as Infanta Maria Teresa Pllaying Coriolanus” by Julie Heffernan/ “Clean Sky/Garden Addition,” “Clea sky/ Flower,” “Untitled (Clear Sky” by Gaylen Gerber.