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So You Think You Know Painting?

Well known curator Bob Nickas has spent several months visiting studios in L.A., New York, London, Paris and Berlin and he’s selected a group of works that exemplify his version of where abstract painting is today. "Cave Painting" is the second in a three part series of exhibitions presented in conjunction with the publication of his new book Painting Abstraction by Phaidion Press. Presented in the unusual space of the basement of 511 West 25th Street, this show will no doubt be controversial, and should give the painting pundits many topics of debate. Includes an interview with Gresham’s Ghost Director Ajay Kurian.

I’ll admit it, I’m a painter. I like everything about painting, and I like group exhibitions of painting, especially when they’re presented with the added prestige of an institution or a publication that bolsters their premise as being an example of the rarefied essence of contemporary thinking about the medium. I enjoy disagreeing with the taste makers.

Barbara Rose’s wrongheaded “American Painting the Eighties” was an early favorite. It raised hackles and earned the curator sever spankings from damn near everyone who saw the show. Other classics were the German painting show at the Guggenheim in the mid eighties, and more recently MoMA’s “What is Painting?” Despite the questionable relevance of painting to Post Modernism’s hot trends, for art fans at least, there’s no better way to initiate dialog than to hang up some paintings and say “this is the most interesting stuff out there.” I respect the curators who have the guts to do the leg work, make tough choices, and then do what amounts to hanging a sign on their backs saying KICK ME HARD.

“Abstract Painting” of course is like saying “Love the Earth” or “for the children”, and in “Cave Painting” Nickas includes work that wouldn’t exactly fit the general category of abstraction. Of course, as with the above mentioned slogans, the devil is in the interpretation. Still, if you can include apparent landscapes and still lives as abstraction, this seems to render the term meaningless, but just “painting” would remove the nail on which Nickas is hanging his deconstructionist hat.

Many of the artists presented here have been familiar for some time now, and seem safe choices. One of the knocks against the current batch of trendy curators is that they keep recycling the same fifty international artists. While I generally enjoy seeing work by well recognized practitioners, I’d have liked to have been introduced to a few more unseen artists, and perhaps get the sense that Nickas was going out on an aesthetic limb, entering the no man’s land of the unfashionable “cutting edge”. Perhaps the real question remaining here is: how did these artists get seen? Are we still limited to a consensus of what’s been approved by institutions, the market and galleries?

“Cave Painting” does exactly what a good exhibit should, it gets people thinking, talking and seeing. Sit down, have a drink and discuss the fine points, and what better medium to explore the fine points of art, than good old painting?