The once heated debate over the relevance of painting, or its ability to say anything critical at all, barely makes sense to contemporary audiences. But if the stakes around the question of painting’s “death” evaporated some time ago, what do we make of the lingering presence of these concerns in Sebastian Blanck’s current work? One of the major terms of this series would be the embrace of op-art surface effects to counteract the modernist impasse of material surface versus picture plane. In this case, such devices call to mind the artists of the 1980s who regenerated painting through their re-discovery of the painted surface as a lens or scrim where vision penetrated and could be assembled. By this route, figuration could gradually be reintroduced and yet remain, to the relief of many, “problematic.” Painting was thus restored to academic credibility while the new chief terms were swiftly institutionalized, helped along as artists like Ross Bleckner, Philip Taaffe or Christopher Wool among others entered both the canons and tenure-track teaching posts.
It’s always useful to ask how a younger generation comes into an understanding of artistic practice, or sets its agenda by misusing, shunning, or appropriating in half-measures the terms of prior discussions. How does Blanck come into his subject matter? We might remark that he shorts the circuit by grabbing from what is immediate and proximate, but which couldn’t ever be written off as incidental. One’s personal life. A love. The figure featured in all these paintings is Sebastian’s long time live-in partner, and in these works the daily routine of their shared life is accorded a solemn, almost hymnal treatment. Relating this back to the situation of the current generation, I’d argue that marshaling private emotional existence amounts to a strategy for building commitment into a painterly discourse that, for better or worse, is a received one. The effort to add complexity to a domestic image overlaps with the effort to eke out a personal space within the codified set of moves allowed by “serious” painting.
The paintings begin with an underlayer painted in quickly and sparsely so as to capitalize on the luminosity of the white support. Maximal coloristic effect is achieved so that the space seems to liquefy. Plumes of mist and light intermingle. Bathroom weather is trumped into an immersive, dissolving, ecosphere somewhat reminiscent of Bonnard’s elegiac tubs.
What will gradually emerge is a two part image: a monumental nude in a shallow architectural space overlaid with a grid-like matrix. With the introduction of the curtain, the painter’s process is regularized further. Blanck typically begins in the upper left of the painting and works his way down to the lower right, sometimes painting freehand, sometimes with the aid of a stencil. The curtain of dots spreads over the canvas so that their structure is affected by the slight inconsistencies of the human hand. The curtain might begin to, as the artist says, “undulate.” It flips over on itself. The expressive hand gives way to a responsive eye that sees, intuits, and draws color from the underlying figure to deposit it conspicuously onto the canvas in thin but rich and semi-opaque discs. There is a sense that these discs serve an ambiguous analytical function. They sample the underlayer, paraphrasing its colors, segmenting its forms. In many ways the scrim of the curtain serves as a pedestal, engaging the figural layer in order to accentuate or exaggerate it as though to prolong the pleasure of its viewing, or to force this pleasure into new forms.
This persistent desire to linger over the gestalt of the figure is tempered by the most apparent respect, almost need, for a final sense of that figure’s integrity. The origin of the shower curtain might offer the beginnings of an explanation for this. It’s the kind of patterned, clear vinyl curtain that makes its way to home stores everywhere, flattering us with a prismatic blaze every time the shower is turned on. The curtain’s effects are ready-made, originating neither in the paintings themselves nor the sensitized eyes of the artist. And here is the breakout. The curtain is prepared for us in advance by a commodity culture that penetrates everyday life on a mission to aestheticize all its events and minor details in order to sell them back to us. In situating themselves around this contradiction, these paintings capture the commodification of the everyday in the act, upsetting the cynical system where most everything, including the spontaneous visual incident, can be stolen away and marketed back to its owners.
by Jason Kakoyiannis and Matthew Rich