When Taos-based artist Johnnie Winona Ross spoke about his work in a Friends of Contemporary Art lecture on Friday, Jan. 23, he revealed what he felt was one of the greatest compliments he ever received. When respected critic Carter Ratcliff, who penned the essay for Ross’ monograph with Radius Books, first visited Ross’ studio, he was moved to say, “Your paintings are really paintings.”
What Ratcliff meant, we are led to believe, is that at a point in history when the concept of painting has not only been intermingled with “the object,” but has also been assaulted by collage, mixed-media, digital printing, photography, etc., Ross still goes to the studio, stretches linen and painstakingly works paint—and paint alone—to achieve his austere, multi-layered, contemplative works.
Ross also spoke about time—the huge commitment of time it takes to make his work—which again alluded to a sense of quality. This latter certainly can be the case. The Santa Fe painter Geoffrey Laurence is a classic, figurative painter, whereas Ross paints minimal abstractions, but both are traditional, quality-obsessed painters and both require significant time to properly complete their works.
But these things are relative to inspiration and context. Leonard Cohen is one of the great popular lyricists of all time and he painstakingly shaped his songs to contain all the reference, wit and innuendo that are expected from them. On the other hand, he probably plays second fiddle to Bob Dylan as far as legendary lyricists go and Dylan is known to have scrawled many a song in the time it took him to finish a leisurely cup of coffee.
At the full-to-the-brim group exhibition Levels of Inquiry: Unknown, Emerging + Mature, currently at the Gerald Peters Gallery, there are all manner of works, some that clearly consumed fair amounts of time and others that clearly consumed much less. It is regrettably arguable how much inquiry of any kind occurs in the exhibition. The inclusion of Carola Clift, James Lofton and Arlo Namingha cannot successfully raise the bar on so indulgent a selection of immature works.
The most striking work in the exhibition is surely Michael Namingha’s “Untitled (Rorschach Series),” a 13-foot-long riff on Giuliano Bugiardini’s 16th century “Madonna and Child with Saint John.” Except for being digitally tweaked to fold back in on itself multiple times, the image appears unaltered by Namingha and the work is a digital print on canvas. So to return to Ross and Ratcliff—is it really a painting?
Obviously it doesn’t really matter on such a micro level. The more pertinent question is perhaps whether or not its materiality and process justify the $12,000 price tag because we are all in a room together calling it art, possibly even “painting.” We know that the ends can justify the means, but only when the ends are actually satisfactory.
There are pleasures in Namingha’s piece, pleasures that are derived specifically from the process. The pixely smudge that limns the Madonna imbues both an ethereal presence and a graphic, almost—but not quite—painterly musculature that only just fails to stand in for texture. A mirrored mass of trees in the center of the work beams out like a fearsome, iconic godhead and, in this way, how Namingha has altered, but also exalted, the original piece becomes engaging. Also, there’s no doubt he spent more time on the work than most other people in the exhibition spent on theirs, albeit from behind a computer.
But the result is surely less satisfying than standing in front of Bugiardini’s painting. So is Namingha satisfied—even compelled—by disdaining original imagery and hand technique? Does his work prey on the easy, visual appetites of today’s media-saturated populace or is it a subtle indictment of the same? Are we expected to believe that it can be art simply because it signifies art?
For now, we can each believe what we like. In the end, only time will tell.
Levels of Inquiry: Unknown, Emerging + Mature
Through Feb. 28
Gerald Peters Gallery
1011 Paseo de Peralta