Exhibitions: The medium was tedium

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The Independent Culture
Examining Pictures: Exhibiting Pictures

Whitechapel Art Gallery, London

What is it with the Whitechapel Gallery and Velzquez? Look at the exhibition notes to Ed Ruscha's 1962 painting, Heavy Industry - a vast black canvas with the words of its title stencilled maladroitly across it - and you will read the following: "This is not the art of, say, Velzquez painting the whole of the Spanish court." Well, no. While scratching your head over that shaft of insight, turn to the introductory essay in the catalogue to the Whitechapel's new show, of which Ruscha's work forms a part. Pick your way past the gallery director's thoughts about "the choice of a thematic show, placed in dialectical relationship to the molten flow of globalism," and muse instead on this: "In that gesture" - ie, the decision to dribble paint on canvas - "Jackson Pollock metaphorically crashes into Velzquez's Las Meninas of 1656, breaking into that hall of mirrors that for more than three centuries has been the fiction of painting." Velzquez (rather than, say, Ingres) drove Pollock (rather than, say, Kandinsky) to abstraction? We need to know more.

Confused? Me too. Let us look for a moment at what "Examining Pictures" is supposed to be about. According to the gallery's press blurb, "painting today faces different challenges", what with "the impact of globalisation and new technology", never mind Velzquez. (No, don' t ask why.) None the less, says the gallery, there has been "a curious shift towards painting" since the 1980s. "Challenged, attacked, dismissed and subverted, painting has never been abandoned or forgotten"; indeed, "Liberated from the rhetoric of one `ism' or another, painting is now a free zone, for many artists ... the medium which is claiming the attention of many emerging artists."

Leave aside that only one of the four finalists in last year's Turner Prize competition was actually a painter, and assume that all this is true: how might you go about curating a show aimed at proving it? The curators of "Examining Pictures" have selected 60 pictures from around Europe and America, one from each of the artists included, covering the 40 years from Francis Bacon's Sleeping Figure of 1959 to Michael Raedecker's Drift of 1999. (Velzquez, of course, was the apple of Bacon' s painterly eye, but let that pass.) These are divided into "Historical Artists" - history having apparently stopped in or about 1993 for the Whitechapel's purposes; these include such surprising names as Vija Celmins and Peter Halley - and "Contemporary Artists" like Gary Hume and Marlene Dumas. (That Dumas's "contemporary" The White Disease was painted seven years before Celmins's historical Desert Surface #2 need not concern us.)

Let me say at this point that "Examining Pictures" is, on one level, a terrific show, and that anyone with any interest in contemporary painting should make the journey to Aldgate East with all dispatch. Most of the works by people you will have heard of are from private collections and thus you will probably not have seen: Georg Baselitz's B fur Larry (1967), for example, or Hockney's surprisingly interesting I'm in the mood for love (1961). Add to this the fact that the exhibition also includes revelatory works by relatively unknown painters - Simone Berti's Untitled (1998) and Thomas Scheibitz's piece of muscular new colourism, House (no 157) of 1998, spring to mind - and you will see where the pleasures of "Examining Pictures" lie.

If you are in the mood for a little instruction with your retinal hits, though, then prepare to be frustrated: the Whitechapel's exhibition is almost wilfully uninformative. Described as "a provocative analysis" in its accompanying press release, the show is in reality neither analytical nor provoking. Shunning all those nasty isms, the pictures in "Examining Pictures" are apparently hung at random, a portrait here, a mock Anselm Kiefer woodcut there, history and contemporaneity elided in a single jog-trot through the painting of the last 40 years. Occasional thematic links seem to occur in the hang - David Rayson's car-park portrait, From Ashmore Park to Wednesfield (1999), and Laura Owens's adjoining Untitled (Floorboards) of 1996 both invite us to examine spaces usually overlooked by art, for example - but you can not be sure that any of these congruities are really intended.

This maddening discretion presumably has some kind of philosophical purpose behind it. Given the curators' unusual views on the link between Velzquez and Pollock, it seems fair to guess that they hope to do with conventional museology what Pollock did with preparatory sketches: that is to say, to dispense with it. The exhibition's name is apparently meant to offer some delicate hint as to the thinking behind the show. "Examining Pictures" is the title of a work by the American painter, John Baldessari, which the artist described as "the moment when I finished with painting" (on the grounds that "a notebook entry about painting could replace painting") and began instead to pay a sign-painter to paint signs on his behalf. That this ground zero of artistic world-weariness should have lent its name to the Whitechapel's exhibition suggests that the show's curators may see the work as somehow emblematic of the mood of painting in the last 40 years.

Looking at the pictures in "Examining Pictures", this certainly seems a plausible enough view to hold. All the works in the exhibition are in some degree ironic: whether it is the mock-putti of Basselitz, the exposed pentimenti of Celmins or the Day-Glo Roll-A-Tex and pretentious verbiage of Peter Halley, these are paintings which are clearly uneasy with received ideas of painterliness. Without some kind of organised hang or curatorial rubric to tell us this, though, there is every chance that we will come away from the Whitechapel with the idea that what we have seen is a series of big, white rooms with lots of nice pictures in them. Given the potential for interest in "Examining Pictures", this would be a shame.

Whitechapel, E1 (0171 522 7888) to 27 June.

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