Christopher Wool’s paintings from the last dozen years are stylishly designed, conceptually informed and visually undemanding. When assembled in sufficient numbers to constitute a mid-career survey, as they have been at the Museum of Contemporary Art in a show that opened Sunday, the result is an exhibition of unrelieved dullness.
Wool’s 44 paintings and nine drawings in fact make for perhaps the most forlorn exhibition MOCA has offered to date, surpassing even the “Pure Beauty” fiasco of 1994. Room after room of paintings of no importance and next to no interest leave you marveling at the museum’s ambition, declared in the overblown catalog that accompanies the show, to someday have this artist’s work “represented in depth in MOCA’s permanent collection.”
It might well be possible to have the New York-based artist’s work represented in quantity, but in depth? That’s not a word that sits comfortably in the vicinity of such razor-thin art.
Wool’s work began to draw some notice in the later 1980s, amid the resurgent market-interest in painting in general. It exemplifies a curious fascination for the idea of making paintings without really painting. Principally, his supporters have been among those who were appalled by the market phenomenon, or who regard painting as a suspect, moribund medium.
The survey is not organized chronologically. Throughout the galleries, curator Ann Goldstein has interwoven Wool’s several discrete bodies of work, which themselves seem to have overlapped over the years. Five different techniques or approaches are employed, usually in hard, light-reflective black enamel paint on aluminum panels painted white.
The first, dating from 1986, display continuous, all-over patterns (flowers, vines, fleurs-de-lis) produced not with a brush but with rubber rollers--the kind found in hardware stores for use in instant, low-budget wall decorating. In 1987 Wool began to use big stencils to paint words, sentences and word fragments.
Rubber stamps entered the repertoire the following year. In 1993 he started to use silk-screens, and in 1995 he began to work with a spray gun, drawing tangled, linear tracery.
Techniques are here and there used in combination. Each, however, is a technique in which the usually direct application of paint to a surface is actually mediated--one step removed. The rollers sometimes smear, paint drips, the layering of images and marks obliterates legibility.
When words and word fragments appear, they’re eccentrically broken up into gridded blocks: PAR/ANO/IAC, TR/BL, RUND/OGEA/TDOG. You stumble haltingly through the reading of these miniature typographical poems--"paranoiac,” “trouble” (or maybe “true blue”), “run dog, eat dog” (or perhaps “run, dog eat dog”).
With strategies like these, Wool’s paintings plainly signify an anxious culture of decay. Painting, a useless and outdated medium, is here proposed as a valuable activity precisely because it’s the ideal artistic form in which to embody modern urban rot. Wool is a kind of one-man Ashcan School for the 1980s--that is, a painter without the picturesque sentimentality that characterized most early 20th century painting of crushing city life.
Whatever you think of the proposition of picturing impoverishment, though, the problem with Wool’s art is not that it’s aggressively bad. If it was, you might at least have something to sink your teeth into and chew over, even in a negative way.
Instead, the paintings are just banal. Visually they’re impoverished.
Each is a cultural insider’s inventory of standard effects, wearing a narrow, institutionally sanctioned pedigree on its sleeve. Here are a few branches of that family tree:
* The painting techniques--rollers, stencils, silk-screens, etc.--almost always derive from methods of printing.
Approved ancestry: Robert Rauschenberg, specifically as interpreted by the mandarin theorists at October magazine.
* Individual words and, occasionally, phrases are plucked from preexisting sources, ranging from literature to movies to street graffiti, and rendered in block-letter stencils.
Approved ancestry: Jasper Johns meets Art & Language.
* Black and white are almost exclusively the pigments of choice, with occasional guest appearances made by the primaries and, once, shocking pink.
Approved ancestry: Constructivist art and rigorous Minimalism.
* Flowers are silk-screened atop flowers.
Approved ancestry: Warhol’s Pop.
And so on and so forth. With each of these exhausted 1960s signals Wool does give you something to think about--but almost nothing to look at.
That’s because these are not paintings; they’re “paintings.” The anxiety over the obsolescent practice of applying paint to a flat surface, which supposedly is rampant in our digital age, is collapsed into the knowing irony implied by italics.
Irony, though, is long since barren as an effective strategy for art--sort of the way gestural applications from a loaded brush were 40 years ago. The most invigorating new work being produced today will have nothing to do with it.
So, because it would be hard to imagine a worse moment than now to survey a body of contemporary “painting” so beholden to tactics of ironic engagement, Wool’s show also takes a surely unintended contextual beating: The exhibition feels startlingly conservative.
Then again, impoverishment and decay cut many ways. Wool’s career (he was born in 1955) coincides almost exactly with the irrepressible proliferation of contemporary art museums and academies, a phenomenon that has utterly transformed America’s art life since the 1970s. His pedigreed painted panels contain within themselves an entire history of the academic, institutional ecology that made them possible. No wonder the show’s so dull.
* “Christopher Wool,” Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., (213) 626-6222, through Oct. 18. Closed Mondays. The show travels to the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh (Nov. 21-Jan. 31).