Criticism on the Spot

“I’m not going to be your father figure, I don’t want you to put your tiny hand in mine.”

Thus spoke Jan Verwoert, Berlin-based art critic and one of three featured speakers at the opening-day talk for Painter Painter, the Walker Art Center’s first show on contemporary painting in over a decade. Challenged by an artist in the audience (later identified as Painter Painter participant Molly Zuckerman-Hartung) to “be a critic” and “to go ahead—judge,” Verwoert, along with American critics Michelle Grabner and Bruce Hainley, was put on the spot to perform the role of critic, a demand he quickly deemed “impossible”: “I leave it to George to tell you what you want, what you really, really want.” After Verwoert effectively misquoted George Michael’s lyrics on father figure fantasies, Hainley quipped, “what do you want, a tweet?”—before elaborating that art criticism is a serious, time-consuming business and not amenable to snap judgments.

Installation view of Painter Painter showing two 2012 works by Molly Zuckerman-Hartung. Wall: "The Necessary (Blushing for Now)"; floor: "The Failure of Contingency." Walker Art Center, February 2 - October 22, 2013. Photographer: Gene Pittman. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

But the questions kept coming. A month later, when Dianna Molzan and Alex Olson joined Eric Crosby, one of Painter Painter’s two curators, onstage, these artists, whose paintings were on view in the exhibition, also refused to participate in what Molzan dubbed the “American Idol culture” of instant preferences and dismissals by tribunal. That, of course, is laudable. Why cater to nostalgic yearnings for authoritative mastery along with narratives of creativity?

But such resistance comes with a price: as if ironically, by distancing art criticism from snap judgment in memorable and, coincidentally, utterly marketable one-liners, the critics inadvertently participated in the very culture they professed to scorn. In the meantime, the audience’s desire to see through someone else’s eyes—putatively, eyes with some art-critical acumen—was dismissed, the passionate entreaty to “allow us to learn” deferred.

The ambivalent gestures of disavowal and assertion of critical authority performed in the wake of Painter Painter’s opening talk were striking. They point to a pervasive unease with passing judgment and, more than that, to a curious impasse in perceptions of contemporary criticism. Paternalist monologues by elusive father figures won’t do; neither will instant judgments via Twitter. The space in between, where criticism might thrive, seems to elude both popular perception and critical articulation.

Similarly noticeable in their absence from the conversation were the objects on view in Painter Painter. While critics and artists alike were eager to share general ideas about painting practices today, the actual paintings in the exhibition entered the discussion only when, in Molzan’s and Olson’s “studio talk,” an audience member finally requested to see the work. This strange lacuna reflected the ambivalence displayed by speakers who failed to perform critical and curatorial authority in framing the show.

Curators Eric Crosby and Bartholomew Ryan carefully resisted making anything resembling a declarative statement about painting today. Perhaps expecting such commitment would amount to another impossible demand, but Painter Painter is cast in the most provisional, non-committal of terms. No catalogue here, but a brochure with “Notes for an exhibition” whose very material connotes obsolescence, a momentary account, nothing of permanence. Conceptualized as the organic outgrowth of a series of curatorial studio visits, the show is framed as a friendly conversation, a format symptomatic of the current vogue for the open-ended, dialogic. Yet what Nicolas Bourriaud has dubbed the “culture of courtesy” ensures that moments of genuine friction remain rare. The chatty, at times self-consciously irreverent tone risks frustrating the audience’s desire for being let in on the curatorial concept and subsequent studio conversations that preceded and indeed guided the selection of artists.

Deceptively open, then, the discourse surrounding the show cast the audience as enthralled by either nostalgia for paternalist models of authority or the cultural shorthand of Twitter. Critics, curators, and artists projected their critiques of contemporary culture onto their audiences, whose eagerness to gain critical insight was brushed aside more than once. And yet, while judging the audience’s desire for critical judgment, the act of shifting the focus of critical response from the work to the audience motivated the latter. Conversations bloomed. Everyone became a critic. That is ultimately the most interesting outcome of the discourse surrounding Painter Painter:beyond the field of criticism, it points into a cultural moment marked by deep ambivalences about professing an impossible desire for authority both trustworthy and reliable while recognizing the deep disenchantment with such outdated models of dogmatic discourse.

Contributor

Christina Schmid

Based in Minneapolis, CHRISTINA SCHMID is a critic who writes with art.

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