MEMORABLE PAINTERS OF 2018
Memorable Painters of 2018
by Walt Morton
This is not a “best” list or a “favorites” list. It’s more like reminders in a mental notebook. The works mentioned here are added to my notebook because the artist did something interesting I find worth remembering. What they did may have been an experiment, a change in course, a surprise, or even a less surprising but worthy demonstration of skill or bravery or lunacy. The list is composed of painters because that’s what I keep in this particular mental notebook. I talk about them in no particular order, except that it’s work I saw in 2018.
In March of ’18 at The Armory Show, Justin Mortimer presented his HOAX series of paintings. They are chromatic oils of realist dried flowers painted on backgrounds that evoke Gerhard Richter’s abstractions. This is a bold move to try to inject some life into one of the most exhausted genres of painting—floral subjects—and with the funny commentary that, yeah, sorry but these flowers are just literally a dead subject. You can get a lovely book on it if you missed the show here.
F. Scott Hess
F. Scott Hess is a skilled technician. I don’t like all Scott’s work. So it’s even more telling when he wins me over with such a big crazy vision. Scott feels like a person you could dare to “paint everything in the world” and he’d say: “I’ll take that bet and win it.” That shows bravery, nerve, and confidence when an artist believes they can make a painting succeed. His monumental Dream of Art History is a meta-painting. It’s a painting about painting, the manifold subjects of painting, and the entire personal and cultural history of painting. Style-wise it’s rooted in L.A. Pop-Surreal territory and feels like it lives in a room with Robert Williams, Todd Schorr, and Nicola Verlato’s best work. But while those painters are investigating lowbrow American pop-culture, Hess fills his painting with thumbnails of a kaleidoscope of art history’s international stars (Matisse, Warhol, Lopez-Garcia, etc.) One could say this is a “highbrow-lowbrow-highbrow” painting, kind of a new, smarter commentary on dumb culture. Scott has a lively intelligence and a sense of humor which prevents the work from being about ego and more about how crazy it is to be an oil painter in 2018, with death lurking just around the corner.
Pamela Wilson is a terrifically skilled painter who handles realism with ease. In past years, her subject matter has been a carnivalesque selection of female models draped in ornate, unusual, or nonsensical costumes. Sometimes these women hold a gun or look “plain crazy” which may be a perfectly reasonable response to our world. While Wilson has not given up her skillful tricks, you can sense her changing gears in 2018 and painting more loosely towards a magical realism or surrealism that she did not approach in her earlier work. This is a brave change because, outside of the kind of easily-appreciated Pop-Surrealism that art stars like Mark Ryden perform, actual surrealism is often rejected by audiences as plain old “weird.” If the audience understands the subject matter, Pop-Surrealism can work with Abe Lincoln or Bugs Bunny. Pop referents make it easier to feel “in” on the joke. But pure surrealism voids this friendly compact, to present images that you can’t place so easily. Salvador Dali said: “The only difference between me and a madman is I am not mad.” Pamela Wilson is working to get to that place, you can feel the drift.
Kanevsky is a very popular proponent of a style of super-loose figural abstraction. Artists using this approach are Anne Gale, Mark Tennant, and David Shevlino, among quite a few others. Collectively, what these artists have emphasized is finding new ways to paint that most venerable of subjects, the human figure. What is interesting about Kanevsky’s new show is that, while the human figure remains central, you can see he’s grown more interested in exploring “what else” can be painted with this style successfully. His work Dear Friend offers a Bengal tiger in a modern apartment. The show also offers boaters, landscapes, and a love of fabric and the architecture of rooms. All signs of exploration. See the whole show here.
In 2014, Adrian Ghenie painted a vast oversize homage to van Gogh, called Sunflowers in 1937. It’s a version of van Gogh’s masterpiece, vase of sunflowers, but with Nazi overtones. At Sotheby’s in London, the Ghenie version sold for $4.5 million—more than five times the high estimate. What Ghenie is expertly exploring and leveraging is art that is “about important art.” He has made art the subject of his art, and the bigger and more famous the artist the better. Hence, interesting to find him four years later in 2018 painting jungles in Paris and directly referencing Henri Rousseau’s most famous works. Ghenie’s Forest Landscape With Fire speaks directly to Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) (1891). This is a blatant yet honest move on Ghenie’s part to reinterpret art history and make a few million dollars in the process. I can’t fault his logic. Bravo.
I only knew Felicia Forte’s work from her academic-atelier-teaching activity and posts online. She’s been a respected teacher in the SF Bay Area for years. When her painting came up as an entry in the BP Portrait Awards, I was surprised and impressed at what felt like a different direction in her work that was simultaneously more graphically design-driven, boldly colorful, and quite abstract. I suspect the British judges appreciated it, possibly in the tradition of Slade School of Art artists like Euan Uglow who set a precedent for this kind of exacting serious, abstract work.
An under-appreciated BP Portrait entry, this painting by Siciliano struck me as a huge step forward for the artist. Previously, Siciliano had often painted his human figures and portraits in a kind of chunky, blocked-in rough yet accurate way. While in the same time period he was also painting some environmental landscapes that were very realist. In this painting of Desiderio, it seems that Siciliano has brought these two approaches together into portraiture that feels much more accurate and detailed, yet it still has a lot of lively painterliness. I hope he finds this approach rewarding and does a few more in this way. Some aspects of the paint application also call to mind the interest in anatomical accuracy found in painters like Jerome Witkin.
Not everyone will enjoy these new works by Borremans, but they are a continuation (partly) of the multi-figural paintings he showed in 2015 as Black Mould. In that earlier show, Borremans tried to unsettle the viewer with black-hooded occult figures evoking Abu Ghraib torture. As if that were not jolting enough, Borremans has now cut to the root of shock with his Fire from the Sun. He gives us disturbing bloody scorched flaming predatory children. You can say, “What the fuck is up with that?” But also I give credit to a freshness in these images. I have not seen their like unless we count possibly Hieronymous Bosch’s Harrowing of Hell or Dieric Bouts' Hell. But while those early works are explicitly religious warnings to sinners, there’s no such guidance in Borremans’ work, and we have to take these paintings as pure expressions of anxiety about the existential horror of living in 2018, as the world burns. This kind of anxiety-painting is also a shout-out to works like Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893).
This year the Art Renewal Center (ARC), introduced a new 9th category for Plein Air Painting in their 13th International ARC Salon Competition. I don’t often write about landscape art, even though it’s very popular among painters and collectors. Mostly, landscapes are a huge challenge in 2018, because as photography has become so prevalent, it undercuts deep interest among viewers. You won’t find audiences crazy for landscapes like they were in the 1850s. Landscapes, in short, can be inherently boring subject matter unless done just right. The only remedy is beautiful atmospheric landscapes. For anybody that has painted landscapes, the challenges are substantial: tone, values, textures all have to be just so, if you want to give us the kind of “atmospheric” feeling that Thomas Moran was famous for. What I like about this simple mountain painting by Gonzalez is he just nails it. It’d be very hard to do any better with Vallecito Mountain than he does. I can almost smell the desert Piñon in that October air.
Samori’s new show MALAFONTE, at Galerie EIGEN + ART Berlin, shows the artist up to their old tricks of expressing art that feels like “old master” work but deformed, distressed, and distorted. The gallery claims: “Nicola Samorì’s human figures are frozen in fear, a sinister source, a 'poisoned well' coming from within the centre of the works: the 'mala fonte.'" Framing the cavity, the figures are stricken with dismay, their translucent bodies are festered. A tempest appears to have dissolved them. The “mala fonte” is an unknown disaster, an erosion, a tragedy that can’t be explained—something intangible. The feeling that fear is dominating our lives. What grabbed me in this new work is the artist is painting in oil on inch-thick slabs of onyx. Onyx is a marble-like mineral that can have a lot of fractal natural color, inclusions, and crazy texture, which Samori uses so inventively as a background for his figures.
When I first saw this painting, I was not sure what to make of it, though it had my attention with the basic reaction you crave from art, a kind of “Wow! What is this about?” I could place the painting in Martin’s body of work, a joyous place filled with fantasies of nature. It’s ripe, feminist, over-saturated with blue skies and pure water. A clear-eyed clean place to frolic amidst pines and purple mountains. We can see in the dog (animal nature incarnate) a literal madness at the pleasure of being outdoors. Intoxicating, lighter than air, this is a fresh take on Eden. You can get a better sense of Martin’s thinking if you listen to her in a podcast with John Dalton from Feb 8, 2018. It’s here.
I was wondering in 2018 how the politics of #MeToo might get expressed by women artists. I expected such a giant political and social shift would instigate some meaningful imagery. Though Kearney’s Me Too painting feels very direct, almost blatant, and very literal, I see her making a cleverly composed spot-on metaphor. Sexual predation casts a shadow on all the victims, even if you can’t always see it so obviously. Powerful work in a small 12"×12" format.
Art-star American painter John Currin showed some curious works at the 2018 TEFAF fair. I always watch Currin because he is kind of a barometer of the high-art/Gagosian/museum interest levels in figurative art. Over the years, he has shown bouts of skill, craft, and inventiveness. His new work is supposed to be a further “ironic” take on Dutch and Flemish seventeenth-century still life paintings with lush food and objects. Currin’s version includes sliced bread, an apple, and two roses in a glass pitcher in Loaf of Bread. The woman’s face in the background is illogically distorted and fucked-up. Kitsch distortions (even comic book levels of distortion) have been a part of Currin’s style from the earliest days of his career (Google: The Bra Shop, 1997), but now one wonders if he can ever find new ways to push the boundaries like he once did, or is it more about seeing what he can still get away with. It’s a fair question to ask: “When will irony in art be passe?” David Foster Wallace offered a short commentary on the subject, try it here.
Other terrific artists I considered and almost wrote about but did not due to reasons of length and sanity include:
…among far too many others. If I did not mention you, I am sure I will next year if you swing for the fences.
Walt Morton is an artist and author. Formerly part of the LA art scene, he has been organizing and curating art exhibitions since 1996. He now lives in Northern California deep among the redwoods. You can probably find him on Facebook and instagram, if you try.