There are many types of exhibitions. The must-see blockbusters, for example. Or exhibitions by cutting-edge young artists, who may ruffle your feathers. Some exhibitions, like a good lecture, intend to educate their audience. A good example of this is the new ambitious exhibition at the Hammer Museum, entitled "The Undiscovered Country", concentrating on the development of representational painting in the last 40 years. Selected by the museum's curator Russell Ferguson, there are about 65 paintings from 23 artists, illustrating the various trends in representational painting, which, in spite of many pronouncements of it's demise, is doing quite well.
It's been a long time since we've seen so many landscapes, portraits and figurative paintings here in Los Angeles. Most of the works are by young contemporary artists who can be seen next to their mentors, such as Vija Celmins, Philip Guston, Fairfied Porter and Gerhard Richter.
Since the invention of photography, the art of painting has struggled to find new ways of representing reality, instead of merely skillfully documenting it. In many of the works of the younger artists presented in this show, we see reality twisted and tweaked, any which way they can. Most of the works here are distinguished by their painterly quality and energetic brushwork, and, on occasion, by the use of such unusual materials as industrial enamel or even glitter.
It's always interesting to guess why a curator chooses some of the artists at the exclusion of others. But I guess that's the name of the game. I was grateful to discover a number of Los Angeles-based artists with whom I was previously unfamiliar. On the other hand, I'm not sure that it's possible to make a convincing case about trends in contemporary painting while excluding artists from countries such as China, Russia, Cuba, Mexico or Brazil, just to name a few. Six of the 23 participating artists live here in Los Angeles. While I'm a big patriot of this city, I'm not convinced that these six artists are absolutely the best among all possible candidates either in the United States or in Europe.
Among several highlights of this exhibition, is a selection of a few medium-sized paintings by well-known Belgian artist Luc Tuymans, whose works I'd never particularly cared for, even after seeing his work prominently displayed in the Venice Biennale and recently at the Tate Modern. His works, well selected and thoughtfully displayed here at the Hammer, persuaded me at last that he is a first rate artist, indeed. For this alone, I am grateful for this exhibition.
Much venerated German artist Gerhard Richter is represented by two paintings, though not his best. One makes a nice point about the development of the genre of landscape painting, and the other is about the struggle of the representational painting to overcome the gravitational pull of photography.
Chicago-based Kerry James Marshall delivers his brand of painterly magic with a generous dollop of glitter, and my beloved Philip Guston stops the show with a drop-dead gorgeous canvas with mutant figures painted in the creamy tones of powdery pink, blue and green. If only the rest of the art works in the exhibition reflected the same high quality of painting, this exhibition, instead of being an interesting lecture, could become a passionate soliloquy.
The Undiscovered Country
October 3-January 16, 2005
Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Culural Center, at UCLA
10899 Wilshire Blvd.