In the 1970s, sculptors like Carl Andre were creating obdurate minimalist abstractions out of wood, or lead, or almost any material, for that matter, and painters like Frank Stella were wholeheartedly committed to evacuating recognizable figures and forms from their canvases, opting instead for the optical possibilities inherent in combining colors and patterns and lines. These paradigms of high modernism seemed to assert -- quite confidently and arrogantly -- the impossibility of ever using art again to represent the figure or anything else recognizable from the visible world.
In retrospect, however, it's clear that artists like Andre and Stella were essentially playing out formalist modernism's endgame. And as a result of reactions against cool modernism, representation came back into art with a vengeance, in all the twisted, layered and purposely contradictory ways that postmodernism affords. It's in this context of 30 years of postmodernism, and the return to representation, that it becomes really interesting to consider art by the painter Peter Doig (now on view at the St. Louis Art Museum) and the sculptor Stephan Balkenhol (now at the Forum for Contemporary Art).
Walking through the museum's galleries to arrive at Currents 83: Peter Doig, most visitors will pass right by a couple of huge canvases by Frank Stella from that high-modernist moment. The contrast between Stella's works and those by Doig is stunning. Where Stella is ultracontrolled, Doig allows for happenstance on the canvas. Where Stella's works are insistently flat, Doig's paintings emphasize surface and depth simultaneously. One may detect a rich optical quality in the works by both artists, but whereas Stella limits himself to that singular effect, Doig employs it as one among many varied elements at work in his paintings.
Doig's "Cobourg 3 + one more" (1994) is a large canvas that works as a summary of the artist's approaches. A veil of snow lingers on the surface, with an icy blue-green landscape filtering through it. In the middle ground, four figures stand about, their outlines obscured by the haze. The scene has a strangely photographic quality, blurred by the impressionistic overlay of snow and mist. And, indeed, the scene is based on a photograph taken by the artist years before. Doig takes photos and works over their images in paint until the clarity of the photographic memory becomes compromised and ambiguous.
Ambiguity plays a fascinating role in Doig's works. There is ambiguity about the image's source; ambiguity about the kind of vision the paintings offer, whether it is invented or recorded; and even a certain amount of doubt about the sentiments that the paintings seem to contain. Many of the canvases appear to be based on memories of growing up in rustic, romantic, wooded surroundings; closer consideration reveals that the images may be based on advertisements or films.
Doig manages to smuggle in these pop-culture references and camouflage them almost beyond recognition. But in doing so, he underscores the ways in which popular culture often relies on imagery so familiar that it's practically primal -- a solitary figure gliding on the water against a wooded background ("Canoe-Lake") is based on a scene from Friday the 13th; "Night Fishing" is a scene based on an ad for a fishing holiday in Canada. The line between "authentic" memories and manufactured ones is enchantingly blurred.
Many of Doig's other paintings are based on his own memories as they are preserved in old photos. But the scenes as he re-presents them are stripped of sentimentality and specificity. Doig's memories of attending a Rolling Stones concert in 1976 are transformed into something that might pass for a colorful (predominantly pink) architectural rendering of a stadium.
Doig is a British-Canadian artist who's enjoying a lot of attention right now. His canvases operate on multiple levels, combining attention to formal concerns with references to memory and pop culture. They are rich and subtle at once -- the best of what postmodernist painting has become.
Stephan Balkenhol's recent sculptural works, now on view at the Forum for Contemporary Art, bear their own interesting relationship to sculptural modernism of the past while they (in good postmodernist fashion) incorporate references both to ancient tradition and contemporary culture.
Balkenhol is best known for his mute figures, hacked out of blocks of cedar or poplar or plywood. His mostly male figures are dressed in neutral dark pants and white shirts; they pose unassumingly with slight, mundane gestures -- a hand in a pocket, head hung slightly -- and virtually no identifiable facial expression. Many of them bring to mind ancient Greek kouri, those stiff, stern sculptures carved by the hundreds and left at tombs.
But Balkenhol's figures are at the same time insistently contemporary, suggesting something about what our culture has become. His figures are humorous because they are humorless, deadpan and quotidian. But they are also implicated in a complex web of art-historical references. Besides evoking ancient Greek sculpture, they maintain links to Michelangelo's slave figures, emerging from shells of marble; the rough-hewn surfaces of folk carvings; the German expressionist revival of those folk and "primitive" carvings; and the return to the monumental figure achieved by Henry Moore in the 1950s.
Although Balkenhol's works are all figural, they nonetheless also evoke minimalist sculpture, particularly that of Carl Andre. Andre often creates sentinel-like freestanding wood pieces with the natural knots and wood grain exposed. Balkenhol's works are essentially blocks of wood, terminating at the top in deadpan figures. Their sluggish neutrality tempts us to read them as we would read an Andre monolith.
But the temptation soon wears off. In fact, Balkenhol has much more going on in his work than most minimalists. In addition to the single figures, the exhibition at the Forum includes a host of other recent works by the German sculptor that indicate his talent for parlaying one basic concept into a variety of effects. In addition to hacking out sculpture in the round, Balkenhol carves figural reliefs or even screen-prints photographic details of his sculptures onto plywood, allowing the spidery lines of the wood grain to clash with the dot patterns of the print. This exhibition is a great primer in what Balkenhol does, what he references and what he has originated.
Quite apart from the theoretical gymnastics of works by Balkenhol and Doig are the recent abstractions by Yingxue Zuo, now showing at the Three Sinks Gallery in Webster Groves. This is not to suggest that Zuo's ink paintings and color monoprints lack complexity; quite the contrary. But Zuo's works are distinguished by their purity of means and language.
The six large canvases in this exhibition consist of marks in ink that result in an incredible array of whites, sepias and blacks. With nothing more than a change in the direction and shape of the marks, Zuo suggests an amazing variety of natural forms, from "Smoking Rain" to "Hanging Vines," "Dry Land," "Northern Land" and "Waterfall."
In a series of smaller charcoal drawings, Zuo likewise uses shades of black and spare lines to produce delicate suggestions of nature. Intense color enters this exhibition in a series of four small monoprints, which depict the seasons of the year in abstractions of lime green, tangerine and lemon yellow.
Yingxue Zuo, who teaches at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park, is originally from Manchuria; his images of nature derive from his memories of cold, crisp winters and the changes that come with the seasons. He has exhibited widely in St. Louis, but the work in the current exhibition represents a departure from his earlier work. These pieces are simply marvelous, spare antidotes to the overworked and overloaded art seen so often these days.