What exists at the intersection of violence and leisure? Since Dada, artists have been exploring the two concepts separately and often melding the two in their artworks as a vehicle for social commentary. Is painting still a viable medium for this kind of exploration? Every generation has a critic screaming that painting is dead (Delaroche, Greenberg, Saltz, etc.), so it’s got to eventually be true, right? In 2014, is figurative painting dead? In their exhibition Leisure (on display now at Fresh Exhibitions), Blake Daniels and Blair Whiteford explore that question while uncovering the social privilege at the heart of leisure.
Historically, the act of making art has been reserved for the socially (and usually financially) advantaged. Undoubtedly, that privilege influenced the content and direction of academic art for decades. As a consequence, figurative painting was associated with affluence and exclusivity. It is this social violence, this form of institutionalized homogeneity, that the two artists eschew with Leisure. Daniels explained it best himself during the artist talk at Fresh Exhibitions last week:
“We’re talking about the politics of leisure. Some of that is the actual activity of painting, to have the time and affordance to paint… In history, they’ve always kind of gone together; think of the stereotypical plein air painter in the woods. In my work, I’m dealing with a lot of social politics so I’m looking at a lot of things dealing with race, nationality, gender, and how those relate or interplay with each other, how each painting can hold everything at one time and not at one time. I want to open them up and see all the politics that are in play — I can break a football game at my high school into the different social politics that are happening within it when I take a snapshot through a painting. What’s going down when we go to these events? Is there more to it than there is at the surface? There always is.”
While Daniels and Whiteford are certainly exploring leisure as a practice and not just as content, their collective social commentary seems to outweigh Daniels’ attempts at art historical critique. A Victory At Turpin High, Daniels’ small-town football game leisure scene (from your nightmares), is more concerned with its own curious gender/sexual politics and transgressive imagery than the privileged act of painting. That particular layer isn’t too sorely missed; it’s supplanted with something more interesting: a savage break down of the figure.
It’s here that Whiteford and Daniels really succeed; however disparate their palettes and techniques are, their destruction of the classical figure is remarkably in sync. (Especially considering they haven’t lived in the same city in roughly five years.) Whiteford, who admits to questioning the relevancy of bothering to paint the figure today, draws his inspiration from classical sculpture and the abstracted forms of early Surrealism. Daniels’ approach is much more reactionary, stemming from the departmental prejudice against figurative painting he experienced while studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Either way, they both see it as a dying style. “[A friend] who wasn’t the biggest fan of painting always joked and called figure painting ‘the old dead king’s body’ that she kept trying to resuscitate, trying to find a reason to let it live on,” Daniels said, “I think that’s an interesting challenge because you’re pushing paint — this old, colored mud that’s been used for a long time — to do things that are still exciting and new.”
Under a cloud of heavy skepticism, the two artists have found a niche that allows them to re-invigorate what has become frustratingly static. Daniels’ forms experiment boldly with grotesque contortion, but it’s Whiteford’s Police Man and Policeman 1 that truly astound. The neo-cubist cop paintings examine police (specifically the NYPD) as a representation of the ultimate overlap between violence and leisure. “Any feeling people have of being leisurely comes from there being someone to protect them. Police represent violence, but they also represent security. They always remind me of how violent a place could be,” Whiteford explained. This contradiction is made physical with an utter implosion of form, leaving us with deconstructed figures that (considering the current socio-political climate) seem more relevant than ever.
Ultimately, Daniels and Whiteford agree that their paramount concern is simply to produce quality painting. “There is this crisis in painting where painters can’t just be painters, or they need to justify ‘till their bones bleed why they’re painting. We just care about making good images,” Daniels told the Fresh Exhibitions audience last week. Whether or not figurativism is dead — they never said. If it is, Leisure is a beautiful send-off.
Leisure is on display at Fresh Exhibitions (2427 Desotorow Ave) until August 9th.