The Outer Limits of Painting

The Outer Limits of Painting

Recent shows from Rick Lowe and Mary Heilmann subvert expectations of the medium, their work exploring social life and its imperfections past the confines of the canvas.

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I was surprised when I saw that New York City’s Gagosian gallery was going to show Rick Lowe’s work. As long as I’ve been aware of him, Lowe has never made art that could be sold. He’s known for what some call “socially engaged practice,” and others refer to simply as “activist art”—art that aims to transform people’s perception of themselves, of others, and of society through direct interventions in daily life, rather than via images or objects. Such a mission, unlikely to yield much in the way of merchandise, is probably anathema to a gallery, let alone a market powerhouse like Gagosian.

Lowe is perhaps best known as a cofounder of Project Row Houses. This endeavor, ongoing since 1993, involved taking over a group of abandoned buildings in Houston’s Third Ward, an area mainly settled by African Americans. While, elsewhere, artists have often been used as the avant-garde of gentrification, Project Row Houses aimed (and seems to have been successful) at integrating art into the life of the community in order to “address destabilizing socio-economic forces and preserve the culture and history of Third Ward,” as the project’s website puts it.

If you visit Project Row Houses, you’ll see more than just a gallery and pedagogical space: You’ll see a living neighborhood with low-income rentals where some of the “shotgun houses” have been transformed by local and visiting artists into installations using the buildings themselves as their canvas; others serve as studios where artists from the neighborhood can make their own work. The point is to connect art to the community—and the community to art, which is to say, to its own creative power. Lowe conceives of all this through Joseph Beuys’s notion of “social sculpture,” an idea that evokes the utopian idea that people can cooperatively take into their own hands the formation (and transformation) of their social environment—or, as Lowe describes it, “caring for society as if it were a collective work of art.”

Beyond Project Row Houses, my only other encounter with Lowe’s work was rather a missed one. As I looked for his contribution to the Athens portion of Documenta 14 in 2017, the exhibition map directed me to a location near the city center, a couple of miles north of the Acropolis, where I found Lowe’s Victoria Square Project, a collaboration with the Greek artist Maria Papadimitriou. It was described as an artwork that is “at the same time a physical space of reference for the neighborhood, acquiring its meaning and value in the context of urban development and neighborhood planning around its particular urban area,” and one that focused “on the empowerment and inspiration of the residents of Victoria,” a rundown quarter of the city largely populated by immigrants. It seemed that, albeit within a different time frame, Lowe was attempting to do for this Athens neighborhood something like what he’d achieved for the Third Ward.

I wandered over to Victoria Square hoping to get a glimpse of how Lowe was accomplishing this. What I found was a storefront office where I could get some information about local community activities but that otherwise gave me no sense of what the project amounted to. I was none the wiser about whether it was achieving its goal of becoming “a social meeting point in which intercultural relations are developed, a creative platform that will enhance cultural exchanges and strengthen the region’s community.” I certainly hope so.

But I was left with the reflection that, if one were going to play the “But is it art?” game, I’d have to say that, unlike Project Row Houses, the Victoria Square Project—whatever good it might have done—didn’t make the cut. And the reason is this: Whatever else it is or does, a work of art always has a side that faces an audience, a public—it exists not only for its immediate participants but also for those who participate only by being witnesses. The Victoria Square Project, as far as I could see, lacked this public face, this aspect of (if I can redeem a word that’s often used in a dismissive way) spectacle.

It was with all these competing thoughts in mind that I went to see Lowe’s solo debut with Gagosian, at the gallery’s Chelsea outpost. The show’s title, “Meditations on Social Sculpture,” suggested a continuation of the themes I knew to be important to Lowe, but I was curious as to how these would manifest in a gallery setting. I never imagined it would be through abstract painting.

But, in fact, these “Meditations on Social Sculpture” turned out to be 10 large-scale paintings (ranging from seven feet square up to 12 by 15 feet) made in 2021 and 2022. Most are untitled—a common abstractionist practice—but there are four named works, two after Project Row Houses and two more after the Victoria Square Project (with subtitles), which puzzled me when I first looked at the checklist. What I saw in the paintings, simply, was glorious color, luminous space, and a rare ability to integrate evocative atmosphere with solid but complex pictorial architecture. Actually, the paintings could be considered giant collages: Each one is assembled from, I’d guess, thousands of small paper rectangles cut from larger sheets, rearranged, layered, and repainted. Their recombination can seem almost random, and yet one feels an inner unity. The color is orchestrated; each little rectangle seems to represent a sort of atom of perception. In some cases, the underlying paper appears to consist of photocopies. In others, Lowe appears to have scraped away some of the paint he’d laid down rather than adding to it—in particular, Untitled #010722 (2022) reminds me of a pastime I used to enjoy as a kid, sometimes called crayon etching: covering a sheet of paper with colorful crayoned patterns, covering them with black crayon, and then scraping some of the black away to reveal bits of color underneath.

Looking at these works, you’d think that the 61-year-old Lowe had been steadily practicing painting for the last 40 years. Far from it. He’d studied painting in art school in Georgia but stepped away from it long ago. His early works were figurative and, as he recently told Folasade Ologundudu in an interview for Artnet, “dealt with political and social issues”—police brutality, human rights, and so on. But he had a change of heart when someone asked him why, instead of depicting the problems his community was facing, he didn’t do something about them: “If artists are creative, why can’t they create solutions?” In what must have been a kind of crisis of faith, Lowe laid down his brushes and plunged into social practice.

So how did he come around to making these paintings? I’d never met Lowe before, but I happened to be introduced to him at the gallery by our mutual friend the artist Mel Chin, and of course this question came up. What Lowe told me was that, after a quarter-century devoted solely to social practice, at a certain point he’d come to realize that he’d been ignoring something of profound importance—and here I am paraphrasing: that he’d become so involved in concrete activity in the world that he’d neglected the inner, subjective correlate of that activity. And it was in search of a reconnection to his subjectivity that, in 2016, he’d returned to the studio and begun painting again.

Lowe’s point, I took it, was not that social practice and an individual, more contemplative practice such as painting are essentially in conflict, but that they can be complementary. Lowe’s (or anyone else’s) social practice claims to offer workable solutions to the problems we face, which are always morphing as we confront them. As a social practitioner, too, Lowe has grappled with—as he told Ologundudu—“moments where I just thought, does this stuff have any meaning? Does it have any real value?” For him, perhaps, it was in the solitude of the studio that he could meditate on meaning and value in the abstract, in order to remind himself of the meaning and value of what he was doing outside the studio.

That realization brings me back to my effort to understand the title Lowe chose for his exhibition. Nothing in the paintings on view made it necessary to think about them in relation to the idea of social sculpture—in fact, in the absence of the title, the thought would never have occurred to me. What I did think about was urban landscapes. But the paintings do not, for the most part, conjure vistas that allow me to imagine gazing off into the distance, as in a traditional landscape; they look more like maps. This is particularly obvious, for instance, in Victoria Square Project: Open Borders (2022), with its blue, riverlike central passage dividing a mostly pink area to the left from a mostly black one to the right; on both sides of the blue waterway, some small rectangles of pink or black jut out into it, like piers. From there, it is tempting to read the painting’s colors allegorically: as an abstract representation of political conflict, with the riverlike passage a dividing line between segregated communities. A look at the map of Athens shows the painting bears no resemblance to an aerial view of Victoria Square—and, of course, no river flows through the city.

This is to say, I think, that while Lowe’s paintings may be referential, in the sense that they provoke meditation on “real world” issues beyond their own formal content, they are not representational paintings that function by way of resemblance (however cunningly veiled). These paintings remind us of the freedom accorded by abstract art—as perhaps by no other form to quite the same degree—to subjective thought. Some might consider it the weakness of abstraction that even an artist as strong in his command of his medium as Lowe cannot, by dint of color, line, and form alone, make me “see” his paintings as meditations on social sculpture. But I consider that the strength of this art: its inherent lack, you might say, of authoritarianism.

Lowe’s meditations as he makes his paintings need not be coordinated with mine as I appreciate them. We are both at liberty to accumulate what emergent meaning we can out of the multiplicity that forms the painting; there is not one single significance forever stamped on it by the artist’s imprimatur. The question, perhaps, is this one: How does painting relate to the rest of life? Where Lowe and I agree is in the idea that making things—producing things that objectively exist outside oneself—is a way of coming to terms with the limitations of one’s own thinking. Lowe explains that he’s “fascinated by the idea of physical mapping, but also of social mapping, psychological mapping, and all these patterns we make from our daily lives of just repeating things. Most of the time, we’re making patterns that we don’t recognize, right?” Right. Lowe’s paintings are maps of everything of which we might be unconscious—and that’s a little different for everyone.

By giving her most recent exhibition the title “Daydream,” Mary Heilmann might seem to have positioned her art as far as possible from the hands-on engagement with social reality that’s occupied Lowe for so long. But while the drift and, possibly, self-indulgence implicit in daydreaming are quite different from the focused concentration of a meditation, they both imply a certain detachment from the empirical, a kind of freedom of mind that might even touch on utopian thinking. Now 82, Heilmann has slowly but surely become one of the most admired painters around. Her work sneaks up on you—and it is based on a high ratio of meditation to action. In her own words: “A lot of my studio time is spent sitting, thinking, looking, and often trying to figure out the easiest way to try and do something. Rather than working all day, I think all day.” Her motto might be: Don’t just do something, sit there!

The recent show, at the 303 Gallery in New York, comprised 32 works, most of them small paintings, but also four wall-mounted works in glazed ceramic (and one piece that combines ceramic and painting) as well as furniture—five painted wood chairs and a table. Although, in the gallery, one was not permitted to sit in the chairs, they are in fact functional, but they can be considered sculpture, or even three-dimensional painting. Likewise, while the ceramics in this show are essentially paintings by other means, Heilmann also makes functional ceramics—plates, cups, and so on. Her approach to art-making assumes that “art” and “life” are not an opposition but rather zones on a continuum. Ceramics is what she studied in school in California, and “sculptor” is what she called herself when she arrived in New York in 1968. “When I couldn’t get anyone to take an interest in my sculptures,” Heilmann later explained to Amy Sherlock of Frieze, “I decided to call them paintings, because a lot of the pieces were flat on the wall. Everyone hated painting—including me—but I would always say ‘I’m a painter’ so that we’d get into big arguments about it.”

Paintings or not, her works still retain a sculptural accent on physicality and a willingness to try what anyone else—and maybe even Heilmann herself—might hate. From a glazed ceramic plate on a table to a glazed ceramic panel on the wall to a painted canvas on the wall is merely a couple of steps. And perhaps in response to the wag who defined sculpture as “something you bump into while stepping back to get a better look at a painting” (I’ve seen the bon mot attributed to both Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt), Heilmann makes sculptures you can sit in (if only the gallery would let you) while looking at her paintings or anything else.

In contrast to the symphonic grandeur of Lowe’s paintings, Heilmann’s effort seems directed toward making each of hers as simple—one might almost say as primary—as possible. It’s a kind of minor key of minimalism, but casual, funky, and fascinated by the everyday world rather than austere and self-contained. The paintings can look almost accidental—but with the accent on “almost.” Red Fall (2018) is a tiny square, just six inches, with what looks like a series of red drips running down the canvas on a beige ground; the upper left and lower right corners are occupied by white rectangles, as if Heilmann had been wondering what the painting would have looked like had it been made not on a square after all, but on the eight-sided shape (implying a pair of overlapping squares or rectangles) that she often uses. But a close look at that sequence of red drips suggests that they are not the result of gravity alone, but that the paint had been “encouraged” to trickle down in certain ways by the painter’s brush. Another quite modestly scaled painting, Small Floating Spots (2022), features nothing more than five puddles of various colors—reminiscent perhaps of the biomorphic shapes employed by modernists such as Jean Arp, shapes that seem to have an unstable form—in a black surround. Again, the green, red, yellow, pink, and blue shapes could easily appear to have been made by simply pouring some acrylic paint onto the horizontal surface. But no: Both the colored shapes and their black environment appear to have been painted with considerable deliberation, a carefully arrived-at randomness. Curiously, a larger related painting, Floating Spots 1 (2021)—this one featuring just four rather than five hues on its black ground—seems even more casually executed.

Given the simplicity and modesty of these works, many of them entirely monochromatic, you might wonder whether they are substantial enough to stand on their own, outside the context of the exhibition. And true enough, it’s easy to see the show less as a gathering of autonomous pieces than as a total installation encompassing the many small works on the wall plus the furniture scattered around the room; the dialogue among these carries the exhibit’s main message. But actually, I don’t think these works need this specific context to thrive. What they do need—and it’s asking for a lot, I realize—are viewers who have some familiarity with Heilmann’s practice, who can make mental connections not necessarily with works hanging in the same room but with works they remember. Heilmann’s is an art of small, highly considered moves, of variations and reconsiderations of a fairly small (but not closed) repertoire of motifs; her oeuvre is an ongoing dialogue with itself. The British critic Adrian Searle once paid her what might sound like a pretty backhanded compliment: “Heilmann’s paintings aren’t the best in the world, but they don’t need to be.” What he meant, I think, is that she has deliberately turned away from the idea of the overwhelming masterpiece in favor of an art that unveils humble realities slowly, over time, so that, as Searle continued, what counts are the “human details and imperfections.” Heilmann’s five chair sculptures remind us that, for all the quiet thought that goes into this art, it is not a completely private endeavor, but an opening to conversation, maybe to argument. And it’s within those details and imperfections that our conversation with the artist—and others—begins.

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