No one captured the anxiety of the contemporary artist and made fun of it better than Paul McCarthy in his 1995 video performance piece 'Painter.' The beginning scene goes like this: The painter wears a smock, paces around his studio muttering and whining to himself as he prepares to work on some large canvases. His nose and hands are huge and unwieldy, as are his paint tubes and brushes, and he sputters and cries as he slashes paint around. But mostly, he is not painting. "I'm fuckin' painting I'm fuckin' painting I'm fuckin' painting," he mutters, as he spins and paces around. "Try to understand the emotions, try to see it my way," he says before swiping some black paint on a large canvas with a broom-sized paintbrush. "That's too quick," he mutters after marking the canvas and, crying, he says, "I can't do this anymore."
McCarthy's absurd caricature is a direct reference to white male ab-ex painters (perhaps, in our cultural memory and understanding, the most iconically "misunderstood," tortured, and tumultuous artists that ever were) but "Painter" also develops into a hilarious takedown of the way the art world functions (it also prods at gallerists and collectors, the wealthy patrons). Paul Gagner, a Brooklyn-based artist, suffers from similar artistic anxiety in his solo show at Guest Spot, "A Beginner's Guide to Home Lobotomy." With paintings of fictional self-help books for artists, of work spaces and tabletops littered with notes and open books, Gagner makes a knowing jab at painting and the painter's anxiety: why the fuck he's doing what he's doing, and how to get ahead in the art world.
On one wall, there's a series of 10 small, shallow canvases painted to look like self-help books (spines and all) with such titles as "How to Read the Lumps In Your Paintings" (the cover depicts a playfully lumpy, cartoony hand caressing an abstract canvas), "Enough Is Enough: How To Quit With Dignity" (with paintings and stretcher bars in a garbage bin), and "Hexes, Curses, And Spells For Your Enemies: Sometimes Talent Isn't Enough" (with a hand squeezing paint into a slow cooker surrounded by candles) all written by a Howard Moseley, M.D. The covers play off the pressures artists face in order to be great and successful (i.e. to make a living off their work), which can yield an unhealthy competition with other artists, and further isolation in the studio.
Several other paintings in this show highlight a rift or a stark separation between abstraction and representational painting. The paintings depict work stations and studio tables, each with notes or a book splayed open to a page that references different kinds of abstract painting. These are all well-rendered, but not photorealistic—somewhere between Todd Bienvenu and Jonas Wood. In 'Gutter Jump,' atop a paint-daubed studio table, a sticky-noted book is open to a spread with a painting that looks a little bit like Trudy Benson's or Laura Owens' work. You can easily follow the moves: the first layer's wobbly and colorful geometric abstraction; then a few squeezed-from-the-tube lines, dabs, curves in different colors here and there; then a single stroke of looping gray that winds its way across the surface, going off each edge.
The open books might be art books or textbooks but in this context I think they're actually Gagner's self-help books. The painting opposite 'Gutter Jump' features a book open to a page with a Richter-esque painting: a dark, smeary field of a muddled color with magenta and yellows cutting in here and there. The page next to it, in carefully handled lettering, gives the title of this chapter: "A Series of Moves Within a Series of Games." I laughed when I saw this one—those are the words we often use to describe and try to understand abstraction and painterly logic. Decisions! Moves! Marks! The darkest painting here, though, shows another book open to a chapter called "Buoyancy Was Lost and Everything Became as Lead." The page with the painting on it (another Richter-y squeegee painting) is torn in half, revealing a very similar-looking painting on the page behind it but in different colors. The sadly poetic title (which, in this context, reads more melodramatic than sincere) alludes to, perhaps, a few things that cause anxiety for artists: the impulse to always have cohesive bodies of work, the weight of other artistic influences, the pressure to fit your work into a neat and marketable box.
One of the biggest paintings here, 'My Desktop,' plays off the other desktop paintings, while symbolizing, maybe, the artist's cluttered mind. Here, a well-executed, but not illusionistic or photorealistic, painting of the Apple operating system's standard purple spacey explosion desktop is littered with files and blue folders ("New_Paintings," "shabby_chic_rug.jpg," etc.) and a preview window of a delicious-looking "Garden-Style-Club-Sandwich 56757.jpg." The piece is in conversation with the other tabletop paintings of course, and it's charming because it's just a little bit hokey and playful and ordinary. This style of painting—an informed carelessness—is in the same camp as such contemporary painters as Katherine Bradford or Nicole Eisenman (or, locally, Dave Eassa and my former studio neighbor Nicole Dyer come to mind). Their manner of painting is a reminder that fun and buoyancy are important in creative work.
Gagner's paintings perform a self-referential internal conflict between abstraction and representational painting. This kind of art-world-savvy, institutional critique sometimes gets muddled or feels too insular, but Gagner's playful humor makes it more accessible; the paintings encourage us to laugh a little. They make the fear and anxiety so obvious that the words are already there for us. There's nothing coy here; the paintings' "message" isn't translated or obscured through the medium of painting. Gagner's paintings make us ask questions about the structures that give us anxiety about our professional work.
Underlying the jokier bits of Gagner's paintings, there's a critique of capitalism and the art world. If my art is different and special, I'll be able to sell it. The self-help book covers trace that trajectory and make fun of it, especially this myth that artists need to be rugged individualists. We have every reason to be anxious about our creative labor and to fight for its value, and just as importantly, we also have to be self-critical and determine if or when the money-related anxieties affect the actual content of our work.
"A Beginner's Guide to Home Lobotomy" is up at Guest Spot at the Reinstitute through Feb. 6. For more info, visit guestspot.org.