In naming a modernist painting exhibition Retro-Active, there is a false predisposition in framing the come-and-gone flat structural aesthetic of modernism as a style that has returned as fashionable. Only in reading curator Peter Hide's exhibition essay, his use of "retro" is curious, if not confused. He writes, "Retro is of course a fashionable word for art that looks back to a previous time." Retro, rather, is a word for art that looks back to a previous time made fashionable. He goes on to describe postmodernism as weak and insecure in its approach to looking back, and in doing so, Hide presents such an entrapped sense of logic that there is no room for debate, an ongoing condition with modernists who only feel nostalgia and entitlement to uphold their lineage in Western art history.
I hark on the misuse of "retro" as, after attending the artist talks by Mitchel Smith and Sheila Luck, I am genuinely flabbergasted, and slightly appalled, that this completely outdated mode of art is not only still being made and sold in contemporary galleries and showing in artist-run centers, but is being self-aggrandized as the only "serious" art still being made in our time. While lamenting how nobody understands the usefulness of abstract art in one breath and then calling down the contemporary art of today, there is a cycle of deep denial and hypocrisy at play.
Referring to modernist works specifically, Smith stated that amongst the trivial art being sold today, the need for serious art is more important than ever, and that institutions and collectors, especially the AGA, don't support serious art like they used to.
Well, that to me is a clear indicator: if the appetite and demand for modernist works has significantly shifted down, then the supply and production of modernism needs to keep on par with its demand. Mark Rothkos and Barnett Newmans fetch millions and command respect because they remain tied to their context in history, which cannot be resummoned due to an aesthetic similarity. Because outside of all this, Smith and Luck are actually creating visually pleasing works that are unfortunately attached to a cache of encapsulated glory.
The central issue overshadowed here is that the individual works of Luck and Smith are rather good. They are good not because they remind Hide of Robert Motherwell or Ken Noland, but because they demonstrate a clear, if not dedicated voice. They are consistent in form and expression, perhaps Smith more so than Luck. Luck is the more exploratory, if not more talented painter of the two, harnessing an imbalanced emotional depth in pieces like the sublime "Harvest" and the poorly titled "Tilt-a-Whirl." I hasten to even connect Luck to lesser-appreciated abstract expressionist painters like Helen Frankenthaler, who may be one of the greatest painters of the 20th century, but lives on in the shadow of her husband Motherwell. She and others like Nancy Holt lived in the shadows of their partners and contemporaries because women were not considered serious artists, and those receiving any due were often given the recognition that they painted like a man. It is this proliferation of self-important discrimination that has pushed modernism from an important and interesting era into the dark ages. There is no right to dismiss all other forms of art as non-serious endeavors, no possible logic to think modernist works are more serious than works by contemporaries like painter Julie Mehretu or artist Urs Fischer.
The hallmarks of good art can be judged by their increasing value in culture and society over time. The Rothkos and Newmans will continue to stand because they are emblematic of a unique postwar aesthetic movement that involved a cross-pollination of influences specific to a certain time and place. To continue making this style of work, and to be taken seriously, Luck and Smith need to not lean on the specter of modernist ideals, and instead connect their art directly to the living world, because it's only there where it exists and communicates.
*First published in Vue Weekly