The Return of Painting – New, From The MIT Press

Posted: March 15, 2018 in Uncategorized

Chaos and Awe: Painting for the 21st Century
Edited by Mark W. Scala

In an age of global instability, the threat of chaos looms. Or is the threat more spectral than real? The fear of chaos may simply be our response to living in a world controlled by powerful forces beyond our understanding. Chaos and Awe demonstrates the aptness and relevance of painting as a medium for expressing the uncertainty of our era. It presents more than fifty paintings, by an international array of contemporary artists, that induce sensations of disturbance, curiosity, and expansiveness—the new sublime, derived not from the unfathomable mystery of nature but from the hidden and often insidious forces of culture. Essays by art historians and “painters who write” offer context and illumination.

  1. Elizabeth Izampuye says:

    With these paintings and the one’s of Zaria Forman, are they supposed to be interpreted by citizens because they are complex, or are these paintings just supposed to be seen as they are. It seems like the MIT paintings are more complex in nature and imagery, because they represent the chaos and awe of our times. Forman’s painting looks like beautiful glaciers at first glance, but is the viewer supposed to understand Forman’s message behind it?
    I know Sontag is against trying to delve into the secret meanings of art, so would her stance be applicable here?

    • Of course there’s no law telling anyone what they must or must not read into art, irrespective of Sontag’s claims. Nor would Sontag want such laws passed. Her only contention is that beauty is sufficiently powerful, as well as sufficiently obscured, in our current world, that it makes sense simply to allow ourselves to recognize it and enjoy it on its own terms. I think it’s perfectly possible to do that with the immediate sensuousness of Forman’s paintings. Now, these paintings do indeed have a political message: this is what we are destroying through our collective neglect of environmental issues. There’s nothing hidden about that message. It’s neither buried or encoded.

      What Forman seems to have understood – perhaps from Sontag, perhaps not – is that facts and figures, especially when presented in a barrage of abstractions, are not enough to move us to action. In fact, such a blizzard of numbers may well have the opposite of the desired effect, numbing us to urgent realities. In a similar spirit, the University of Utah as created an Environmental Humanities program, with the stated goal of cultivating ways to communicate about nature without losing it within a welter of statistics. I imagine your our field of studies treats public health in a similar manner.

      Sontag would never have argued that she was entirely apolitical. But her chosen form of politics was to remain as free as possible from the ignorance and overreach of others. For this reason, she became more overtly political in the 80s and 90s, producing books on the ideological misrepresentation of illness in general, and AIDS is particular. Her argument was that persons all too frequently impose cultural meanings onto illness, as a defense mechanism, rather than see it for what it actually is.

      What the MIT Press book seems to argue is that painting – despite the very strong opinion of the persons we’ve recently seen Michael Fried attack – continues to be relevant. Their view seems to derive from the possibility that minimalist ‘sculpture’ of the sort we discussed in class, while possessed of its own power, does not possess the characteristic known as the ‘sublime’ – representations which overwhelm the viewer with either their vastness or their power. The simplicity and immanence of minimalist works conveys the sense that time is limitless, that the world goes on forever, or at least indefinitely. Fried calls minimalist works “theater,” as they include the viewer as participant. While this may be true, these works are nevertheless seems free of the drama associated with, say, Jackson Pollock. Consequently, they are free of any sense of urgency.

      Meanwhile, in a world now beset by major environmental and health crises, it may well be time to bring back the urgency that painting is so able to capture. I certainly see this sense of sublime incomprehensibility in the works contained in Chaos and Awe. But I can also see the same in the images of Forman. They are so physically large, and they depict such physically large and powerful natural phenomenon, that it is hard to look at them without feeling, despite their beauty, at least some twinge of pain, some feeling of resistance. This is the very essence of the sublime. Consequently, despite some obvious differences between the two images shown in the post, I would argue there are some important similarities as well.

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