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Review: Phantom Limb/Museum of Contemporary Art

Michigan Avenue, Painting Add comments

Sigmar Polke, "Ashes to Ashes," 1992


Painting still has the power to quicken my pulse—Sigmar Polke’s huge “Ashes to Ashes,” 1992, hanging at the entrance to an exhibition of contemporary painting from the MCA’s own and private collections is a good example. Curator Michael Darling organizes this small show of large paintings with the conceit of a phantom limb. Contemporary painting discourse swings back and forth, from distrusting the gestures, skill and quality of the painter’s hand to privileging readymade, often industrial images or marks. This exhibition conflates the two tendencies, summoning the “phantom limb” of the technologically extended artist who both paints and uses non-painting processes. Polke, for example, created his work out of polka-dotted and screen-printed consumer materials without any gestures whatsoever. In the same gallery space but on a completely different scale hangs one of the museum’s Warhols, the long narrow “Jackie Frieze,” set off to good advantage in this exhibition where we can admire how Warhol’s subject emerges from the mixture of screened images and paint. Jack Kennedy peers up and out of the layered mix of cultural information in the Rauschenberg beside it.

The curator’s specifications that the exhibition expresses “skepticism about painterly gestures” results in a grouping of striking pieces, such as Christopher Wool’s “Your Sweetness is my Weakness,” with surfaces built up by tangles of black silkscreen images and spray paint over enamel on aluminum. Isa Genzken avoids the brush by making the imprint of debris from the studio floor, while others drag and comb. A large, bright but mysterious painting by Aaron Curry and Richard Hawkins, from 2011, composed of silkscreen on cardboard and false wood-grain strips, could be called a sculpture. A remarkable piece by Albert Oehlen, from 2006, turns on the power of somewhat traditional color theory, mixing mauves and ochres but subverting any precious or reactionary impulses with spills and awkward, unreadable shapes. The exhibition indicates clearly that the pleasures of painting will outlive what Darling calls “the romance of the hand.” (Janina Ciezadlo)

Through October 21 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago.

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