AS A PRIMARY and
collective ethos, postmodernism probably no longer exists. Too many
years have passed. And yet, as sheer effect, it seems absolutely pervasive
—and interminable. A movement that was, at once, soundly intellectual
and blithely reactionary, now proceeds rutterless. After twenty-plus
years, artists become untangled from a prevailing spirit. Any prevailing
spirit. Especially one that is a movement about a movement. What we
see today may look like postmodernism — still imbued with ironies,
still irreverent, still wittingly impure — but it now has the
ring of disengagement. Serious artists seem, more than ever, on their
own. Unimpressed by theory, unmoved by trends.
The corollary is a pluralism that, for once, feels true. Artists appear
to be pursuing individual impulses for newly logical reasons —
reasons related to personal sensibility or to cultural phenomena. Consider
certain examples on exhibit this winter in New Orleans.
An innately realist painter persists almost stubbornly in a manifestly
traditional style because, clearly, it is his passion, it is "what
he does." To wit, Simon Gunning. A socially engaged artist alters
his style as he confronts new and unforeseen outrages in contemporary
STREETS & BOATS. Above, I noted Simon Gunning's traditional style.
It comes from 19th century Europe. His paintings of boats in harbor,
especially The Red Dinghy, recall early Turners with their mesmerizingly
golden light and angled, spiky masts. In the street scenes, there is
something of Manet's clumsy wonderful gardens, rich with brushy shadows
and plain, flat houses. What confers a singularity on Gunning's newest
work (recently on view at Galerie Simonne Stem), is his balance of dazzling
gesture and forceful pictorial structure. In Yellow Tug #3, the lowest
quarter of the painting is blackened, almost canceled out; the highest
quarter is nearly as dark. Thus, we are drawn in toward the centered,
massive yellow and black tugboat and, more important, to a riot of gestural
impasto that serves to depict reflection. This is sheer virtuosity.
Gunning's obvious devotion to formal matters —the brushwork and
composition — might suggest a certain emotional detachment. The
artist's own comments ("...what I really like to do is forget about
what I'm painting and just paint. . .") seem also to advance the
idea. And, indeed, a few pieces in the Stern show bare this out. Even
a bustling scene of street kids such as Children Gathering Crawfish
has the aura of a journalistic document — people seen and pictured,
but not "portrayed." But actually, in this instance of such
a socially-charged subject, Gunning's formal stance is a benison. An
alternate choice — a facile and deadly choice — would have
been to revive the bathos and quaintness of the Ashcan School aesthetic.
In nearly half of this exhibition, however, an emotionalism does indeed
emerge. At moments, it is measured, tempered; at moments, dramatic.
It has to do with light. The stirring oddness of late afternoon light,
something Gunning captures as few others have done. In The Canal, light
graduates from opaque murkiness to amber to silver. All those lyrical
half-tones. In The Pigeon Feeders, cast shadow obscures a large expanse.
In both works, the effect is a hybrid feeling: both the lonely and the
mysterious. And the feeling endures.
One small work, Ghost Ship, seems a bit miscast in this show. Depicting
a docked boat almost entirely in silhouette, it verges on abstraction.
The brushwork is washy, layered, liberated — and yet it coheres.
This is the surprise highlight of the entire series, a brooding poem
in blacks and greys. Emotionalism managed and confined to a handful,
but emphatically there, nonetheless. I think immediately of Gunning's
silhouetted cypress in NOMA's collection. Ghost Ship is somehow even