Why is it that so much contemporary painting leaves me cold?

I've been thinking about this lately, especially as a number of people have pointed out my critical biases. But let it not be said that I don't investigate my prejudices. I spent some time recently in galleries in Pioneer Square and on Capitol Hill, trying to figure out what painting lacks.

Much of the work was quite competent--lively textures, clever framing, skillful rendering--but not much of it was interesting. ("Competent" and "interesting" are two words that have been severely compromised, but in this case, I mean painters who can control their medium, and work that engages and holds the mind.) I also saw dull surfaces, uninspired paint-handling, and a lot of work that can only be called decorative.

Every few years, some art critic takes pleasure in making people furious with the declaration that painting is dead. But what does it mean for painting to die? Certainly artists have tried deliberately to kill it over the past century--Kasimir Malevich, Salvador Dali, Daniel Buren, to name a few--and critics such as Clement Greenberg have tried, and sometimes succeeded, to turn movements to their own agendas by declaring old styles to be irrelevant. I think it's impossible to declare any form of art to be dead, inasmuch as anything is allowed these days, but why is it that painting isn't, in the most general sense, good anymore?

The problem is partly a veneration for a medium that has outgrown its significance. This is not to say that painting doesn't matter, but it is no longer the yardstick by which art is measured. The evolutionary arcs of progress that painting made from the days of early Christianity up through pop art have been exhausted. It often seems that there is nowhere new for painting to go, nowhere that does not digest or draw on its own history. The momentum of its long history (its progress from primitive rendering to faithful mimesis to Greenberg's drive for purity and freedom from content) certainly kicked down the door for the pluralism that is art in our time. But now, it is simply one choice among many; it is not the dominant art that it was.

Another problem is a collective idea about what culture does: It entertains us and comforts us. There is a sense that we're meant to identify with art, to find the character in the novel that we might be, to find an image in a painting that reminds us of something we know. The result is a loss of willingness to be transported by art beyond our limits. A great deal of painting I regularly see speaks to things I already know very well: that people are emotional, that some of the things we worship we also fear, that we still seem to hanker after those bon vivant Impressionists. It matters very much that art continues to push against the world and, as a consequence, against itself; otherwise, it does become irrelevant. Art that asks questions moves us forward, develops our capacity to think abstractly and in a sophisticated manner; art that declares itself specifically "life-affirming" creates a stupefying inertia, a philosophical deficit that is very hard to see past.

It's indicative that some of the best painters I know of have branched out into sculpture and installation--a signal, perhaps, that painting by itself can't contain their ideas. Meghan Trainor's investigation into the consequences and biology of the genome project has found its latest form in a set of 23 cubes that tie together who we are biologically with who we are culturally (the human gene has 23 chromosomes). Sean Vale has moved from his series of white paintings to whole environments, which teach us how to pay better attention. There are also some other Seattle painters who are simply excellent artists: Marion Peck, Joe Park, Donnabelle Casis, and Shawn Ferris, to name a few.

Critic (and my muse) Arthur Danto has written that painting's history ended when "the philosophical nature of art attained a certain degree of consciousness." And this consciousness is what I'm not seeing--a feeling that the artist knows why a given work must, absolutely must, be rendered in paint.

Meghan Trainor's show can be seen at Oseao Gallery, 1402 E Pike (above the Artificial Limb Co.), 568-0291.

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