Russ Chisholm, Seminal Queen (Panel 3) (2011), oil on canvas; 9.84″ x 11.81″; courtesy Marc Jancou Contemporary
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When was it that painters became smart—or at least affected smartness? Historians can undoubtedly point to precedents before the advent of post-modernism, but there’s no doubt that visual artists nowadays are ready-equipped with a spiel—literary and theoretical flourishes by which their efforts are invested with, you know, meaning. Painters have always looked to the broader world for inspiration. But what are we to make of Ross Chisholm, whose this, that and the other corpus is on view at Marc Jancou Contemporary?
Chisholm’s exhibition, Garden of Forking Paths, takes its title from a short story by Jorge Luis Borges and, in particular, the notion that “time forks perpetually toward innumerable futures.” Reading the press release, we learn that the paintings draw “attention to the shifting conventions of, but sustained urge for, self-representation.” Chisholm busies himself with “subverting…iconic pillars of art history and the versions of the past they present.” How subversive can Chisholm be if he’s all but indistinguishable from any number of contemporary pasticheurs?
Pastiche is Chisholm’s all—that and a fondness for Francis Bacon. Whether altering found photographs, quoting paintings by Joshua Reynolds and Allan Ramsay or bringing a fetching patina to musty runs of color, Chisholm is never truly in thrall to his medium. Instead, he indulges in heady games. Chisholm’s mock variations on classical portraiture are especially over-determined. As exercises in passive-aggressive desecration, they have their adolescent attractions. The piece of packing tape—left oh, so casually!—on the surface of Seminal Queen (2011) would be the envy of a sophomore painting student who’s only just discovered Duchamp.
Chisholm misses the point. Aping the Old Masters isn’t the same thing as channeling them, and there’s only so much mileage to be gained from condescending to tradition. Would that Chisholm actually believed in something—then his art might do more than coast on mere expertise. And there are skills here, definitely. If Chisholm forgot about “destabilizing the authority of the image” and similar dead-end tropes, he might come up with pictures that are good rather than smart.
© 2011 Mario Naves
Originally published in the October 12-October 25, 2011 edition of City Arts.