Paul Behnke’s curatorial criteria for the show Eight Painters are compellingly straightforward: “an individual, rigorous vision; a certain ambition without regard for scale or a specific way of making a painting; and an abiding belief in the ability of paint - and specifically, the genre of abstraction - to best communicate the artist’s appetite and inventiveness.”
In other words, the show features painters deeply engaged with the medium of paint. It’s a powerfully simple premise. Eschwing trends and labels, the tools of the art market, Behnke puts the focus where it should be - on the paintings themselves. He generously agreed to discuss the show with Painters’ Table. - Brett Baker
Painters' Table (PT): Your decision not to organize the show around a visual “theme” is uncommon these days - even somewhat radical. Can you expand a bit on how you came to believe that the commitment of each artist to the internal language of their work was the most worthy organizing principle?
Paul Benke (PB): I think as a painter I’ve always felt this.
Recently, the predominant way that paintings have been presented and viewed has been in the context of a curatorial theme. The more in depth statement of the one person exhibit is being pushed aside in favor of a “hook” that I think art spaces feel they need to draw in viewers. These curatorial themes start to seem necessary to make painting feel relevant. To submit a body of work to almost any art space’s open call you must have a “project”, a hook, and it’s even better if your idea involves some sort of play on Relational Esthetics or is community based. All of these approaches have their place but this type of exhibition has become prevalent at the expense of a deeper, more encompassing experience of the painter’s work.
Good painting is as varied and multi-layered as the person who made it. Thoughts, memories, visual associations – the sum of a painter’s daily life - personality and experiences feed into a work. And that’s just the conceptual content. To say nothing of the subtleties or boldness of a paintings formal qualities and the staggering number of decisions that go into realizing a piece. To reduce all of that to a fragment of its intent runs the risk of doing the medium and painter a disservice, especially if the viewer is easily swayed or lazy.
I did what I could to negate this approach in Eight Painters. I intentionally kept the number of exhibiting artists under ten and asked for one piece or a concise grouping of work from each. I wanted something closer in feel to a museum display rather than an over-hung, chaotic presentation. Within those parameters I felt I had the best chance of giving the work, the painter and the viewer the kind of experience they deserved.
In an essay for an online show of McNeil's work at Curating Contemporary, Behnke writes: "McNeil begins a painting with a seminal symbol, so long in use that it has become embedded in the universal unconsciousness. These familiar symbols are explored like ruins, through the layering of paint and scraping it away. With the use of transparent veils, and clots of paint and medium, these symbols are picked apart, demolished and built again into a new order. McNeil pushes beyond the original symbol in his search for meaning."
Edited by artist Brett Baker, Painters' Table highlights writing from the painting blogosphere as it is published and serves as a platform for exploring blogs that focus primarily on the subject of painting.