Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Venice Biennale: The Future of a Promise, Pan-Arab Exhibition

At a certain point in the 20th Century it seems it became fashionable for certain cognoscenti to announce: Painting Is Dead. Then in the 1980s it was "miraculously reborn" as an obscenely lucrative medium, complete with its own latter-day de Koonings and Pollocks self-consciously mimicking the heroic days of those masters, and it was no longer so important--or even advisable--to assert its passing. Some people still do, of course, but as long as there's an international market for it it's not imperative to do so.

I was never qualified to make such a pronouncement and no one, not even myself, cared what I thought about Painting's viability. And, besides, as I have a sister who's a painter how could I take pleasure in the thought of its passing? But I must confess that recently during one or two of my grumpier days as I walked through this or that Biennale pavilion I was surprised to find myself sympathizing--and completely!--with those who talked of its demise. In our media-saturated age how could ancient old toothless Painting, depending entirely on so many now-familiar motifs and strategies, possibly still reach us?

Then I saw the work Al Maw3oud by the Lebanese painter Ayman Baalbaki and was reminded how.

Painting could still be monumental and striking, complex and suggestive of any number of contradictory ideas all at once. Instead of seeming like the oldest medium on display it could seem like the freshest and most immediate. At least to me.

detail of Al Maw3oud
But, then, there are a number of striking pieces, in different media, on display in The Future of a Promise. Another, by the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater, struck me as having far more to suggest about one of the defining myths of America--and its reality--than any of the momentarily eye-catching and costly pieces in the American pavilion which, finally, I can only describe as high concept, low impact.

At first sight, I thought Mater's The Cowboy Code was nothing more than a homey American needlepoint sampler recreated on an absurdly massive scale.

But then I stepped up close to the piece and discovered the entire thing was composed of the plastic ammunition discs for a toy cap gun, as you can see below.

It's a dark witty piece that, unlike a number of other works in the Biennale, does not stop at wit, at a knowing punch line. I find myself thinking of the piece still, days later.

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