Exhibition reviews: Rauch, Salle, Currin, Ruscha, Koons, Owens

Notes on current and recent exhibitions of (mostly) new painting in London’s commercial galleries. As usual, I’ll order my notes as follows: Liked; Wasn’t sure about; Disliked.

Neo Rauch Rondo at David Zwirner


Neo Rauch Rondo at David Zwirner (2016) installation view (L-R) Die Kur (2016) oil on canvas 250 x 200cm; Tief Im Holz (2016) oil on canvas 250 x 200cm; Skulpturengarten (2016) oil on canvas 50 x 40cm.

Liked: seeing so many Rauch paintings in the flesh (there was also a good one at this year’s Frieze, and another in Sotheby’s recent Contemporary sale). I’ve spent a lot of time viewing Rauch’s paintings on a computer screen and in colour reproduction, where they appear like ravishingly sumptuous and complex children’s book illustrations (especially in this gorgeous book). Seen in reality, the paintings have a comparatively dry matt surface and, at full size, the details turn out to be economically rendered – but skilfully so, recalling sign painting or stage backdrops. For me, this lively relationship between original and reproduction, in print and online, relates Rauch’s work to David Joselit’s writing on “networked painting”, although I think Rauch’s paintings are more interesting in themselves than the work cited by Joselit (ie. in Painting Beside Itself from 2009).


Neo Rauch Reich (2002) oil on canvas 400 x 210cm

Wasn’t sure about: the increasingly dark and historical character of Rauch’s new paintings. This is totally a personal preference, but many of my favourite Rauch paintings come from the brightly coloured more modern looking world that he painted between 2002 – 2003, in particular: Art (2002), Reich (2002) (see above), Waldbahn (2002), Anger (2003), and Konvoi (2003).
Didn’t like: Nothing here I didn’t like.

Cindy Sherman and David Salle History Portraits and Tapestry Paintings at Skarstedt


Cindy Sherman and David Salle History Portraits and Tapestry Paintings at Skarstedt (2016) installation view (L-R) David Salle Backdrop (1990) oil on canvas; Cindy Sherman Untitled #206 (1989)

Liked: seeing Salle paintings in the flesh for the first time. His postmodern mash-ups were so unfashionable when I was studying art in the 2000’s that I didn’t give them a lot of thought (he was big-in-the-80s). In reality, these paintings work in ways that don’t come across in reproduction and I was impressed by their impact. The canvases set within canvases have a sculptural effect, playing on the illusion of solidity that is so easy to take for granted when viewing stretched canvases (more on that here). Unusual painting techniques give parts of these paintings the appearance of a giant tapestry, which is enjoyably confusing in relation to the real canvas weave. Also, the empty speech bubbles in flat colour with black outline made me think about how much Salle anticipated (and perhaps influenced) anti-painterly collage effects used by later painters, including Rauch (see below).


Neo Rauch See (2000) oil on canvas 200 x 400cm

Wasn’t sure about: the paint handling. In reproductions I’ve often felt it was too obvious that Salle was using a projector to trace images onto the canvas (I’m guessing), painting with a technique that was a bit workmanlike and mechanical. Seeing the paintings in reality, this continued to niggle me in a few areas. Perhaps that’s “affectlessness”, I’m just not all that into it. *since reading Salle’s chapter on Picabia in his book How to See, I’ve revised my opinion on Salle’s technique. He says he viewed a Picabia painting as “both a compass point and a dare: I bet you can’t make something as discordant and unsettling as this!” and if I view Salle’s paintings with that in mind, they become much more fun.
Didn’t like: Nothing here I didn’t like.

ps. Salle’s book on art, How to See, and it’s a total page-turner. Very accessible style. I recommend it. Brilliant essay on Dana Schutz, among others.

John Currin at Sadie Coles HQ


John Currin at Sadie Coles HQ (2016) installation view

Liked: Currin’s continued commitment to technique, wilfully wonky anatomy drawing and odd combinations of social and artistic signifiers. I especially enjoyed the gentleman with wild eyes goggling behind thick glasses, and the beautifully rendered white china jugs, balanced improbably as hats. In a way, I still see all of Currin’s pictures as relatives of the smiling lady from Jim Shaw’s Thrift Store Paintings (1991) (see below), and that’s fine with me.


Jim Shaw (from Thrift Store Paintings) (1991)

Wasn’t sure about: the blank backgrounds. Since at least 2003, Currin has situated most of his figures in fully rendered environments, enriching the pictorial space and broadening the scope of his subject matter. Here he isolates his figures against empty grounds, more like his paintings from the 1990s, and I miss seeing the rooms that they occupy. Also wasn’t sure about Currin re-using the subject of a smiling woman’s face obscured by a silver candelabra, recalling the very similar Anna from 2004. I like both paintings a lot, but why make two?
Didn’t like: Nothing here I didn’t like.

Adrian Searle reviewed this exhibition here.

Ed Ruscha Extremes and In-Betweens at Gagosian


Ed Ruscha Extremes and In-Betweens installation view (2016)

Liked: seeing a big exhibition of new paintings by a 78 year old. No age barriers in art. Also enjoyed the very odd optical effect of the spray-painting in Bio Biology (2016), giving the surface a trompe-l’oeil effect, something like black non-slip matting. The stencilling and unusual surface effects have interesting resonances with Laura Owen’s new work at Sadie Coles (see further down).


Ed Ruscha Bio Biology (2016) acrylic on canvas 182.9 x 315cm

Wasn’t sure about: the repeated use of the “extremes and in-betweens” writing formula, ie. REALLY OLD> 1/2 WAY> REALLY NEW. Initially I liked Universe> America>Tampa, Florida>10414 N. Newport Circle>top left dresser drawer, etc., and it reminded me of movies that open with super-wide shots, like Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs (1989) which begins with a shot of Earth seen from space, moving all the way in to a single street, or Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) which surveys the Phoenix skyline before peeping in to one particular window. However, the macro-to-micro formulation suffers from diminishing returns as Ruscha repurposes it for almost every painting in the show, many of them also very sparse visually.
Didn’t like: the grandiose setting. In a world increasingly destabilised by spiralling inequality, Gagosian’s Grosvenor Hill gallery feels so “big money” that I find it difficult to see the art without thinking about the market and its place in society (the macro-to-micro relations of wealth inequality are not touched on in Ruscha’s “extreme and in-between” texts). This is not a major complaint, it was just something on my mind while I was looking at the pictures.

Jeff Koons at Almine Reich


Jeff Koons at Almine Rech (2016) installation view (L-R) Gazing Ball (Tintoretto The Origin of the Milky Way) (2016) oil on canvas, glass and aluminium 160 x 179.1 x 37.5cm; Seated Ballerina (2011-15) mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent colour coating 210.8 x 113.5 x 199.8cm; Gazing Ball (Goltzius Hercules and Cacus) (2015) oil on canvas, glass and aluminium 222.9 x 152.4 x 37.5cm

Liked: the scale relationship between the Ballerina‘s small head, large arms and even larger legs. Also, the (coincidental?) sculptural connection between Koons’ shelves that jut out of stretched canvases as if they are solid walls, and David Salle’s 1990 canvases nested into each other like solid blocks (see above).
Wasn’t sure about: the gazing balls with the paintings. For me, the composition and palette of the paintings are thrown out by the saturated blue of the balls (skies drained and dulled, everything else made to look ruddy and brown), and the paintings make the balls look dark and heavy. But maybe that’s the point.
Didn’t like: it generally. I’ve enjoyed Koons paintings in the past (here’s my post on Loopy), but the recent retrospective at Newport Street Gallery left me disappointed, especially by the images / paintings. At the end I felt like I’d walked very slowly around a department store, looking for something that wasn’t there. In 2014, Laura Owens (her own exhibition is reviewed below) spoke on a panel discussion about the “Koons effect” at the Whitney (video below), coinciding with their Koons retrospective. Owens said,

“I thought, okay, I’ll look at the show, I’ll write about this, I’ll get to what it is I’m actually thinking about it. It’s like a process. I feel like I’ve done that with a few artists, but this is the first time where I was literally like: ‘I can’t fucking wait to be done writing about this’. Like, ‘I hate this’. … The other really positive thing I came to was that maybe, since the show is here, it’s like we get to culturally vomit this up – we can do this panel, have this moment, and then the show will end, and we’ll be post-Koons. What about that?”

Laura’s quote comes at 45:55 in the video.

Laura Owens at Sadie Coles HQ


Laura Owens at Sadie Coles HQ (2016) installation view

Liked: the sprawling sense of experimentation with a wide variety of different formats, techniques, and materials. I especially liked the thickly-ghessoed and smoothly sanded canvases, resulting in a surface something like white vinyl, which took paint and other marks in a completely un-canvas-y way. Also, Owens’ engagement with ugliness and inelegance is reminiscent of Kippenberger and Oehlen, and the mixed results are really refreshing compared to the premeditated serialism of the Koons and Ruscha work. There is also a website created to accompany the exhibition (why11.com). It includes audio clips that give insight into the production process, underlining the role of experimentation (some of the paintings have been sitting around the studio for a long time, one is the result of a forgotten test run).
Wasn’t sure about: the idea that visitors access the website from their smart phones and use them like audio guides. I don’t use a smart phone, and getting rid of my last one is a decision I’m really happy with. Everybody viewing the exhibition seemed plenty interested enough in the paintings without consulting their phones.
Didn’t like: Nothing here I didn’t like.


2 thoughts on “Exhibition reviews: Rauch, Salle, Currin, Ruscha, Koons, Owens

  1. Liam, you seem to like the modern Germans? They are not well known to me. Richter of course. I saw a comprehensive retrospective of Sigmar Polke’s work in Venice in July or August. It had come from MOMA and floored me. I am still feeding off it.

    If Neo Rauch is a study for you, you might like to look up some writing on him by Annette Hamilton, an Australian scholar. She gets the Germans and has opened them up for me. Both incidental magazine writing and usually links to more academic treatments she has done. These are sometimes too much for my untutored mind.

    I wonder if I might ever by able to write a piece in the future on Liam Cole’s evolution as an artist, simply based on his blog. I say this not in a smug way. It is simply that you have this enviable talent for conveying something of yourself, quite unproudly, as you discuss your purpose and the art that you are chatting about. I am sure you do not do this intentionally, for there is no evidence of ego in it – and of course I might be wrong. It would still be revealing. In addition to that, your English is accomplished and yet your writing is unadorned – it merely serves to make perfectly accessible, what you are trying to convey. And about writing, I do know.

    Oh there is often mish mash crap in what I think and, unfortunately, say! That’s a risk when you dive in the deep end half cocked, as I know full well I do. But without regret.



    • Your contributions are always very welcome, and writing this blog would be a much poorer experience without your presence here. Thanks again for all your input, I really appreciate it. I’ve downloaded Annette Hamilton’s essay “Neo Rauch: Post-socialist Vision, Collective Memories”. It seems great so far!
      It would be a huge privilege to me if you chose to write something about my painting. I’m flattered just by the suggestion!
      I try to keep the language simple on here because I think painting is difficult enough to write about without using “International Art English”. I don’t object to difficult texts, but I often find equally good content in plainly written work by the people I’ve mentioned (Philip Guston, Matthew Collings, Jerry Saltz, David Salle, Grayson Perry, etc.).
      What is your background in art? Did you tell me already? I have a TERRIBLE memory.


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