Talking about painting now faces trouble since any relevant argument about art needs to encompass multiple media, which take second fiddle to the kernel, or the central concept, within the work. An argument focused on exploring the work in question through the possibilities of one specific medium, tips over into the territory of watercolor societies or hobbyist’s manuals. A very wide, murky and treacherous gulf, plumbed insightfully by Glenn Adamson in Thinking Through Craft, separates this territory and Fine Art.
Within this gulf it becomes tricky to talk about Nancy Mitchnick’s solo exhibition at the Scarab Club, Nancy Mitchnick: Time Travel. Mitchnick, an artist who lives firmly in paint, creates work derivative of nothing but painting. Her paintings examine what they are made of, brushwork and color, but Mitchnick, while certainly expressionistic in her style, is no action painter. She swings narrative and illusion around her head like a sack of rocks, wedding it to a painting style that, in its sometimes deceptive, downright naive-looking roughness, begins to speak powerfully of something beyond itself, proving its dexterity in melting into the styles of its venerable grandfathers, as in her “covers” of paintings by Van Gogh and Cezanne. Every gesture acts as a reverent, closely observed homage to its parent gesture, the whole enterprise astonishingly free of hubris and rich with pleasure. In her detail covers, which focus on certain parts of well-known Baroque paintings, she subjects the old masters to a wild, skillful translation into her own language. The results offer more complex and spot-on observations the closer one looks.
These pictures, stomping and dancing across the history of a medium, begin to function on two levels. One as studies from beloved antecedent paintings, though insightful and vibrant, skim sentimentality a little dangerously, and two as arbitrary templates hacked into with Mitchnick’s impressively confident, decisive brushwork, laid out in a range of values of photo realistic subtlety. The latter reading moves these paintings into the realm of Lucien Freud, possessing the same loosened mastery existing as more than the sum of its parts, the same fine balance of illusion and supplement creating a certain frisson, a sense of trouble. Perhaps their autonomy presents the most trouble – they know what they are, even if the viewer does not. They have what they need, though by current standards their tool kit is small. They do not give reasons for what they have taken with power, through physical process. Concepts start to fly somewhere between the physical manipulation of the medium and what that medium chooses to consume. Only masters make paintings like these.
As a painter at the very beginning of my career, I do not fully understand what mastery means. Nancy Mitchnick’s show possesses what I am beginning to define as mastery, a quality while troubling and illusive, might have injected a lot more depth and finesse into this year’s Whitney Biennial.
Nancy Mitchnick: Time Travel runs through October 14, 2012
Clara DeGalan is an artist and writer working on an MFA at Wayne State University in Detroit. View more articles by Clara DeGalan.