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During the rise of modern painting, flatness was considered a virtue, a quality denoting the pure essence of the medium. In 1890, artist Maurice Denis noted that, whatever else it was, “a picture…is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.” The mid-20th-century critic Clement Greenberg considered flatness the sine qua non of serious abstraction. However, “Flatlands,” a tight selection of millennial painters, toys with an alternate definition of flatness as an expression of 21st century anomie, conjuring “a sense of space that is dimensionless and airless.” Though the curators point to theatrical scenery as an example, they could be describing the Internet and social media.
The works here—by Nina Chanel Abney, Mathew Cerletty, Jamian Juliano-Villani, Caitlin Keogh and Orion Martin—resemble a kind of Surrealism strained through Pop Art, a mix of sharp contours and taut surfaces channeling content that’s less about a metaphysical truth rooted in the subconscious than it is about consciousness as artifice. While the work may sometimes recall Max Ernst, René Magritte and Salvador Dalí, it is the product of minds colonized by Andy Warhol and the web.
Juliano-Villani’s works are filled with whirlwinds of cartoon references, skinned with unbroken tracts of color like animation cells. Lately she’s added airbrushed layers of chiaroscuro, bringing her images more in line with custom van murals. One painting depicts a figure made of orange traffic cones, resembling an unlikely marriage of the Iron Giant and an inflatable air dancer in front of a tire store. It’s seen picking its way through a landscape of stacked rocks (ancient cairns? wind-sculpted hoodoos in the New Mexican desert?) vandalized with graffiti in a desolate setting. The scene’s meaning is impenetrable, which is probably the point.
Likewise, Cerletty’s straightforward depiction of an aquarium is opaque in both senses of the word. The fish evince no sign of life, looking like they’re suspended in Lucite instead of water. Though Cerletty plays around with a number of genres and styles, his métier is a kind of realism deliberately delivered dead on arrival. Here, his subjects are not only fixed in place, but asphyxiated as well.
Both Keogh and Martin borrow the shallow space of trompe l’oeil still life for their work. However, Keogh’s impassive synthesis of anatomical drawing and technical illustration—depicted in boldly outlined, graphic forms—recalls John Wesley, while Martin’s creepy renderings of common objects (a woman’s boot, a wooden washtub) are more in keeping with the Sadean spirit of Neue Sachlichkeit.
The most ambitious piece here is Abney’s wall-spanning canvas, which seems to meld an Edenic grove with the front parlor of a cathouse in a friezelike arrangement of female nudes, each contorted into a pornographic pose. Dotted with words like YES and NO and strategically censored in places by the letter X, the painting makes unmistakable allusions to Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon but is closer in appearance to Henri Matisse’s cutouts. Though brightly colored to the point of ebullience, the piece is tonally analogous to the thousand-yard stare of an adult-film actress who’s been in the business for too long.
Some 10 years ago, the notion gained currency that the world was becoming “flat”—that is, a global economy devoid of boundaries with a culture to match. But the work here suggests these artists take an opposite view of the zeitgeist: not as limitless landscape but as a metaphorically two-dimensional realm of stunted possibilities and deferred hopes.