New Image Sculpture

McNay Art Museum, San Antonio

Ben Judson

Tom Burckhardt, Kunztruk, 2008; enamel paint on cardboard, wood and Variform; 79½ x 48 x 15 inches; courtesy the artist

In 1978, the Whitney Museum of American Art showed a group of ten painters in the exhibition New Image Painting,1 declaring that painting was not dead and pointing to a resurgence of representation. Critics began using the phrase “New Image Painting” to refer to work produced by artists in the show—Susan Rothenberg’s horses, Robert Moskowitz’s buildings—and others who paint real things as abstracted forms with a strong gestural quality. The problem was, as with so many of these labels, the artists didn’t see themselves as part of any movement and many ended up resenting the title.

Though its name references the Whitney exhibition, New Image Sculpture at the McNay Museum of Art does not declare any major cultural shift or even claim to have found a group of artists with a common theoretical mindset. The precise connection between the thirteen artists included in the show is a bit murky, but there are significant threads that run throughout. The artists in New Image Sculpture tend to use common materials to make sculptures of common things, perhaps in the tradition of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes (1964) and Claes Oldenburg’s The Store (1961). Both Libby Black and Okay Mountain, for instance, had previously created their own stores filled with handmade merchandise, though this work is not on view at the McNay.

The show is full of subversion, though in some cases it runs deeper than in others. Black makes genuinely desirable objects that satirize mass-produced objects of desire; in Snow Drift (2007), her visibly handmade set of Louis Vuitton mountain-climbing gear is both beautiful and comical. Raising questions about the purpose and social impact of branding, Black asks viewers where such overt status symbols are and aren’t acceptable (Would we scoff at a Prada bag on a mountain-climbing expedition?), and why we draw the lines we do. Yet despite her fun with label hunters, Black’s sculptures are still objects that could fetch a good bit of money, depending on the social status of their maker’s “brand.” The space separating a collector of Louis Vuitton from a collector of Libby Black may not be very large.

Next to Black’s work, Tom Burckhardt’s cardboard sculptures of brightly colored abstract paintings slump against the wall, supported by sculptures of paint cans and shipping crates, as if the viewer were peering into a painter’s studio. In pieces such as Kunztruk (2008), Burckhardt gives the canvases an obvious droop, accepting the idea that painting may be getting a bit long in the tooth, but also refusing to abandon the medium. This caricature allows us to look at Burckhardt’s representation of painting and to consider how the act of looking at—or making—a painting is socially constructed. Burckhardt manages to remain a painter while satirizing the medium, which is no small feat.

Kiel Johnson, Point'n'Shoot 3, 2010; chipboard, high-density foam, pine, string and tape; dimensions variable courtesy the artist and Mark Moore Gallery, Culver City

Margarita Cabrera, Arbol de la Vida (John Deere Tractor, Model #790), 2007 (installation view at the McNay Art Museum, 2011); ceramic, slip paint, steel hardware; 100 x 96 x 60 inches; courtesy the artist and Walter Maciel Gallery, Los Angeles

Satire is only one piece of this puzzle, however. Several artists in New Image Sculpture treat their subjects with unalloyed affection. Kiel Johnson’s recreations of objects just reaching their obsolescence, such as SLR#4 (2009), a film camera made from chipboard, tape and glue, carry a strong sense of nostalgia. The reference to early Pop works like The Store seems particularly strong here, as these 1960s works also revealed the interest of artists like Oldenburg in the pace of cultural decay. Kevin Landers’ Chip Rack (2005), a metal shelving unit full of bags of chips, and his briefcase full of knock-off designer watches, all produced with a playful sloppiness, revel in the exuberance of urban capitalist culture.

Across from Landers’ shelving unit, Margarita Cabrera installed Arbol de la Vida (John Deere #790) (2007), a life-size tractor built out of clay and covered with cheap ceramic figurines of flowers and animals ubiquitous to Mexican markets and which folk artists often affix to a tree form in order to represent the biblical Tree of Life. Replacing a tree with an American tractor points to the mythologies that spring up around migration between cultures, but also suggests that U.S. dependence on and exploitation of the Mexican labor force may have larger implications than we realize—spiritual and cultural shifts that have yet to manifest. Cabrera isn’t content to hold a mirror up to consumer culture but, rather, insists on peering into the structures that support it.

One thing is clear, these approaches to sculpture provide a strong counterpoint to the lackadaisical appearance of the assemblage and collage work anointed as the art of our times by the 2008 Unmonumental exhibition at the New Museum.2 Unmonumental’s works spoke to ruptured identities and decaying symbols. In contrast, a playful comfort with the objects of contemporary culture runs throughout New Image Sculpture, even when there’s ample evidence of satire and critique. These sculptures each occupy a discernable place within the social, political or commercial order of our society, and even their more strident structural critiques aim for self-awareness rather than outright disruption.

Curator René Paul Barrilleaux started researching New Image Sculpture before Unmonumental was mounted, so the implication isn’t of one style following another but of several approaches to contemporary sculpture existing side by side. In this sense, the McNay has mounted a wonderfully humble show. It offers the visitor a rich and deep experience of approaches to object-making, but refuses to burden the work with a monolithic theory of art or culture.

Ben Judson is a writer and Web developer living in San Antonio. He blogs at

This show will be on view through May 8, 2011.

1 See Roberta Smith, “ART; A Painting Landmark In Focus,” New York Times (August 2, 1987).

2 See Michelle White, “Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century,” Art Lies No. 58 (Summer 2008).

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