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The Mod Squad


"I think one had the sense that painting had gone underground," says Ross Bleckner, one of the eighties art stars to have survived with his reputation intact. "But painting is always being made when there is the least interest in it. In the last nine months, it's started to emerge."

Art is cyclical in nature, so it's not surprising that just as the conceptual and minimal art of the late seventies gave way to the early-eighties big bang of neo-expressionism, what Bleckner calls the "rec-room" aesthetic of the early nineties is morphing into a wallpaperlike cacophony of bright young painters. But that's where the parallel ends. The new art is nothing if not eclectic. Its only common characteristics seem to be its total lack of irony, its unabashed embrace of pop culture, and the fact that most of it is based on secondary-source material -- from photographs to the Internet. Fashion photography, in particular, seems to have influenced a number of artists. If the painters of the eighties were appropriating images from Janson's History of Art, the artists of the nineties seem to be absorbing images from Vogue.

There is a smattering of abstract painting, but most new work is unabashedly representational, and many artists are playing with merging the two. Take Blake Rayne, whose dreamy interiors of cars framing landscapes are in a genre of their own. (Rayne had a solo show at Greene Naftali in September.) Or Elizabeth Peyton, who makes pop portraits of "people I love," including Kurt Cobain. Rita Ackermann paints contemporary Lolitas. Lisa Ruyter uses a camera to capture suburban landscapes, then turns them into vividly tinted works that look like paint-by-numbers pictures. Karin Davies's colorful abstracts look like photographs that were shredded through a computer.

Peter Halley calls the new sensibility "pop figuration." "This art is a resurgence of a kind of pop spirit; it's exciting, funny, provocative, and upbeat, with a sort of intangible pop twist -- there's the same kind of kitschy cuteness you see in Japanese graphics, although some of the work has a dark underside." Jeff Koons, who has recently started creating "handmade" paintings, calls it "oppy" (as in op art): "There's a certain playfulness, a certain brashness."

Says Robert Storr, curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, "It's a little bit like new-image painting, a hybrid of abstract and figurative. It avoids a sort of painterly melodrama. People are working very hard and very intelligently and, on the whole, modestly. I think the stakes are in the art itself, and not just what the art is going to get you. It's concentrating on ideas and materials and not trying to conquer the world and then justify the conquests. You're seeing a surrender to the pleasure of painting that we have not had in a while."

Others refuse to categorize the work at all. "We're beyond isms," insists Andrea Rosen, whose Chelsea gallery was among the first to support the new painters. "The greatest thing about the nineties is that we don't need to identify ourselves in such strict terms."

Don Rubell, who stores his vast art holdings in a former warehouse the Drug Enforcement Agency once used to house confiscated contraband, agrees. "The art today is highly personal," he says. "It's not so much the figure as psychopersonal representation, whether you are looking at John Currin or Damian Loeb. If you want to contrast them with the eighties painters, the scale is different. They were dealing with the monumentality of the world, and the nineties painters are dealing with the individual."

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