Originally published “Unfinished Paintings at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions,” ARTPULSE Magazine, Fall 2011. 69.
For Phillip Guston a painting was always more “abandoned” than finished. For Robert Motherwell a painting was finished when it no longer needed the artist. According to Andy Warhol’s diaries, when he filmed an episode of the Love Boat, the actor Raymond St. Jacques (speaking for Warhol no doubt) replied to the question, “How do you know when a painting is finished?” with the answer, “When the check clears.” Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions’ Unfinished Paintings takes this question of incompleteness to task, exhibiting thirty-eight admittedly unfinished works by thirty-eight artists. Curated by artists Kristin Calabrese and Joshua Aster, the gutsy exhibition breaks a hallowed rule of curatorial practice, “Thou shalt not present unfinished work in an exhibition,” and generously provides the audience with insight into what shapes an artist’s painting practice.
One curious facet of this exhibition is that many of its works look quite complete. For instance, Mari Eastman’s whimsical painting of posing cats sprinkled with glitter and short text, fits perfectly within the artist’s de-skilled highly personalized style. Yet it’s this understanding of style that causes one to realize which works are undoubtedly unfinished. For example, bulbous neon smiley-faced swirls in one work are recognizable as signature Kenny Scharf forms, and the fact that they don’t take over the entire piece, and instead sit on a mass of unpainted ground, immediately registers the work as incomplete, given Scharf’s reputation for producing work that relies on an overwhelming experience, necessitating a fully-covered canvas.
A few paintings bear signs of unfinished labor, like Delia Brown’s canvas, with its edges wrapped in blue painter’s tape. But a work by Salomon Huerta is unfinished in a wholly different way, with a note written directly on his blank canvas reading, “I’m still looking for a black model to fit this pose” above an arrow pointing to a taped-on picture of a reclining woman. It’s a kind of casting call, an especially poignant gesture in a town filled with headshot-toting future-stars.
Unfinished Paintings is also bolstered by an audio tour offered for free to LACE guests featuring many of the artists ruminating on the show’s subject and addressing their own contributions. Some artists expand the notion of unfinishedness; James Hayward talks about how he submitted a damaged work, Caitlin Lonegan describes her work as “unresolvable,” Don Sugg’s discusses what separates a “study” from an “actual painting.”
In a truly Duchampian “the audience completes the work” turn, this exhibition implores visitors to imagine the works on display in their future complete state. Such a suspended state of contemplation is no doubt liberating for the work in the gallery, freeing it from any solidified notions of quality or value. After all, chastising an unfinished painting is akin to teasing an ugly infant. It’s not the painting or the baby’s fault they have yet to reach a state of self-reliance. This postponed judgment truly makes Unfinished Paintings a success, allowing for room to contemplate not just individual rarefied paintings, but painting as part of a larger dedicated practice.
Tucker Neel is an artist, writer, and curator in Los Angeles. He is also the director of 323 Projects, a telephone-based gallery that can be reached anytime by calling (323) 843-4652.