Medium as Genre: "Tim Gardner" at 303 Gallery (Spring/Summer 2000)

Medium as Genre: "Tim Gardner" at 303 Gallery
8 January – 12 February 2000

When Clement Greenberg wrote “Towards a Newer Laocoön” in 1940, he made the term “medium specificity” a byword for a generation of artists, prompting a widespread search for the unique characteristics of artistic media using, moreover, the specific operations of those media themselves. Although long-thought dead, dispersed by the diverse art practices of the ‘70s – which often blatantly mixed or ignored entirely the boundaries of painting and sculpture alike – medium specificity remains a specter in contemporary art; and this specter is brought to the fore by Tim Gardner’s recent exhibition at 303 Gallery, which decisively refits Greenberg’s old modernist term for our late-capitalist present.

Gardner’s quiet collection of 35 small-scale watercolors and oil paintings take their imagery from the everyday life of a North American suburban teen: a drunken midnight run at the local high school track [UNTITLED (BEER MILE, WINNIPEG), 1999], friends around a backyard pool [UNTITLED (GOING AWAY PARTY), 1999], snow-capped mountains behind a cheering figure, presumably an image from a snowboarding trip [UNITLED (BRYAN WITH MT. ASSINIBOINE), 1999].  Through the recurrent appearances of characters and places, one can reconstruct a legible albeit fragmented world of the artist and his friends. But more, the works veer towards the generic: these are memories we have of growing up in middle-class suburbia, or memories we would have, had we grown up in Fresno, Winnipeg, or Boulder, Colorado. Intensely private yet utterly typical, the paintings depict friends involved in banal activities – depict them, like photographic snapshots would, for no reason other than because they are friends.

Indeed, subject matter aside, what remains inescapable is this: these are paintings of photographs. And it is this structural rather than pictorial consistency on which the exhibition turns. Greenberg, writing in the mid-century, admonished painters to define their medium reflexively. Now, in our late-capitalist present, when everything – including various media such as painting or photography – has been reduced to ossified categories to appropriate in a vast shopping mall of art-historical images and concepts, medium specificity means – can only mean – picturing one medium through another: medium as genre.  

In contrast to the rampant crossover between photography and painting, which usually yields atmospheric figurative photographs on the one hand (think of the Boston School and their followers) and slick-surfaced paintings on the other (here much YBA work is exemplary), Gardner keeps the two media distinct. Acknowledging the reification of art, Gardner transcribes one (photography) into the medium of the other (painting) – that is, he literally paints photographs. It’s a pretty radical move, one that uncovers the often blanketed capitalist scaffolding in the recent convergence of media (and one that might explain why the oils, which are larger and on canvases, are markedly less successfully than the watercolors, which with their intimate scale and white borders better resemble framed photographs).

Gardner arguably falls into a broad spectrum of contemporary photographers who document their lives and those of their friends, including members as diverse as Nan Goldin and Jack Pierson. But more interesting is to read his work as a witty and intelligent riposte to the recent return of painting, which is heavily and largely uncritically inflected with the style of photography. Gardner knows his art history well, drawing as he does from one signature of modernist painting – medium specificity – and massaging it not only to suit present-day exigencies but, more importantly, to reveal the fundamental alterations capitalism has impressed upon cultural production this past half-century. The distinction between the more common photography-as-style and Gardner’s photography-as-genre might seem slim, but so too is, increasingly, the distinction between good and bad painting.