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Tom Marioni @ b. sakata garo

Sonia Delaunay, lithograph from painting, Rhythme Couleur

Tom Marioni, one of the Left Coast’s leading conceptualists, wrote in his 2004 autobiography, Beer, Art and Philosophy, that conceptual art can be many things, but painting wasn't one of them.  As a medium it was, according to the argument circulating in the 1960s, irrelevant.  So why, at age 77, has he started painting?  The answer:  He hasn’t.  But the pretense of doing so is a good shtick. The show, called Retire from Art and Take up Painting, consists of replicas of modernism from Matisse to Mary Heilmann.  It focuses on artists who, like Marioni, hit their stride in the 1960s: Warhol, Lichtenstein, LeWitt, Ruscha and Stella, but also includes others who came earlier: Duchamp, Picasso, Albers, and Pollock.  

Rhetoric aside, what’s clear is that Marioni admires painting.  But it’s a guilty pleasure, a love held in pectore.  Revealed, it falls somewhere between homage and parody, but stops well short of appropriation. Marioni pulls it off by discarding the nuances of paint handling that defined the artists he copies.  The result is a parlor game whose main pleasure, apart from trying to identify artists without reading wall labels, is cataloging what Marioni chooses to leave in or out.
Where a Wayne Thiebaud pie slice would consist of pigment teased to a high froth, Marioni renders it as a silhouette, unrecognizable except for the shape. Squiggly lines that Heilmann painted to look as if they’d been squeezed from a tube are reduced to pale washes.  Diebenkorn, another juicy painter, gets similar treatment.  From Sonia Delaunay, he extracts only color and the form, as he does with Yves Kline, albeit poorly, because how else?  Only Klein could make an “anthropometry” out of Yves Kline blue.  A Man Ray rayograph, a

Sol LeWitt, 4 Squares with Diagonal, Horizontal and Vertical Lines in each Quarter, 1995, offset lithograph

camera-less image made from placing objects on light-sensitive paper, Marioni strips of luminosity, turning out a drippy gray-on-black blob, reminiscent something Luc Tuymans might do.  The most true-to-life copies are those from Warhol, LeWitt, Stella and Ruscha, some of the least painterly artists of the 20th century. 

The most effective pieces are Marioni’s own, which is to say, those where he leaves other people’s work alone, and instead depicts painting for the dead end conceptualists believe it to be.  From Painting to Sculpture (1989) consists only of a nail and a piece of string “framed” by a fake dust shadow, indicating where a painting might have hung. Invisible Painting does the same thing at a far larger scale, indicating the dimensions of the imaginary object with
pieces of tape, leaving a wall-length void in between.  Both pieces echo Cage’s notion of silence as a compositional element, and recall the experiments Marioni was conducting 50 years ago, when he was curator of the Richmond Art Center and later his own institution, the Museum of Conceptual Art.  
Tom Marioni, From Painting to Sculpture, 1989, graphite, nail and string

Those ideas still resonate. Anthony Discenza’s A Sculpture (Reclining Figure), shown last year at Catharine Clark, for example, consisted of a blank canvas on the floor accompanied by a soundtrack of formalist docent speak in which words, not physical marks, conjured images, underscoring conceptual art’s premise, that ideas, not their physical manifestations, matter most.  Strangely, in this show, I get the distinct impression that Marioni, could, if he so desired, have become a successful painter.  His homage/parodies may be ham-fisted, and intentionally so, but they reveal no shortage of skill, spread as it is across many styles. 

Here it’s worth noting that Marioni is also considered one of the founders of what is today known as relational aesthetics, a fancy term for audience engagement.  He did so through a variety of media, including performances in which he drank beer and pissed into a bucket from high elevation and, just as famously, left the remains of a beer-fueled party as an exhibition on the floor of the Oakland Museum.  Retire from Art, for what it showed and for what it left to the imagination, sparked plenty of thought and conversation, thereby upholding his reputation.  No one will accuse Marioni of being a painter.  
Tom Marioni: “Retire from Art and Take up Painting” @ b. sakata garo closed June 27, 2015. 

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