The New Sincerity

Ricky Yanas
November 21, 2013

The title for the recent exhibition at Lora Reynolds Gallery stirred me: The New Sincerity. The title at first seemed to be the beginning of a salesman’s pitch: THIS IS THE NEW sincerity. Researching it, I found that "The New Sincerity” is a blanket term that critics used to describe works of art, music, film and literature since the mid-eighties. Austin in particular hosted a scene of alternative rockers who relinquished punk and new wave's detachment and ambivalence for a more genuine sound; they had some critical success from 1985 to 1990. Today the label is often applied to the works of filmmakers like Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola, writers like Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace and even comedians like Louis CK and Marc Maron.

Rosy Keyser, Naturalist Graffiti Transfer Portrait (N.G.T.P. 1), 2013; enamel, spray paint, sawdust, wood and string; image courtesy Lora Reynolds Gallery.

What these artists have in common is a move away from the self-referential breaks in form of previous decades towards a more straightforward and often sentimental approach to subject matter. (One important element of this “movement” is that it does not preclude the use of irony.) The six artists in The New Sincerity at Lora Reynolds made beautifully detailed and delicately crafted objects imbued with personal narratives. Rather than responding to or commenting on art historical precursors, the works are subjective and introspective. Yet the exhibition—despite its proposed sincerity and warmth—seems to retreat inward, withdrawing from the public sphere into the safety of the home, studio or gallery.

Julia Rommel, Electric Pants (left), detail on right, 2013; oil on linen, 62 x 53 1/2 in.; image courtesy Lora Reynolds Gallery. 

Even though works by Rosy Keyser and Julia Rommel put a particular emphasis on historical precedents, these artists' appropriations of the past seem more like heartfelt appreciation than critical pastiche. Keyser’s Naturalist Graffiti Transfer Portrait (N.G.T.P. 1) engages in the process art tradition, recalling Jackson Pollock's drip paintings and Eva Hesse's material amalgamations. Keyser composed the work from stretcher bars, string, black and white paint, a stick, and some sawdust; scaled to human size, she painted the canvas, lifted it, placed it on its face, lifted again, painted and turned. With their subdued palettes and subtle variations of surface, Rommel’s paintings echo Robert Ryman’s white paintings, which he has produced over about sixty years now. Each canvas, stretched, painted, and re-stretched several times over, bears its unique marks and inconsistencies. Sometimes Rommel adds additional canvas to the works in order to account for larger stretcher bars. But unlike Ryman, she supplements her method of painting with quirky individual titles such as Electric Pants and Betterton. Maybe it is an attempt to forgo a cold historical context for a more personal and heartfelt reading. Considering these works I thought, “How many ways can you treat a canvas? Why these names?” but then found myself not really caring. When confronted with a new object that bears the same ideas as works it seems to draw from, I am left not with new questions about motivations but with a mix-tape of my old favorite songs—songs that I love but have heard so many times that their impact has dulled. 

Installation view of The New Sincerity at Lora Reynolds Gallery in Austin, 2013. Left: Florian Baudrexel, Frome,  2013; center: Roy McMakin, Nesting Chairs; right: Roy McMakin, Green Shelf, 2008.  

Irony does manifest itself in this exhibition but not necessarily through any individual work. In the main gallery, Florian Baudrexel’s Frome appears alongside two works by artist/designer Roy McMakin. Baudrexel’s work, a twisting, jagged and geometric relief made of cardboard and screws, recalls the early twentieth-century Futurism and Russian Constructivism in form and design. These movements were optimistic in their belief in the transformative possibilities of speed, technology and an art united with everyday life. McMakin’s beautifully handcrafted furniture (Nesting Chairs and Green Shelf) suggest nostalgic scenes; domestic comfort through cold modernist execution. In the juxtaposition of Baudrexel’s wall relief and McMakin’s domestic motifs the show's thematic trajectories converge. In this room twentieth-century art movements come to rest in a homey environment. Highly crafted elements erase the earlier movement's utopian ideologies, replacing them with references without edge or hidden layers of cynicism, just delicate touches and refined surfaces. 

For me, the works' immersive detail and intricate structures gave way to a melancholic desire for something more. The “New Sincerity”—at least in this exhibition—has mostly to do with a sense of free and uncritical adoption of historical precedents to create rarefied objects fit for the market. The works rarely unravel themselves in terms of depth, with hints of personal narrative substituting for ideological excavation. The irony of this exhibition, with its broad and glossy title, is that the little irony one finds here works against the art, rendering the works more like design elements in comparison. Painting or not, everything appears flat.

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