Rasmus Thor Christensen on Giving Bad Art a Second Chance
In 2016, the average time spent looking at a painting was 21.0 seconds. Slightly longer if you are looking at a Gerhard Richter painting (those averaged 25.4 seconds each), and longer still if it’s Rembrandt’s Aristotle with a Bust of Homer (1653) – that work had a single viewing time of 3 minutes 48 seconds recorded in 2001.
When it comes to giving time to things we don’t necessarily like, or understand, it turns out we don’t have much patience. Not true for Danish curator Rasmus Thor Christensen. He prides himself on sticking out uncomfortable situations, be it looking a confronting piece of art, reading a morbid book, or watching a cringeworthy concert.
I recently saw a concert of these Danish ‘soundcloud rappers’ RIGFOREVIGT, where the execution was so off that most of the audience just left. It wasn’t pretty. But by staying there and experiencing the energy on stage something special happened.
His latest exhibition New “Bad” Painting was conceived to have a similar effect on its visitors and to expand the canon of good taste. Featuring 13 emerging and established artists, the exhibition ran from 25th May – 7th July at V1 Gallery in Copenhagen and paid homage to “Bad Painting” – a show featuring 14 American painters curated by Marcia Tucker in 1978 at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York.
In an exclusive Widewalls interview, we chatted with the curator about the audience’s reactions to the exhibition, how the concept of ‘bad’ painting has changed over the years, and why he thinks we all need to take the time to experience ‘bad’ art and challenge our own comfort levels.
New Bad Painting
Genista Jurgens: Hi Rasmus, first of all, can you explain the concept behind the show “New ‘Bad’ Painting”?
Rasmus Thor Christensen: The concept is pretty straightforward. In January of 1978, Marcia Tucker opened “Bad” Painting as a reaction to the art scene at the time, which was dominated by minimalism and conceptualism – i.e. ‘good’ art. She wanted to wrestle free from terms like ‘good taste’ and ‘high art’, and challenge the discourse around them. By showing supposedly ‘bad’ paintings, the exhibition did something that the New York art scene didn’t at the time: show emotion.
After I accidentally stumbled across the exhibition online, I noticed that a lot of painters today are expressing the same aesthetic, albeit unconsciously. I thought it would be fun to put some of these paintings within the context of ‘bad’ painting…
I was also a bit annoyed that a lot of exhibitions were dancing around the term without explicitly verbalising it. They would do a ‘bad’ painting show, and then call it something else, like ‘awkward’ or ‘out of the mainstream’, which seemed ridiculous, when there was a great term to use already. All of this happened around the start of 2017, and as 2018 was the 40th anniversary of the show, it was a great reason to do a survey of the state of ‘bad’ painting today.
Genista Jurgens: What have some of the reactions been from the general public to the exhibition, and to the artwork in it?
Rasmus Thor Christensen: Generally positive; most people have been really nice. I think people who have a problem with the exhibition have a problem with painting in general – if you start out already loathing the medium, then this isn’t the exhibition for you. We had a review in a Danish newspaper which criticized the exhibition for not being analytical enough, but I don’t think it’s first of all, our job as a gallery, and second, the intention of the show.
Just as with Tucker’s exhibition, we wanted to let the works speak for themselves, and use the ‘bad’ painting concept to open up the discussion for aesthetically difficult, or challenging work. We wanted to remind the audience there is an intuitive way you can experience painting, without having aesthetic preconceptions.
In regards to specific works, the response been really diverse. Since personal taste is a big part of it, people were of course attracted to the works that spoke most to them. But what I’ve experienced with friends and family is that, because of the concept, they spent more time in front of works that they specifically didn’t like to try to understand them better. They ended up asking themselves “Why don’t I like this? Why should I like this? Why is this interesting?” I think that’s really great.
Genista Jurgens: So it’s been 40 years after the show curated by Marcia Tucker, how do you think the concept of ‘bad’ painting has changed since then?
Rasmus Thor Christensen: The biggest difference is the state of painting as a medium. Painting has become more and more accepted, and that political or subversive agenda present in Tucker’s show isn’t relevant anymore. The term ‘bad’ has more or less been reduced to a question of aesthetic… which isn’t actually that terrible.
There was a big show on at the MUMOK in Vienna in 2008 (Bad Painting: Good Art), which broadened the term, and traced it back to the early and late modernists of Picabia, Picasso, Magritte and Jorn; as a tool of the avant-garde. Although I understand that sentiment, this isn’t the take I have on the term.
MUMOK used the term without quotation marks which is a whole different thing. I have been really religious about the quotation marks because there are so many ways to understand the term. Bad painting, without quotation marks, has its roots in neo-expressionism with Albert Oehlen, Martin Kippenberger and Julian Schnabel (all of whom were in the MUMOK show), but I feel their agenda is more overtly political in the ‘badness’ of the painting, whereas Tuckers’ – and mine – is more subtle; more aesthetically oriented.
Genista Jurgens: So you don’t consider the works in the show to be subversive? Obviously, times have changed since 1978, as have our ideas of what ugly is, or what qualifies as ‘good technique.’
Rasmus Thor Christensen: One can be subversive in many ways. I think an explicit political subversive agenda can end up being quite flat or banal, so we tried to steer away from anything that was too literal in that sense. And as with Tucker’s show, I don’t think the artworks themselves have a subversive aesthetic agenda—it was the gesture of having the exhibition that was a revolt against the zeitgeist, not the work in it.
Again these terms of ‘ugly’ and ‘good technique’ are so subjective that it’s difficult to pinpoint when the shifts are happening, and if there even is a shift. You can find things made 100 years ago that are way more ‘ugly’ than what we’re showing now. And you also shouldn’t think you’re moving things forward, or being avant-garde, purely by showing something that is considered more ugly, or worse technically, than what came before. The work needs to do something else; it can’t just be ugly for ugly’s sake.
Genista Jurgens: Tucker choose to feature the artists she did as a rebellion “against the emotionless and conceptualized art that reigned in the 1970s”. For you, is that something you were thinking when you were curating this show – it is a reaction against current visual trends?
Rasmus Thor Christensen: Not at all. The current art scene is so diverse, it’s almost impossible to say which medium or ideas are trending, or which define our time, so to say that an aesthetic-based painting show is a reaction to the current state of the art world would be a long shot. This show is more a celebration of current visual trends, rather than a reaction against them.
Also, I think the idea of fashion, or trends in art is quite boring. It’s impossible to grasp what is happening now, and what will be relevant in, say, 100 years from now. I don’t want to try to make something that is ‘in fashion’. For me, it’s just not an interesting way to work. Maybe the ‘bad’ painting aesthetic is trending now, but the term is universal. You can find ‘bad’ painting before 1978, like in the MUMOK show, but also earlier. Vuillard did ‘bad’ painting, Manet did it, heck, even Giotto did it.
The important thing is that the works have longevity – that they present something interesting. Otherwise, why not just paint those Balenciaga dad shoes on a canvas?
Genista Jurgens: The show features work by Antonia Showering, Charlie Roberts, Coline Marotta, Danielle Orchard George Rouy, Heidi Hanh, Todd Bienvenu, and several others – all of whom were born after 1978. Was it a conscious decision to choose young artists?
Rasmus Thor Christensen: Actually not at first. The idea came to me when we (myself and directors of V1, Jesper Elg and Mikkel Grønnebæk) were discussing the artists for the show. At first, I was thinking to include some of the original exhibiting artists, along with some less established, and young artists. But I didn’t want to do what had already been done or show something that had already been put in that context.
In the end, it became this obstacle that we had to overcome every time we proposed a new artist. First, we had to make sure the artist’s work stayed within the bounds of the concept, and then they had to be younger than 40 – a lot of great artists were excluded because of that last parameter.
Overall it was a really good exercise, because it can be so easy to just use the same artists over and over again. But to keep looking for someone fresh was very challenging… and exciting!
Genista Jurgens: Anything else you want to add?
Rasmus Thor Christensen: One of the things I’ve talked about a lot with my friends is how the ‘bad’ aesthetic, or ‘bad’ way of thinking is suddenly present in all media and cultural production – in music, film and literature – once you become aware of it.
For example with noise music, the audience tends to go through the same routine every time, starting with a preliminary disgust. But through a continued interaction, at a certain point you begin to understand its sentiment or message, by looking past (or maybe because of) the aesthetic framework.
At the moment I’m reading Kathy Acker’s ‘Empire of the Senseless’ and I go through the same ‘bad’ experience every time I pick up the book. I borrowed it from a friend who put it down after only 40 pages, but I’m trying to see if I can get through the whole thing. You have to stay with the material even when it gets extremely vulgar, morbid, incomprehensible or downright disgusting, because there’s obviously something more to it.
I think it’s very healthy to challenge your tastes in that way. Otherwise you limit yourself, if you only see the same things all the time. I think the more you see, watch, read, listen, the more you understand your own taste – it’s something that has to be trained.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Written by Genista Jurgens.
- Smith, L. F., Smith, J. K., & Tinio, P. P. L. (2017), Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 2017
- Carbon, C.C., Art Perception in the Museum: How We Spend Time and Space in Art Exhibitions, SAGE Journals
- Smith, J.K., Smith, L.F., Spending Time on Art, SAGE Journals
Featured image: New Bad Painting Exhibition View V1 Gallery Copenhagen.