History painting—dear to academic art circles during the 18th and 19th centuries—was suddenly swept out of the art world by modernism. Rarely does contemporary art directly depict the distant or immediate past.
Winkleman Gallery’s show, Painting Is History, reinvigorates historical painting with a range of takes on the genre, from the unabashedly abstract to the alarmingly real. At one extreme is Steve Mumford’s The Battle in Baquba, a chaotic and expansive two-canvas painting that could slip unnoticed into the pages of Newsweek. A scene that a war photographer would die to capture, it depicts a beset convoy snaking through the Iraqi city with guns ablaze, a missile suspended midair, and bullets chipping at every surface. Much closer to the prevailing trends in contemporary art is George Washington Melted 2 from Valerie Hegarty. The name explains the painting, in which Washington’s face droops apoplectically on a ruptured canvas, revealing the aged and fractured supports behind.
Painting Is History is open through August 10 and features work by Charles Browning, The Chadwicks, David Fertig, and Joe Fig. Those who find the genre compelling should also seek out Gerhard Richter’s “photo paintings” of 9/11, the Second World War and the Baader-Meinhof Gang for further exploration of history in contemporary art.