A New York Artist Dives into “Bad Painting” for His Copenhagen Solo Show

No one knows the exact origins of the phrase “keep the wolf from the door.” Linguists suggest it dates back to the 16th century. The meaning is clear, though: It’s about keeping outward threats at bay, warding off starvation, and staying safe inside the home. That kind of wariness runs through “Wolves Wait At Your Door,” John Copeland’s fourth solo exhibition at V1 Gallery in Copenhagen.

The show consists of 13 new paintings and 16 new drawings, all featuring human subjects, many of whom are alone and unclothed. In The Wrong, The Ugly, And The Good or Untitled #9 (both 2016), viewers might get the sense that they’ve flung open the door on a private scene. Other works, like Stray Bullets (2016), feature small crowds standing together or commingling around a table.

So who exactly is the wolf? You are, the viewer.

In many pieces, the subjects look right back at you, as in an over-the-shoulder glance in A Sandwich Made Of Glenn Branca or a woman’s cold stare in A Marble Middle Finger (both 2016). Their looks feel confrontational. Even when their faces are distorted and difficult to read—as is often the case, given how Copeland’s style ranges between figurative and abstract—they convey anxiety and distress, not to mention a certain defiance directed at the viewer.

Copeland’s contrasting styles can make for a captivating composition. In I Threw My Watch Away (2016), the central figure is almost entirely obscured by a colorful overlay of red, blue, yellow, and green paint—a colorful burst that looks like it belongs to another artwork.

Copeland’s figures are, by turns, precise or indistinct, tightly drawn or loosely painted, seductive or grotesque. The New York–based artist works in the tradition of Abstract Expressionism and Neo-Expressionism, yet he’s also a proponent of “Bad Painting,” a term and genre coined by Marcia Black in her 1978 exhibition of the same name at the New Museum of Contemporary Art.

Bad Painting is what is sounds like: raw, free, emotionally charged—essentially Copeland’s human subjects. You, as the viewer, might be positioned as the wolf, but the people inside the house—exposed, yes, but also bold and subversive, challenging, passionate, even unhinged—are just as threatening.


—Bridget Gleeson


John Copeland: Wolves Wait At Your Door” is on view at V1 Gallery, Copenhagen, Apr. 8–May 7, 2016.

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