Painting is Dead, Long Live Painting
Melody Smith Gallery Oats Street, Carlisle
23 January – 22 February, 2014
From today painting is dead! (French painter, Paul Delaroche, 1839)
Reports of the ‘death of painting’ have been greatly exaggerated for at least 175 years. If indeed he did say this, which is not certain, Delaroche was likely to have been commenting on his first sight of the new-fangled ‘photographie’ – a means of drawing directly with light. But what kind of death might he have had in mind? Given a moment’s thought, it becomes obvious that his concern was with the many thousands of hack journeyman and salon painters that were scraping a living doing portraits, landscapes, souvenirs and so on, for the newly emerging bourgeois. In other words he was worried about de-skilling and unemployment, the arse-end of the French art industry, not the demise of a thousand year old art practice and a clutch of vital ways of seeing.
Nonetheless, however mistaken, the idea that photography could somehow supplant painting has never gone away, despite all the evidence to the contrary. This is because, behind the bogus critical antagonism between painting and photography, there remains an ideological residue, a paranoid last stand amongst the third rate and hopeless, against the creative mechanical image. The best example in Australia is the ludicrous requirement that entries for the Archibald prize could not be based on photographs, however brilliant or revealing.
Hidden even further behind this bogus antagonism, is another self-interested intellectual and creative fraud, the idea that a particular ‘medium’ exactly correlates with an art practice, that it is, and will remain absolutely congruent with that practice. In this dinosaur state, students are still being offered courses in painting, sculpture, printmaking or whatever on the assumption that they cannot make art until they have mastered an arbitrary portfolio of skills. Even worse, galleries like L and K and the Venn are still working on the principle that a banal /fashionable display of your Skills Portfolio = ART, because unlike actual ART they know they can always sell banality to the western suburbs suits and their partners.
The disinterment of the notion of the death of painting at Melody Smith’s raises this and many other little local problems to new heights. Only in Perth, perhaps, could one still imagine painting triumphantly raised, Lazarus like, from the stinking dead, as a sufficient case for the glorious renewal of art and its supreme relevance.
It is more than ironic that the artists whose practice stands head and shoulders above the rest of the show, Cynthia Ellis and Martin Heine, both rejected the common notion of painting, as an arbitrary bunch of skills and sentiments, many years ago. Indeed Heine’s ‘reverse paintings’ all depend on possibilities offered by contemporary digital imagery. In consequence, their work has only received support from a miniscule group of dedicated patrons.
There are other more subtle reasons for concern about the death of painting to examine, before we review the causes of that bitter local irony.
Most revolve around the belief that painting has long lost any capacity to deal with the grand and powerful issues of contemporary life, if they still exist, and, that, even day-to-day experience is increasingly remote from all the visual arts. Francis Bacon thought that the most he could do with his painting was to play arbitrary games that revealed the isolation and loneliness of the human condition. Ron Kitaj wanted to recover the social vision of Dickens in his painting but regretted that his work could never achieve the instant visual engagement of pornography.
Most significant late twentieth and twenty first century painting, from Reinhardt to Richter has been an attempt to build an art practice as a means to escape what appears to be the inescapable law of diminishing returns clinging to painting as art. Unfortunately this is a bit too sophisticated for Perth. Here the rebirth of painting as the same old ‘King of the Castle’ is more likely to be a ploy to restore confidence in it as a consumer brand, an empty market category.
It is remarkable that serious artists still choose to work with coloured mud, smeared on cloth or boards, as a central part of their practice, despite the inevitable prospect of ever diminishing returns.
Surprisingly, they do so precisely because painting, in itself, is not an art practice and paint, in itself, is hardly a sophisticated medium compared to the apparent if illusory potential of digital processes.
Paint, however, resists the demands of the artist, any attempts towards new experience, revelation, new ideas, renewed freedom. In the frustrating engagement with the resistant materiality of paint, new imagery, new freedoms and even new realities may appear even without the artist’s consent.
In his reverse paintings, Heine’s engagement with paint and its relation to the mortal privations of the digital image, is enacted via a complex series of manual manipulations, which I discussed at length in my book Now the Hard Part (2011) and earlier in this column.
Heine’s Graffiti Paradise is a magnificent celebration of the triumph of these libertarian processes. The title is by no means insignificant. The work engages the crudely inscribed impulses of graffiti with the immensely sophisticated delay in paint that Heine’s practice is intended to create. As always the commonplace imagery is inextricably absorbed into the complex, sublime presence of Heine’s paint surface. This is one of the finest works that he has produced to date.
If Heine uses complexity and delay to recruit the undiluted ontological presence of paint to imagery, Ellis is bent on presenting that presence undiluted, tuned to the highest pitch with minimum manipulation. Her work is centred on the elaboration of the physical presence of oil paint, its densities of colour and substance, so as to amplify this presence for the viewer into a unique ‘aesthetic’ experience. She aims to achieve work that engages the viewer in a total act of ab(ad)sorption, a new version of the sublime. Although her work can be associated with non-figurative gestural abstraction, it is also closely related, through its version of ‘slowness’ to problems in rococco and early nineteenth century painting, frequently discussed by the critic Michael Fried. Ellis is also concerned with the simultaneous duality of material and metaphysical concerns that are best invoked by the raw presence of paint. This is most evident in the large oval Palette in Red II.
Both Ellis and Heine succeed brilliantly in rescuing paint and painting from the troubling coma, which is its normal condition in our dinosaur state. Sadly the remaining artists just don’t seem to be trying hard enough. Its not that their work is simply bad or incompetent, it’s that, for the most part they seem to be satisfied to paint their way into a happy western suburbs day dream.
Take David Ledger’s mix and match architectural interiors. At first their overloaded high key colours, especially in Sunset in Malibu suggest innovative ambition, but soon soft edges and shifty lack of confidence suggest that we are looking at a reworking of a Richard Hamilton interior produced by slow subtraction of every incisive detail from the original. Black Rock Late Night, suggests a longing for the sure fire fix of a nineteenth century romantic reference. This will not do.
For the rest no one wants to finish the job. Alex Maciver seems to have fallen asleep at the palette, just when things were getting interesting. Jurek Wybraniec appears to have had a good idea but done too much of it and never finished it off properly. As with Ledger he makes a reductive reference, this time to Anish Kapoor.
Its time our local painters took their work far more seriously.
Coming soon, Melbourne Now, Perth – When?