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sticking up for painting

Post #280 • May 19, 2004, 4:38 PM • 5 Comments

I'm always happy to stick up for painting. Here's Blake Gopnik for the Washgington Post: are some things that contemporary artists worry a painting might do, whether they want it to or not: It can seem to speak to a marketplace that wants safe wall-filler that's easy to sell. A dealer whose prime goal is moving stock will always favor painting over any other medium. It can please a reactionary faction in the art world that goes for painted art, because that's what's always graced the walnut-paneled libraries of stately homes. It hints at a maker who has chosen paint simply because so many artists have gone that way before. After all, say the word "art" and most people imagine that you're talking painting. It suggests an artist as concerned with traditional handicraft -- with how a bunch of paint gets pushed across a canvas, and has been in the past -- as with any novel point a crafting hand might want to make.

Sadly, stupid, timid, and untalented people are everywhere, even among artists and collectors. It's not painting's fault.

It's not that these obstacles have killed painting. There will always be talented artists who can overcome the difficulties that painting faces. In fact, with the odds so stacked against them, the handful of truly good paintings that get turned out look that much more impressive. I'll bet that somehow, somewhere, someday -- in a decade, a century, could be a millennium or two -- a whole new kind of painted work will come along to breathe new life into the medium. Painting has dead-ended before, and each time a Titian or a Monet, a Picasso or a Pollock has hit on a way out that no critic could have guessed at in advance. Any critic who insists that can never happen again is asking to eat crow.

Painting has dead-ended? Good thing I check in with the Wash Post periodically - otherwise I might think that all the good contemporary painting I see constitutes a viable form.

In the meantime, however, forward-looking artists who choose to work in paint had better realize what that implies: It will win them friends they may not have planned on cultivating -- friends who reject most anything that's new, cherishing tradition for tradition's sake.

Whereas if they go with more contemporary media, video or installation, for instance, they may unintentionally attract fans who fall for any puffball trend that comes down the pike, cherishing innovation for innovation's sake. Of course, if you're selecting media based on who you might inadvertently attract to your work, you may be a little nuts anyway.

Conservative critic Robert Hughes, for instance, praises contemporary painting as putting to shame the work of Andy Warhol as well as "any of the other image-scavengers and recyclers who infest the wretchedly stylish woods of an already decayed, pulped-out postmodernism."

I'm led to understand that Warhol was, in part, a painter. Hughes's critique seems to be aimed at failed examples of postmodernism, not at non-painters. This sentence doesn't make any sense.

Aspiring painters have to ask themselves if they really want to reject so much of the interesting art made and enjoyed over the last 40 years, or win the favor of those who choose to turn their backs on it.

Aspiring painters are under no obligation to do any such thing, and again, if you're making work based on whose favor you might win instead of what you feel like making, you need to check your head.

If lots of viewers praise a work of art for living in the past, then maybe, regardless of its maker's intentions, that's really what it's doing. The meaning of a work of art lies partly in who likes it, how it gets used and the place it settles into in society at large.

I say, what's that coming out of the end of that horse?

More and more of today's artists have simply decided to sidestep all the risks that painting carries. There are artistic media out there that let them get most of the benefits of painting without having to face its problems. A recent tour through the museums and galleries of London showed a crowd of curators and dealers and artists happy to do without the safe rewards of oils and tradition. England, archetypal home of the walnut-paneled library, was until even a dozen years ago the place where painting had hunkered down, guaranteed an audience with heels dug in against most newer media. But even there, other options have now opened up.

I seem to remember a Young British Artist movement that became rather popular during the 1990's, and they weren't terribly engaged with painting. I guess that didn't happen or something.

When it comes to dealing with the stuff the world contains, why turn to paint when photography and video are near at hand? Paint will always seem to get in the way of what is being represented, like a kind of scrim thrown in front of subject matter. Every single figurative painting style, from almost-abstract brushiness to absolutely slick high realism, comes weighed down with a sense of how it has been used before. (And they've all been used before.) Each technique talks as loudly about the role it's played in history as about the things it's being used to represent today.

Photography has a 160 year history and video art relates to experimental films done in the 1920's, not to mention the entire history of television, which has shaped modern cultural discourse. Anyone who thinks that these media come without baggage isn't doing their homework.

Art made with a camera, on the other hand, can at least pretend to give a more direct view of things than that. Outside the art world, we all still use photos just to talk about the stuff we see around us: To show the wreck a car crash leaves; to show the way that people dance in places far away. However naive it may be, we imagine that cameras can simply show us things as they are.

Emphasis on pretend and naive. Mr. Gopnik, please click here.

By using cameras to make art, artists can tap into that Missourian tradition in ways that paint, now hopelessly wrapped up in artiness and divorced from daily use, could never let them do.

Art photography isn't wrapped up in artiness? Pardon me while I ROTFLMAO.

I could go on, but my point is that even someone as pro-painting as I am recognizes that art is not a zero-sum game between painting and all other media. Maybe this Gopnik article is a reaction to David Hockney's recent statements about the superiority of painting, but Gopnik's thesis is flawed for the same reasons that Hockney's is. Every medium has particular strengths and weaknesses - otherwise artists wouldn't prefer one over the other - and all media can be used well or used badly. Gopnik's attitude is as conservative as Hughes's, just the other way around. To praise art for being unlike painting is as ridiculous as criticizing it for being unlike painting, and the Post article is full of ridiculousness:

And no suite of paintings could ever connect as directly with the contemporary reality that Chilimango comes wrapped up in as Bustnes' video can.
So much for the simple presentation of reality. How about painting's special ability to tweak reality as it gets documented, even to build entirely new worlds for us? Another London show proved that video can match that, too.
The piece was subtle and complex, going from broad humor to biting satire -- on public intellectuals, on our ideas of childhood, on corporate views of art and artists and free speech -- to fully surreal moments. And not a drop of turpentine was used to make the thing.
Here there was more video, this time doing yet slightly different work that painting used to do so well -- back when it was still our crucial means for dealing with the world we see.
But by avoiding the easy appeal of Olde Englysh oil paint, Shapland keeps that poetry alive and current, instead of letting it become a thick brocade of poetastery. Every modern landscape done in oils inevitably has embedded in it a touch of "hark!" and "lo!" and " 'twas" that video can still avoid.

And then the piece's climax:

In the 20th century, fleshy paint was a particular specialty of heroic British painters such as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach. On this trip to London, however, I saw at least one piece of art that worked in that tradition without bothering with palette or brush. ... It had all the qualities of brooding expressionism that great modern painting has sought. ... It managed to evoke the world-weary pessimism of a Bacon, the suicidal gloom of a Mark Rothko and the ascetic reticence of one of Ad Reinhardt's black-on-black abstractions. But rather than using paint to make its points -- and risking the facile traditionalism that goes along with that -- Hirst's crepuscular canvas was covered edge-to-edge with a thick goop of dead blue-bottle flies. Why use genteel paint to point a discreet finger at the darker side of things when you can put that darkness on the wall for all to see? Painting may or may not be dead, but Hirst presents it as a useful breeding ground for bugs.

Oh, now I see - this is a slap back at Hughes's recent review of Lucian Freud, when he wrote in the Guardian that:

At 81, Freud is so much younger than any of the Britart dreck installed on the other side of the Thames: younger than Damien Hirst's slowly rotting shark in its tank of murky formalin; weirder than David Falconer's Vermin Death Star, which is composed of thousands of cast-metal rats; and about a hundred times sexier than Tracey Emin's stale icon of sluttish housekeeping, her much-reproduced bed. His work is supremely tough, ruthless even. But it has none of the facile emotional posturing that appeals to the kind of institutional adman's taste, the bratty cynicism and quick-fix sensationalism that pervades the Saatchi collection.

(Right - this is where the "pulped-out postmodernism" line comes from.) But the slap misses the target. The crux of Hughes's critique is usage, not material. Emphasis mine:

The way Freud perceives a form and builds it up from oily mud on a piece of cloth; the way he constructs analysed equivalents to reality - all that, at best, is inspiring. It represents an order of experi ence totally different from the relatively weightless coming-into-sight of a photographic image or a silkscreen. This is not a claim for moral superiority. But it does seem, at least to me, to indicate where traditional painting of the kind Freud does shows its perceptual superiority over photo-derived art. Every inch of the surface has to be won, must be argued through, bears the traces of curiosity and inquisition - above all, takes nothing for granted and demands active engagement from the viewer as its right.

Gopnik has an additional problem here that makes him sound desperate while Hughes sounds authoritative - Hughes is writing about a committed painter, Gopnik is not. At least not until the end, and he hedges his praise:

Donachie's paintings looked good, and had a quiet eloquence, but their ambitions seemed to pale beside the unpainted art that London had on show. The camera has become the tool that brings the world to us, and this can leave an oil-covered canvas without much work to do. In today's art world, a painting can become a safe loss-leader for less hallowed forms of art. It can seem to rest on laurels won by paintings that have come before, rather than competing in the world of fresh ideas.

Of course it can. It's hard to make good art in any medium. But here's a question: if "the camera has become the tool that brings the world to us," doesn't that mean that it has its own set of laurels to rest on? The answer is yes - photography has a trunkload of baggage by virtue of having been the arbiter of visual truth for a century and a half. That's not a defect, but it does mean that it has no more - or less - entree into the world of fresh ideas than painting. It's the world of fresh ideas, after all, not the world of fresh materials.




May 20, 2004, 1:07 AM

Thank you, Franklin. I can now safely dispense with anything written or said by Mr. Gopnik, thus saving myself time and aggravation in the process. To his credit, even if unintentionally, he has exposed himself quite definitively. You've merely relayed his revelation to your readers, but it's a public service nonetheless.



May 20, 2004, 2:48 AM

Sounds familiar to me too: a lot like Blake Gopnik. Painting upsets his certainty about what makes art contemporary (his resentment towards it is clear), and the conspiring critic in his case is Hughes. It's a good quote - thanks for the link, WC.


Lucas R. Blanco

May 20, 2004, 8:33 AM

Great post Franklin, I particularly like: "More and more of today's artists have simply decided to sidestep all the risks that painting carries. There are artistic media out there that let them get most of the benefits of painting without having to face its problems." He maybe referring to problems typical to all art like aesthetic goodness. What Gopnik fails to realize is that art hasn't been able to get around that one yet.
As the "Being Present" show illustrates, there is a lot of piss poor painting around too and people are hungry for something with staying power (Of these painters only James LLoyd's work interested me.) This whole discussion reminded me of a conversation I had with Darby Bannard: we were looking at some reproductions of Euan Uglow and he said: "you can't fault the guy, but there just isn't a lot of art there." It made me think harder about my paintings. Gopnik's lashing out at painting comes from some inner conflict within the author as you said. His attack on the vehicle of art is wrongheaded, but of course easier than dealing with that other thorny art problem.... criticism of actual art.



May 20, 2004, 8:09 PM

Not to beat a dead horse, but the more I think about what Gopnik wrote, the more pitiful it seems, the more it sounds like special pleading. He's obviously entitled to prefer balloon animals to painting if he likes, but he's not entitled to my notice, let alone respect, on such a basis. I give him credit for candor, but the fact he didn't realize how bad it would make him look suggests serious cluelessness.



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