WHY PAINTING STILL HAS A MISSION
by Edward Lucie-Smith
For the last twenty-five years or so here have been constant, often rather gleeful-sounding, proclamations that “painting is dead”. Yet the art of painting stubbornly remains alive. This eclectic selection of painted images has been made by artists who span a wide range of generations – the two eldest were born in 1949, and the youngest in 1983, more than thirty years later, with dates covering the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s in between. If they all have faith in the power of painting, shouldn’t we perhaps have the good grace to join them?
There are several elements here that are worth thinking about, quite apart, that is, from the power and variety of the images themselves. True, it is now possible to make images more easily by other, technological means. And these images can have their own kind of beauty. Usually, however, though not absolutely always, they seem more impersonal than the ones we see here. This runs counter to tendencies in our society that instinctively place extra value on things that are known to be – quotes/un-quotes – ‘hand-made’.
Of course this kind of valuation is not entirely innocent. In a bourgeois-capitalist context, the description ‘hand-made’ is shorthand for telling the customer that the product presented for purchase qualifies as luxury goods – it is something that not every one will be lucky enough to possess. Idealistic artists may not like the label, but it is truthful nevertheless.
A successful painting is sui generis, one of a kind, however close it may come to other works with identical subject matter, using identical forms, and even, perhaps, made by the same hand. For that uniqueness, given the chance, quite a large part of the audience is prepared to pay up.
And those who don’t, won’t or can’t pay still tend to feel that looking at these creations is a kind of privilege: a more intimate and direct form of communication with another human being than is offered by other kinds of looking. Also – pace the up-to-the-minute enthusiasts for Conceptual Art – confrontation with an image, a thing in itself in addition perhaps being a sign for something, is a more direct and universal method of communication than language, whether written or spoken. Images are not imprisoned in the proverbial Tower of Babel.
The thing that has long troubled theoreticians, however, is that images are, especially when unsupported by words, inherently ambiguous. The reason for this is fairly obvious, though not perhaps sufficiently often stated. To the spectator, apparently passive, the image he or she sees is never in fact entirely neutral. They inevitably bring something to it, as well as – hopefully – getting something from it.
This. In turn, helps to make the collection of images presented here fascinating. It is not pursuing an agenda, the images tumble out in front of you, in apparently random fashion. Some of the most memorable are the work of the youngest painter here, Avery Palmer. And so are those by one of the two oldest, Guy Diehl. The two artists apparently come at things from completely different angles, and root themselves in different traditions.
Diehl paints exquisite, modestly scaled still lifes, featuring books. The books are sometimes, but not always, art books. One composition, magically realist, offers a book about Malevich, and another about Suprematism, the radically abstractionist art movement to which Malevich belonged. Another offers a copy of Boccaccio’s Decameron, plus several other books placed so that one can’t read their titles, and a human skull.
In both paintings there is a subtle play of ironic contradictions. In the first, a quiet assertion of he value of the humblest, most literal kind of figurative painting in the face of the high Modernist tradition of radical abstraction, not the less effective because the artist manages to have it both ways, or, rather, in three different ways all at once: an assertion of the continuing value of realist depiction; a tribute to the play of abstract forms that inspired Malevich to break away from centuries of tradition in Western art, and – yes – a sly wink, almost a snigger, directed at the current fashion for ‘appropriation’.
The other painting by Diehl offers a less complex message. It is a fresh look a familiar theme: a Vanitas, that is, a still life painting whose most conspicuous feature is a human skull. Familiar from Dutch 17th century examples, Vanitas compositions go back much further than that. The Naples Archaeological Museum, for example, has a well-known mosaic, showing a skull balanced on a wheel and framed by a level, which is one of the images discovered in Pompeii. In Diehl’s painting the skull is accompanied by a copy of Boccaccio’s Decameron, a set of fictional texts in which, as the Wikipedia article on this Italian author tells one: “The commercial and urban values of quick wit, sophistication. And intelligence are treasured, while the vices of stupidity and dullness are cured, or punished.” One could hardly ask for a clearer statement of a certain sort of skeptical modernity, with a small ‘m’, expressed here, nevertheless, within an age-old pictorial framework.
Avery Palmer’s three paintings are at first sight very different. As he himself says in his catalogue note, they belong in the Surrealist tradition – one might add, to the part of it that is most directly and obviously related to the work of Magritte. Particularly striking is the emphasis placed on the image of the human eye. These paintings look at us, almost as much as we look at them, judge us, contemplate us with a certain air of resigned melancholy. And these, too, are, like Diehl’s work, modest in scale. They have no wish to dominate the environment in which they may be placed. And, because of their portability, there is a wide choice of possible environments.
One of the things that will most strike any non-American observer like myself is how quintessentially American many of these paintings are, though most do not conform to either of the two main Late Modernist traditions, Abstract Expressionism and Pop, now associated with the development of mid- and late- 20th century American art, especially in the forms in which this has been most vigorously exported outside the boundaries of the United States.
Abstract Expressionism is completely absent – there are no fully abstract works present here, though there are quite a number that can be described in a broad sense as ‘painterly’. Compositions where paint, in a broad sense, takes charge of the image.
Pop does appear. The work of William Maul, for instance, can be described as being, in a broad sense, part of a still active Pop tradition, linked to a well-established American vernacular of appearances.
Other parts of the American artistic tradition also take a bow. It’s impossible to miss the echoes of the Mid-Western painting produced in America in the years between the two World Wars, by the school of artists we now call the Regionalists. There are almost equally strong echoes here and there with some aspects of modern Mexican painting – Mexico being a region to which California has always had strong cultural links. These works, however, look back to the time of the so-called tres grandes – Rivera, Siquieros and Orozco, and also to Mexican folk art, rather than having any very visible relationship with the art that is being produced in Mexico now.
Something that is on the whole absent from the collection is any wish to be self-consciously avant-garde. At one time, even quite recently, that might have been regarded as a fault. Now it is beginning to look more like a virtue.
Basically, the art of painting, as we now know it, evolved – though it did not begin that way – into a series of techniques for making portable, near-two-dimensional art objects, using quite a wide variety of different materials and supports. Though painters, and even patrons, have from time to time rebelled against the concept of portability, it has remained important to the world of the visual arts.
In particular, this importance steadily increased from the time of the Renaissance onwards, as paintings became yet another category of trade-able objects that could be marketed readymade: buy it or don’t buy it, take it or leave it. Essentially what is included here still belongs to that continuum. Modernist and Post Modernist efforts to supplant the situation have never succeeded, though they have by now presented the contemporary audience for art with a wide variety of possible alternatives, some, though not all, the result of rapid technological progress, achieved from the mid-19th century onwards and now apparently gathering momentum very day.
Committed avant-gardism has, in recent years, been increasingly desperate to prove its credentials, without being fully able to codify its aims. In doing so, it has been forced to reach back into the 19th century past. Art that embraced radical politics was the product of two somewhat uneasily allied forces. One was the great revolt against the powers-that-then-were embodied by the French Revolution. The other was Romantic individualism, proclaiming that the creative artist was a superior being. J.-L. David marked the beginning of the process, and Courbet’s mastrpiece The Studio: A Real Allegory, noow in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, marked its culmination. In neither case would the intended audience have found the message difficult to interpret. It was the message itself that was radical, in terms of the society in which it was presented, not the visual form in which it was presented.
In democratic societies, and even in societies that are not in fact democratic but that nevertheless profess a radical egalitarianism, art still needs to stick to the familiar norms of appearances, in order to get any political message across to the widest possible audience. This is the reason why, for example, Russian Futurism, with its radical visual experiments, soon fell out of favour with the powers-that-be in the newly created Soviet Union, and was replaced by Socialist Realism as the ruling official style. Italian Futurism, the elder brother of the Russian variety, openly embraced the authoritarian politics of the right.
Would-be radical political artworks have now become staple fare in many official settings. They make regular appearances in state supported museums and major biennales. Given the kind of mildly enthusiastic but also au fond condescending reception that they tend to receive, it’s hard not to see them as a safely sanitized form of preaching to the converted. Can art of this kind, which exists in a bubble, and seems not to change in any way the situations it addresses, be regarded as avant-garde in any meaning sense of that term?
Added to this there are art works that show similarly contrarian impulses, but which rely on eroticism rather than politics for their impact. These are now not infrequently displayed in the same kind of official context, and are viewed because of their subject matter not only as having all the necessary hallmarks of avant-garde originality, but also as offering proof of the tolerantly democratic nature of the display.
There is a contradiction here. If one looks at the art of the Renaissance, when art began to free itself from religious duties, fulfillment of which had for centuries been its primary purpose, one sees that the commissioning and enjoyment of erotic images tended to be the privilege of an elite, freer to flout religious norms through its possession of both wealth and power. Giulio Romano’s frescoes at the Palazzo del Te in Mantua are a case in point. So are the products of the School of Fontainebleau, made for the Valois court in France, and Cranach’s erotic paintings made for the Electors of Saxony. In each case the imagery, and physical possession of and control of that imagery was a sign of status.
What the organizing personnel of today’s democratic museums and biennales do nevertheless have in common with the elitist denizens of the princely courts of the past is quite a large, solid social role. A part of their job is to tell you not only to look, what to think about the object you are looking at. In this case, within an officially sanctioned context, to inculcate a faith in a kind of avant-gardism that is increasingly little more than a convenient fiction. In fact the desire to establish status is still secretly at work. It’s just that it’s now a different sort of status, adjusted to the shibboleths of the society we ourselves inhabit. A society that moralizes, cater-corner, maybe a little more than those inhabitants of the self-confidently privileged courts of Fontainebleau or Mantua, but no less, in its own way, than the group of apparatchiks who hurried to do Stalin’s bidding in the world of the Soviet visual arts.
This is where one starts to view a selection of this kind with a strong element of relief. The artists included are indeed very various. There is not only a wide spectrum of age groups, but also an equally wide spectrum of styles. Each of them wants to tell you something, but the particular something is always refreshingly different. Sometimes, as with the shaped supports used by Richard Whitten or Kelly Detweiler, our definition of what a painting is can be stretched to its limits. There is, however, no doubting the separate individuality of each artist, or the personal nature of the communication that each of the artists, separately, wishes to deliver – a message that, as noted earlier, will be modulated, in turn, by each of the sensibilities confronted with it.
If you want to know what painting does, or can do, without interference from doctrines externally imposed, quite a good place to start is here. It’s also an excellent demonstration of why the art of making paintings – individual creations, shaped by human hands, expression of unique sensibilities – remains central to our culture.