On the ramp on my way out of Tate Modern, having seen ‘A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance’, I bumped into a friend, a painter.
“Have you been to see the painting show?” he asked.
“It’s not a painting show.”
“Is it worth seeing?”
“It’s worth seeing” I replied, “but it’s not a painting show.”
This is not a painting show. I can’t really say anything clearer about it than that – it doesn’t really have anything to do with painting. My head hurts from the way the curatorial team propagate such a basic semantic confusion, the way they put theoretical ideals before reality. Who could object to an exhibition that seeks to create “a dialogue between painting and performance”? Dialogue is good! Except that the reality is that there is no dialogue in this show. Painting has been co-opted and transformed into something it is not – performance art has attached itself to a different medium like a barnacle to the hull of a boat. The curatorial team evidently believe that contemporary art exists in a post-medium condition and therefore it is acceptable to put on an exhibition purportedly about painting and performance that mainly consists of photography and installation. The idea that the particularities of each medium are boundaries to be broken is an attractive sounding aspiration, but on the evidence of the work in this show contemporary artists are as far from overcoming medium specificity as I am from walking on the moon. All they end up doing is replacing art with theatre, and what could be more conservative than that?
I have to admit that, as a painter, I admire performance artists and what they have to overcome; the social embarrassment, the public humiliation, the bottomless well of narcissistic energy that has to be harnessed to get something moving. It can be an exhausting medium with little room for the sort of contemplation possible in front of a painting. The form itself is ephemeral and disappears as soon as the performance is over and often the only evidence that such a thing ever happened is through a photograph or a film. Luckily, many of the performance artists in this show are excellent photographers, and performance art seems to have generated a photographic sub genre of its own, that of the sequential photographic storyboard that records the unfolding of an event. My favourite example of this particular form is Pose Work for Plinth (1971) by Bruce Mclean, simply for its figurative clarity comparable to the side of a Greek pot. Even though this is owned by the Tate, it’s not included, which is bizarre given that if there’s any figure who has truly crossed over between painting and performance, it’s Mclean. Instead, for example, we have the feral abjection of a paint smeared Stuart Brisley, who’s a kind of British Paul McCarthy without the sense of humour. Geta Bratescu creates a formally beautiful sequential photograph of herself turning her apartment, and herself, white, using paint and paper. Yet even when the photographic record becomes formally compelling, and we can now encounter such documents in museums all over the world, a sense of poignancy is inevitably attached to it – we are completely removed from the real event. This is ironic given that performance art is a continuation, and some might say completion, of the modernist drive towards actuality. It articulates its form through a real body, a real presence, and gives its subjects, which are often imbued with political urgency, a condition of actual being. The disadvantage with it is that, as with events in real life, it is over so very quickly, and often we encounter it most readily through the mediated form of photography or film, a translation of actuality into a fiction. Painting, in comparison, seems embarrassingly immediate.
It struck me when I was in this show, how relatively straightforward performance art is compared to something as abstract as painting. We all know what performance means and even, in certain social situations, what it feels like, and it seamlessly blends with forms of entertainment and spectacle. We even relate to performance artists, as we all have experienced in childhood the desire to become a suffering show-off, or even debase ourselves, in safe forms of abjection, that may look disgusting but in fact are no more dangerous than picking your nose in public. This is not to say that performance art cannot be dramatic or penetrating – leading artists within the medium, such as Marina Abramovic, manage to pare the medium down to its simplest possible form for maximum effect. Unfortunately however, there were no performances taking place when I visited this show. The show, as I said, consists mainly of photography and installation. This is not a painting show.
One indication that this is not a show about painting is in the first room. I don’t believe that great paintings should necessarily be treated reverentially, nor am I interested in master-narratives. When I’m teaching I’m more interested in getting people involved in art through the peripheries – I’m always telling students to get themselves to the photocopier and start generating ideas, to collage, and I certainly don’t hold them hostage to some oppressive criteria of quality. Displaying Jackson Pollock’s painting Summertime (1948), though, on the floor - isn’t that just, well, a bit philistine? Doesn’t the curator understand that she’s trampling a bit over the possibility of seeing the Pollock as beautiful, like a Titian, or a Van Gogh, the manifestation of an extraordinary visual flow? Or has she already decided for us how this painting should be read? The guide states; “Arguably now we understand Pollock’s paintings more through the documentation of their making than as objects, something that Allan Kaprow predicted in his 1958 essay The Legacy of Jackson Pollock“. Whatever rhetoric Kaprow brought to bear on Abstract Expressionism, the point is laid bare. What the show documents is in fact the moment of painting’s apparent death, the moment it is absorbed into performance and the condition of post-medium specificity, the moment of its autonomy being trumped by new conditions of contemporary art production. This position has now become convention, the official story of modern art.
The problem is that not a single other painting in this show, not Jutta Koether, not Kazuo Shiraga, the Gutai artist who paints with his feet, comes even close to matching the formal qualities of the Pollock – their work falls short of being visually compelling in even the most basic way. Had the Pollock been displayed on the wall, the real theme of the show would have become evident – that performance artists are not painters, that performance artists (at least the ones in this show) cannot paint with any kind of real coherence, that Jackson Pollock was not a performance artist – he was a great painter. Performance artists it seems to me turn to painting out of frustration with the ephemeral nature of their own medium, they use painting as a way of making a mark on the world, of leaving traces. Joan Jonas’s paintings can be understood in this way, as primitive mark making, like cave painting, as something basic, like graffiti. But to confuse it with the real deal – the actual creation of form, something Pollock did quite beautifully – that to me is simply sentimental.
Painting is not dead – it seems though that a lot of curators want to kill it off. This is perhaps because painting embodies the old order of art; art as a hierarchy of quality, admittedly a daunting terrain of shifting sands, yet perhaps more challenging than a postmodern horizontal field where artists distinguish themselves by occupying distinct intellectual positions. Painting defeats intellectualisation and demands qualitative judgments – everybody, whether part of the art world or not, has stood in front of a painting and declared it good or bad or whatever. Judgments of quality are in fact, paradoxically, democratic – available to anybody and part of everybody’s involvement in culture, their right to reject or assimilate in a process of self definition. It is in the treating of art works as intellectual commodities that creates a true elitism of taste, and an enslavement by a hegemony that disallows individual, subjective responses. The museum increasingly likes to tell the public what to think.
On the opposite wall to the supine Pollock is Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, which is always a pleasure to see. “For Pollock, the canvas is itself a field of action”, the guide informs us, “a record of the artist’s movements in actual space and time. In Hockney’s case, the painting becomes an artificial backdrop that opens up a theatrical space, implying the viewer’s entrance into a fictional world”. Well no, actually. I’ve never seen the Hockney , which plays brilliantly with the embodiment of time, and stretches the moment out to an infinity, as either “theatrical” or “fictional”. To me it has more reality than most of the other work in the show – if anything it succeeds by transcending theatricality, the very thing the curator claims it represents. Yet it is there to lead us into the other half of the show, the half of the show in which performance art becomes installation, and installation becomes the sad abandoned theatre set.
I quite enjoyed Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s strange pastel coloured seventies boho crash pad, with its weird Duncan Grant inspired decor, down to the duvet on the bed, and its odd collection of weird art objects, as well as a Warhol electric chair, a Stephen Buckley, a Wolfgang Tillmans print (he’s not exactly embracing outsider art). I also got carried away by the Tchaikovsky playing in Karen Klimnick’s green-lit installation Swan Lake, a tableau deliberately arranged like a window display in a suburban bridal shop, all innocence and longing, but lacking the necessary poison and sense of being cursed that would give it an air of mystery. In the final room are Lucy McKenzie’s backdrops, that attractively conflate, like all her work, the bourgeois and the bohemian. Stills from a film that made use of these backdrops are displayed on a wall. In a sense, because these flats are paintings in oil on canvas, and display great skill at trompe l’oeil techniques, it could be argued that here the premise of the show, a bridge between performance and painting, is fulfilled. Yet this is not the case at all, because the works, rather than being paintings, are clearly a set, in which the audience are invited to become the actors. Personally though, if I go to the theatre, I prefer others to do the acting – being asked to participate makes me feel self conscious and embarrassed, and makes me want to run for the exit.