Abstract Critical

The Edge of Painting

Written by Luke Elwes

Rana Begum, No.441 - Fold (2013) 55 x 72 x 22 cm

Rana Begum, No.441 – Fold (2013) 55 x 72 x 22 cm

Painting has died a thousand deaths in the last century. But it rises from the grave as many times. Doesn’t it?’ (Tess Jaray)

Two quite different perspectives on this question – one by a committee of writers and curators, the other by an artist – are offered by ‘Painting Now’ and ‘The Edge of Painting’, currently both showing in London.

The exhibition at Tate Britain and its accompanying text read like a research paper on an endangered species, a clinical exercise in which the work of five disparate painters is put under the microscope to see what clues it might yield to its continued and – in Darwinian terms – surprising existence in ‘what has come to be understood as a post-medium age’. Without saying who exactly has arrived at this understanding the committee goes on to report that what painting lacks is adequate textual underpinning, since ‘writing about painting is notably under-articulated at the moment’.

Tomma Abts, Zebe, 2010 © Tomma Abts

Tomma Abts, Zebe, 2010 © Tomma Abts

Yet all they really manage to adduce is that what the five have in common (apart from being born between 1967 and 1977) is ‘a deliberate and measured approach to the construction of the image’. Drawing on Tomma Abts’ statement that ‘for me painting is a concrete experience that is anchored in the material I am handling’, they conclude, in a way that is hard to dispute, that ‘her paintings are “things in the world” as wrought objects and yet they also deliver illusions of fictive space’. But simply offering ‘different explorations of the physicality of paint itself” as a form of resistance to ‘rootless postmodern hybridity’ is hardly likely to embolden painters or give these and others of their generation much cause for optimism.

Tess Jaray, Migration Wide Orange (2013) 65 x 130 cm

Tess Jaray, Migration Wide Orange (2013) 65 x 130 cm

In contrast Tess Jaray uses her long experience as practitioner and teacher to ask not what painting is but what it can do. In a show curated for the Piper Gallery she turns the Tate’s assumption on its head by saying painting needs not words (or a rear-guard action) but a more imaginative and playful approach to the medium itself. The artists she has chosen – almost all of whom either trained or taught at the Slade – reflect her sense that rather than being adrift in a post-medium age, ‘now it seems, all art aspires to the condition of painting’. Here the medium need no longer be the message: indeed it is the medium – paint itself – which stands to limit painting’s progress. ‘The Edge of Painting’ (a title borrowed from a new and unusually abstract photomontage in the show by John Stezaker) indicates a practice that is most dynamic at its margins; if it still holds to the idea of a ‘painting’ as a unique artefact which engenders the illusion of space it departs radically from the assumption that paint is the necessary means of achieving this.

Onya McCausland, Support (2013) 175 x 120 x 18 cm

Onya McCausland, Support (2013) 175 x 120 x 18 cm

Jaray asks if the colour and materials variously employed here to generate patterns, shapes and movement in space still belong the language of painting: after all, ‘what does it mean to class something as a painting?’. For example, can’t Sophie Michael’s cine projection of a rotating field of coloured cards on a wall (‘Carousel’, 2009) be viewed as a dynamic painting rather than video art? Or Onya McCausland’s delicate interplay of white matter and dark shadow across object and wall surface in ‘Support’ (2013) be a painting in chalk and calcium silicate rather than an installation piece? Or Rana Begum’s directional planes of colour modulated by the fall of light on folded steel (‘No. 441- Fold’, 2013) be approached as painting rather than wall mounted sculpture? And further out on the conceptual (or cutting) edge, when Martin Creed investigates the optical play of pattern and colour using no more than cropped lengths of masking tape and coloured ink is he not still ‘painting’?

Nike Savvas, Silvery (2013) 200 x 250 cm

Nike Savvas, Silvery (2013) 200 x 250 cm

Jaray’s own piece ‘Migration, Wide. Orange’ (2013) is similar in its concern for the subtle process of order & disruption to Tomma Abts painting ‘Zebe’ (2010) in the Tate and shares in its geometry the same ‘deliberate and measured approach’. So too does the delicate mosaic-like patina of Giulia Ricci’s laser engraving, with its indented surfaces and rhythmic colour spacing. For Jaray these are not isolated acts of ‘post-medium’ resistance but, taken together, suggest the slippery nature of the medium’s perceived boundaries. Perhaps the best example she gives us of how ‘painting’ continues to adapt and mutate as a practice is ‘Silvery’(2013) by Nike Savvas, in which suspended strands of polished aluminium, tinted at irregular intervals along its length in blue & yellow, generate a brilliant curtain of light that shimmers and sways to the transitory presence of the viewer and reflects back the myriad colours it captures in that moment. While over at the Tate ‘the wide discourse around painting is fragmented’ here by contrast it appears fluid and permeable.

The Edge of Painting’, The Piper Gallery, 29 November – 30 December 2013

Painting Now; Five Contemporary Artists’, Tate Britain, 12 Nov 2013 – 9 February 2014

All quotes are taken from the accompanying catalogues.

  1. Robert Linsley said…

    Just put up a post on this topic

  2. John Holland said…

    Robin- you shall be hearing from our lawyers.

  3. Gail McGonigal said…

    I am not a painter, nor do I understand this form of Art; yet the words portray understanding that helps me to appreciate this much neglected art form. Through reading academic articles related to this area, I hope to develop my own sense of appreciation of everything in Art that is not pragmatic!

  4. Geoff Hands said…

    I wonder if those ‘paintings’ made of anything but paint reflect a desire to invigorate contemporary painting? And/or that they are categorised as paintings because we look at these objects as if they were paintings (space/construction modules)? Contemporaneous painting (always post-something since Cave ‘art’ of course) takes on many guises and the Tate show is a pretty tame and slick selection.

    A painter always worth listen to is Ian McKeever, who wrote:

    “In many ways, making art has never been easier: anything goes, but probably because of that, painting is now more difficult. Much of what painting is about as an activity goes against the grain of contemporary art practice, which is fast and of the moment. Painting on the other hand is a slow, solitary activity, one which like life, is full of contradictions and paradoxes. Certainly there were would seem to be no logical reason why one should paint today. Other media can render many things far more efficiently and cleanly than paint. Indeed one of painting’s failings in recent years could be said to be that it has attempted to mimic art’s efficiencies, rather than owning up to what it really is: a messy, liquid process. One in which the painter faces up to what he or she cannot do, perhaps as much as, if not more than, to what can be done.”” (In Praise of Painting – University of Brighton 2005)

    • Naomi Schlinke said…

      The “messy, liquid process” that McKeever identifies is one of the enticing mysteries of painting. The slippery control and the alchemy of the dry fused material is anything but efficient.

  5. Luke Elwes said…

    I would say ‘post-medium’ assumes a double meaning for the Tate curators: both ‘post modern’ and ‘after painting’. By eliding the two they seem to suggest that one follows from the other and therefore that painting can only assume an oppositional role to ‘post modern hybridity’ (in which the past resists the present). It is this deterministic language that Jaray seeks to counter with her disparate examples of current practice (each related in some way to a surface or support), which stand literally and metaphorically at an angle to, or on the edge of, painting’s central concern with pattern space and light.

  6. Kon Gouriotis said…

    Engaging read by Luke Elwes.

    Now there is laced up concept – ‘post-medium’. The idea is an easy and too narrow description. Which mediums are being discussed? Certainly isn’t meant for ‘The Edge of Painting’ exhibition, these paintings are aesthetically and culturally too expansive. ‘Post-medium ‘only impedes in the complexity discussion that is obviously present in each of works being critiqued. I am curious to know if there were any comments on how ‘post medium’ was able to capture all of Savvas’s moiré principles? I doubt it.

  7. CAP said…

    ‘writing about painting is notably under-articulated at the moment’.

    Surely that should read ‘writing about ABSTRACT painting’?

    And as for ‘the wide discourse around painting is fragmented’ – When was it ever otherwise? These people pine after a mythical time when critics/curators were all on the same page. There never was such a moment. Look at the many rival styles in painting (much less abstraction) at any point in its history – there never was some resounding concensus on the merits of some particular approach to abstraction or figuration. Schools are for students. Movements are for the bowels.

    And who would be without the variety, that delightful confusion and controversy? There can be no legislating for some fixed and final set of formal properties for painting without it ossifying into dogma. I think this says more about the narrow and essentially bureaucratic thinking of the Tate committee. They don’t want to make decisions, take risks or declare themselves. They just want to be safe.

    Chaps, this is art criticism’s way of telling you it’s time to retire. :)

  8. Robert Linsley said…

    I’m with Jaray, but painters who use brushes and paint are the least likely to agree, even though it is in their interests to do so.

    • John Holland said…

      The difference between using hand-applied paint, and the more ‘Platonic’, technological methods used by some of the artists here, is not just a question of semantics.
      There’s a profound significance to the interaction between mind and materiality and the discovery of form through physical process, as opposed to intellectual invention, and it lies at the heart of what painting and sculpture have always been able to do that other arts cannot.

      It’s not surprising that artists are now drawn to the disembodied image, as this is a manifestaion of our ongoing disengagement from Nature, in its broadest possible sense.