Painting has often been declared dead since the 1960s, yet it refuses to die. Even the status and continued legitimacy of the medium has been repeatedly placed in question. So why does it continue to make a splash?
Walking around Tate Modern’s current exhibition, A Bigger Splash: Painting After Performance, I was struck by the extent at which the medium of painting appeared to be willing, if not always entirely able, to accommodate the intentions, and occasionally the vicissitudes, of a particular curator’s agenda. This is not necessarily a pejorative claim about the exhibition per se; whilst I personally found the exhibition somewhat uneven, it nevertheless provided an opportunity to view work by those artists, including Niki de Saint Phalle, who have often been overlooked within the more standardised historiographies of painting, and indeed art post-1960s.
However, it perhaps seems reasonable to claim that in the case of the work that was installed at Tate Modern, it wasn’t the medium of painting as such that was placed under scrutiny and considered in relation to Performance Art, but rather the term. As I strolled around the various works that were on display, I began to envisage how a section of the media would interpret its willful medial eclecticism not, as its curators had, as seeking to reevaluate the affinities and points of overlap between two quite separate approaches to art making, but rather as being merely arbitrary. If anything, and notwithstanding my aforementioned reservations with regards to what I perceived were its inconsistencies, for the most part I found myself concurring with the former viewpoint. Certainly, and as I have sought to point out in After Modernist Painting: The History of a Contemporary Practice, any history of painting post 1960 invariably will have to confront and work through a range of performative practices that were either directly or indirectly working with painting or making particular claims on its behalf. In this sense A Bigger Splash: Painting After Performance is an exhibition that is not so much bound up with practices of painting after performance as how painting, as a critical term might become given, can be reimagined.
Whilst there was certainly food for thought with regard to how painting was able to negotiate – if not entirely broker a deal with performance art – it nevertheless struck me that painting, whether as a medium or a term, is able to thrive within such interpretive contexts not in spite of the fact that it has, or is at least perceived to have certain givens, but because of them. I hasten to add that by no means am I suggesting, like Clement Greenberg did, that painting is understood as having a set of essential characteristics or qualities; I’m sure we’re all agreed that such a determination of painting today is neither useful nor indeed necessary. Equally, this is not some thinly veiled attempt at making certain claims with regard to the cultural superiority of painting as a preeminent form of artistic practice. Such opportunism would be erroneous and as deeply unimaginative as those commentators who have periodically issued edicts proclaiming painting’s purported death. Nevertheless, the exhibition prompted me to consider whether one could claim that there is something immovable, if not inviolable, about painting, without accusations of an essentialism being leveled at what then, as is now, will only be found wanting.
Up until this point, I’m not sure whether I have yet been able to formulate a credible response to that question. By way of offering a partial response, it seems useful to reiterate, as others previously have, that the term ‘painting’ is both a noun and a verb. That is, one ‘paints paint.’ Deeming this a tautology probably won’t get us very far, deeming it a vector perhaps will. At the very least the latter denotes a certain trajectory and a particular magnitude. With respect to what we might deem to be painting’s trajectory, albeit as a somewhat broad approximation, it arguably can be identified as operating within the bounds of human agency that are at once both personal and historical. In this sense we could say that painting is given form, performed, enacted. With respect to the latter, we would claim that the magnitude of painting necessarily entails an attempt, on the part of its curators, historians, theorists and indeed the art-going public, to provide it with a critical form. This invariably entails a much greater degree of latitude; hence the critical slippage that inevitably occurs between the thing and the stated or perceived intentions of the self-same thing. Perhaps such slippage is nothing more than symptomatic of what happens when, as the aforementioned term implies, we attempt to deal with painting’s magnitude.
If nothing else, and as far as A Bigger Splash: Painting After Performance was concerned, whilst attempting to ascribe a set of meanings onto the historical residue of a heterogeneous range of practices, strategies, gambits and ambitions, the exhibition also rehearsed the basic truism that our responses to what might possibly be construed as painting as a term is historically contingent.
Such differences between artwork and its respective audience, between action and interpretation, between reality and its inscription, is there in our collective responses to A Bigger Splash. And in one sense is written into the mythology, if not the mythography, of the creative process generally. Certainly, Victor Frankenstein, reflecting on the eponymously named protagonist he had brought unwittingly into this world noted that the ‘different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature.’
In which case, whilst painting is not necessarily the still point of the turning contemporary art world, the centre, or at least a centre (whatever that is), the idea it might define a curator’s rationale still appears to hold. ■
Image courtesy of joakminal.
Craig Staff is Reader in Fine Art at the University of Northampton, an artist, and as you may have gleaned from the above, author of After Modernist Painting, which seeks to understand the themes and issues that have pertained to painting within the context of postmodernism and contemporary artistic practice.