Painting Abides

Mari Slaattelid
sep. 2013|Article

It can resemble the beautiful people who gather at exhibition openings and biennials, the roaming eyes and eye-catchers, ladies in bloom along the walls – wallflowers, as in the dancehalls sixty years ago. The passive aspect of paintings has always fascinated me. Only a few command your attention. The others don’t steal your time, but look in another direction.

Painting may manifest itself as resistance. Rather than being a “discursive practice,” paintings are stumbling blocks for discursive practice. For when the discourse on painting must go through painting, it loses speed. The discourse can come to a halt and change direction. A silent and impossible thing, painting can disrupt the flow of polite discourse, so that other things must be said. This has happened many times in the history of modernism, when certain works of art changed the conversation and gave it a new direction. With cubism, one saw that all previous painting had been a variation on naturalism. Cézanne and Picasso challenged the discourse, and therein lay the great value of their artistic endeavor. Hamsun’s Hunger didn’t simply fall in line with current discourse on the novel. His book, which is often cited as the first modernist novel, did more than provide fuel for a never-ending discursive practice; it shook the very discourse itself.

The discourse on painting is one thing. Painting is characteristically something else, the object itself being both concrete and irrefutable. The subject of this seminar is not an idle academic exercise, but an active and functioning, or in unsuccessful cases a useless, thing in the world. The discussion concerning the meaning of painting runs parallel and as close as possible to this thing. At seminars about painting diagnoses shall be proposed, painting is supposed to be mourned or justified. Where does all this alarm come from? What is it about painting that compels this extraordinary concern? A special effort is made, as if at the last minute, to put a spotlight on it, one asks whether it is quietly perishing or not – and, not least of all, how relevant it could possibly be as a form of expression today.

Painting is the technology that underlies a good deal of what we call art. It is both idea and concept, intellectual work and treasure. Although other forms of art may currently dominate sales on the international art scene, painting is still generally considered to be the ideal art object. Painting has been the quintessential art form and placed others in the shadows all the way up to our own time. Other forms of artistic expression have gradually achieved their rightful status on the contemporary art scene, and painting is now an approach to art alongside everything else. With a hunch for cycles and trends, art institutions weigh various considerations against one another: style, content, generation, gender, and nationality. There are always subcultures to incorporate and new, exotic places one shouldn’t be too late to visit. The time when the field of art was hegemonic and exclusive is definitely over. Likewise, painting no longer represents any kind of art movement. After 500 years it still lives well and has its moments in New York, Berlin, Beijing and Oslo, but it is no avant-garde on the contemporary art scene and barely a heroic rear guard. Though it may shine on the contemporary stage from time to time, it constitutes no front or constellation of fronts. It simply stands at our disposal, available for the kind of concentration it is especially suited for.

The concern for painting can no doubt be an expression of true love. Every now and then it is shown by art institutions themselves. Museums obtain continuity and legitimacy from painting, and they know what they’ll miss by writing it off. The inclusion of simple painting lends all those relevant projects and pedagogical programs a needed dimension, a touch of art. When new forms of expression are uncertain of their historical validity, painting is called on to underwrite their access to history. Painting is included, despite its conservative reputation, despite the object character or thingness that makes it suspect. Painting works its way into prevailing tastes, is redefined and styled until it looks good. Or it is pared down to what it is, a dark spot on a light wall, a zero point – pure art.

The aura of art history works both ways for a painter; it can close doors or open them. The present is wary of past glories, it recognizes old claims to privilege and reject them. To compensate for its anachronism, painting should preferably show an explicit interest in contemporary issues. Together with the artist it must appear as relevant. Judging relevance, however, is intuitive and consensual – a delicate exercise. Relevance is recognized, not articulated. It can have to do with a certain aesthetic or attitude, a sign of the times in the upper right corner, some gesture that tends towards what we perceive as contemporary. Relevance is a mantra and a reminder to all dreamers not to forget their own time and place.

When assurance is given as to what painting can actually do, say, for “contemporary society,” no one really seems to believe it. And what can one realistically expect? The invitation to this seminar states: “Painting has retained its ability to grapple with present realities.” Is not painting itself a present reality? And thus connected in its own exclusive but clearly still popular way to a common present? Does it not still have the potential it always has had for succeeding or failing on its own terms just like other art? When painting is discussed as a tool for understanding, a means towards “grappling with present reality,” etc., is this not to allay the suspicion that painting is wrapped up in itself? That it, as we know, can lapse into the cultivation of superficial effects and sensuality? Is this what motivates the desire to assure that painting indeed has the potential to do more, that it can participate, act, change, set forces in motion, and perhaps even serve a cause? Forms of art that resemble science, that function as documentation, surpass painting when it comes to presenting factual matters. Painting collapses on this level of communication, or it morphs into symbolism and illustration. Painting can make claims and store amazing things, but it cannot prove anything other than its own existence. Art that is heavy on thematic content, meanwhile, communicates more readily than art that emphasizes formal issues. This was exemplified in the widespread iconographic treatment of Munch’s work during the recent celebration of his 150th anniversary. The constant affirmation that his work is all about angst and jealousy, as if it were an bad novel rather than visual art, served to unite Munch scholars with an enormous public. The kind of realities that a painting seems to deal with is one thing. What it actually accomplishes and what effect it has is something else, and the artist has little control over this. Is it possible that Picasso’s first cubist paintings had a greater political impact than Guernica, which became a symbol? His earlier paintings were not symbols, but in return they effected a revolution in visual language.

Daniel Buren has said that Cézanne changed our sensibility. Few today would claim that our way of seeing the world is transformed or articulated by painting. An artist might choose to paint for practical reasons – perhaps in order to produce a large exhibition relatively fast and inexpensively, employing large surfaces, volumes of prefabricated colors, and with a good underlying idea. Artists identify themselves more rarely with the medium than what used to be the case and are seldom inhibited by any reverence for tradition and craft. Painting lends itself to swift execution and doesn’t rely on the hiring of a large stage crew or production team. It is a precious commodity and at the same time an enigma. It is low-budget art that holds its own attraction for money and status. As a form of practice it is individualistic: The making of an average movie can take up to 200 people. It takes only one person to create a painting with iconic status. Painting is both high and low culture and the clear choice of amateurs everywhere. You will be hard pressed to find installations at the local art club. The concrete surfaces of our cities and suburbs are filled with painting. Painting is for school dropouts and the well heeled, for everyone at all levels of society who get off on small nuances and subtle messages on a two-dimensional surface. Painting is the affable Dude in The Big Lebowski, intelligent but erratic with a promising past and an enduring attitude, mimetic in mind and to the bone, laid back in the sunlight with cheap sunglasses.

Barnett Newman insisted that he was a painter, not an artist. Therein lies an acknowledgment of a life spent in solitary work, a life in the studio; a room of one’s own because it is practical, in contrast to the needs of more nomadic or collectively oriented colleagues. Over this acknowledgment looms the cliché of the self-absorbed artist in his sanctuary, devoted to his belief in painting. Put another way, this could simply refer to the artist who is informed by painting when he or she observes, thinks and writes. For an artist, painting can be about achieving a sense of clarity, and clarity can be a sensory experience. I am indebted to painting, just as all visual artists are, including those who define their work by distancing themselves from it. More than a century after Cézanne, it is hard to comprehend how the fascination with creating space on a flat surface could suffice for an entire life, how visual perception and color-based perspective can hold any deep meaning. It is precisely a painter’s experience that two-dimensional representation can provide a more profound understanding of space than the object itself. Cézanne’s goal was phenomenologically linked to such experience – not to what he might think, but to what he did and experienced on the canvas. The meaning of all his work was intimately connected two objects outside himself – the world (truth) and painting. Truth was neither specific nor bound by time, but was an existential condition, a feeling of life. Can it be that Cézanne didn’t have anything to say? That the truth lay in perception itself, that is, in the very fact that he saw? By way of his secluded work, during an age that was just as precarious as ours, Cézanne created modern painting and, as Buren points out, changed our way of seeing.

A successful painting works like a poster, it meets you straight in the eyes. The idea is concentrated within the bounds of a delimited surface, which is why even low-keyed paintings can hold their own alongside more spectacular museum art. Painting is an ideal site for sensory work and for the organization of thought. This can be seen in paintings that resemble grammatical works, as in modernism, when the painter’s studio was a laboratory and formal discoveries appeared to reveal substantial truths. The energy in a successful painting is still created today by means of small shifts, systematic or intuitive, with or without grand gestures. My own view of current trends in painting is based on what I happened to have seen and not on any complete overview. One thing I have noticed is a diary-like, introverted and “distracted” dismantling of painting’s claim to representation or publicness. One senses a predetermined, programmatic ambivalence to the medium as being a precondition for painting on line with the white canvas. The hesitation that was there from the start lingers still, signaling some kind of respect. In the flickering light cast on painting in exhibitions, webpages and art magazines, one can see that painting does two things at once: it both takes advantage of and distances itself from the position it has traditionally had. To resist this status is futile, since it slowly but surely assimilates that which would undermine it. Still, such resistance can be seen, for example, in self-conscious, private-political expression that cultivates idiosyncrasy and detachment. What I try to catch sight of is the attitude implanted in a painting, a strategy for everyday intercourse with a difficult object. In the case of the type of painting just described, it acts as though it couldn’t care less that it is public. Like a badge, it wears its lack of paranoia on its sleeve for the world to see. In a circle of like-mindedness, the artist and the work share the same posture, and it is this posture that he or she brings to the table. This act of resistance is a modernist exercise that never ended. Such ambivalence to painting has engendered a flood of more or less individualistic and unconstrained expression, and every now and then in works that manage to overcome all problems. Others take a more conciliatory approach by accepting and accentuating painting’s traditional value instead of dismantling it. Catherine Lorent’s complex installation Relegation, shown at this year’s Venice Biennial, fetishizes painting’s status as art by combining pseudo-Baroque ceiling paintings with electric guitars and grand pianos, that is, elements that epitomize high and low culture. Lorent pimps up the decadent painting of the seventeenth century in a cacophony of instruments, images and sound. From within her own artistic chaos, she tips her hat in all respect to the late Baroque period. In a similar manner, Asger Jorn’s paintings and oeuvre were idealized in Ida Ekblad’s exhibition here at the National Museum earlier this year. Jorn was hailed as a kindred spirit both as a potter and painter, and Ekblad’s exhibition incorporated her colleague from the recent past with unmistakable sympathy. Abstract or concrete painting in its various updated forms can make use of transformational titles, which reframe it as something more than decorative art about nothing. When abstraction refers to the world, with or without humor, what Michael Fried calls “absorption” turns into something active, and the expectation that painting be relevant is fulfilled. The format may be modest, distancing the work from the American painter-as-hero tradition of the 1950s and 1960s. Gardar Eide Einarsson takes his titles from social institutions and thus casts a sharper light on abstract painting than what art history would do. Others, such as Nathan Hylden and the late Alan Uglow, hold to the “absorbed” title Untitled. Anecdotal, narrative figurative painting is the ultimate self-expression with the longest tradition in painting. It’s far between the hefty German variations on painting in the 1980s, and today’s less urban-manic and terse figurative painting. The latter can be muted and existential, as with Mark van Yetter; self-therapeutic, as with Bjarne Melgaard; or full of pathos, as with Daniel Richter.

It’s no scandal that art circles around itself. All forms of painting manage and administer what means they have at their disposal and provide a robust or not so robust defense of the economy of these very means. Slow moving and thoughtful as painting is, there are brilliant instances when works come into being almost unwittingly, without any reason or rhyme other than that which arises at the moment they materialize. Independent of the artist’s intentions, particular works stand out with a radiance that defies explanation. They both resemble – and are – real life, but the only thing they can document is the work that brought them into being. To paint is to let this work open the possibility of something that cannot be called into question.