It's not often I come across an article about painting that I absolutely align with - but I do here in this essay. I agree with everything Justin says here - he has long been my painting hero - he manages to seize and fix the zeitgeist of contemporary painting in his elegant writing. I wish Australia would give him back. Enjoy!
Written by Justin Paton, Published in The Australian June 15th 2016. ( see accompanying images)
Painting isn’t dead but it gets up and risks death every day. “I nearly died out there,” performers say when no one laughs at their jokes or stops talking during their songs, and that’s the kind of dying that painting runs the risk of all the time. Painting doesn’t need you to stand around for the funeral, as if this is The End forever. What it needs is for you to turn up at the club and hope it doesn’t die tonight. And when it does die out there, sweating under the stage-lights, it needs you to care and hope enough to show up again tomorrow. Instead of dirges and memorials, what painting needs is hecklers, groupies, buffs, aficionados, nerds, family members and fans.
But there are only so many seats in a club. Shouldn’t painting be playing to bigger audiences? No, painting shouldn’t. The need to please on an industrial scale has had unhappy consequences for sculpture, turning needling and nimble artists into bloated stadium rockers. There are rare painters who seem most themselves in front of a sizeable crowd: I think of Anselm Kiefer when he unstops the whole orchestra or Mark Bradford when he really rips it up. But the painting that reaches us is usually the size of a person. It lives somewhere in the space between the size of someone’s head and the span of someone’s arms. It is not for “the audience” or “the sector” or “the demographic” or that suspiciously docile crowd of ciphers known as “viewers”. When you come as close to the painting as the painter stood to make it, it is for you and you only. Painting is radically intimate.
The tricky part is conveying how this intimacy exists within a sense of decorum or distance. Though we are standing where the painter stood and looking at the surface they touched, though we are seeing the strokes they made and inwardly rehearsing the gestures that generated them, though we may be close enough to smell the materials, it is indispensable to this intimacy that the painter has left the scene — that they have ceded authority to this unlikely stand-in, a piece of fabric or board spread with colour. This letting go, oddly, is what permits art to visit places normal conversations don’t go. There are things that the performer will say while they are performing, distanced from us by lights and the stage, that they would not say to us directly. Painting, likewise, does not talk straight to us. It agrees to let us listen in.
Painting is a problem, a project, a discourse, a mode of production, a field of inquiry. But it is also something you do, as in “I’m painting,” and no one who looks at painting a lot should do so without attempting to make a painting. The sensation of feebleness is bracing and immensely instructive, as one strives to summon sense from blobs of muddy colour using a ridiculous stick topped with bristles.
Persist, however, and humiliation yields to another instructive sensation — one that real painters often mention semi-superstitiously. This is the feeling that the surface in front of you is beginning to develop needs, telling you what kind of picture it wants to be. Even when you are doing nothing more than attempting the simplest copy, every stroke demands a counterstroke, every colour requires an adjustment of another, and because the medium is fluid, viscous, sticky, volatile, a quiet urgency also enters the equation.
You are building your image in real time from matter that slips and slides, and only by agreeing to be like the medium, to yield and respond, will the painting continue to grow. No painter has described this strange transfer of power more eloquently than Philip Guston, who spoke of returning to the studio in the morning and looking in with trepidation at the golems he had helped to life the night before.
Of course, we amateurs are not going to emerge from our efforts with paintings like Guston’s. Nonetheless the thrilling and humiliating exercise of actually painting should be imposed upon all critics, historians and curators, if only to disabuse us of the notion that the thinking in a painting can be separated from its' making.
“Tell us about the ideas behind your work,” painters are asked, as if the painting is merely a door behind which the thoughts that generated it are stowed. But the thoughts that matter in painting are not lined up beforehand to be put into or clipped onto the painting. The thoughts that matter most emerge from the painting, like heat rising off a compost heap.
It is obligatory now when writing about painting to furrow one’s brow about the rise of the digital. I suppose I ought to feel anxious about the preschool kid I saw on the bus the other morning who was trying to swipe the cover of her picture book because she thought it was a touch screen. Here was a scene apparently custom-designed to dismay any friend of painting: a premonition of a world where unmoving images are regarded as a frustrating irrelevance.
At the same time, however, it was a scene that made the situation for painting marvellously clear. Now that everyone carries with them and sees the world through these black screens, the stillness of painting seems stranger and more scandalous than ever. For eyes accustomed to touch screens, a painting is effectively a stalled iPad — a permanent glitch, a surface that perversely refuses to yield up other images.
This does not mean painting is obsolete. But it does mean it just got harder. Painting in the age of the internet does not mean deploying digital squiggles and Photoshoppy fades. It means making the stillness and singularity of the painting’s surface count as never before.
The methods for making an image stay are an open secret. They are there to be gleaned from the stayers of the past. I recommend Hans Memling’s The Man of Sorrowsin the Arms of the Virgin, a 550-year-old painting that argues afresh for its existence every time I visit it at the National Gallery of Victoria.
Painting is possible today, but is it necessary? The question is a good one to ask of painting in the age of the art fair, when the death of the medium seems less of a threat than complacent overproduction. To walk through the big fairs in Hong Kong or London is to see many examples of what might be called placeholder paintings — paintings that exist to occupy the place that painting is expected to occupy in these settings. Placeholder paintings pay us the dubious compliment of giving us what they think we want. Like other products of the Instagram age, what they desire most of all is to be Liked. Away with them. Hard as it is to define, what one wants to find instead is the necessary painting: the painting that the painter needed to make and you needed to see.
More than beauty, quality, sublimity, consistency or perfection, a sense of necessity is what I want most from a painting today, and it lives for me in four qualities especially. First is modesty, a sober evaluation of painting’s power and scale in the world. The necessary painting begins in full knowledge of all painting can’t do or hasn’t realised. Second is a certain nakedness of physical means, a recourse to the bare necessities. Third and crucially, the necessary painting is a painting that could have failed. It grew uniquely and its final shape is one that the painter could not have foreseen at the beginning. And because it was discovered in good faith rather than predetermined and merely executed, its appearance registers, for both the painter and the viewer, as a surprise and something of a gift.
Then there is strangeness. By strangeness I don’t mean the obviously surreal, fantastical or outlandish. I’m thinking of the way painting simultaneously clarifies and makes mysterious. We’re familiar with the idea that, by describing the world well, painting brings us closer to it, drawing attention to what we hadn’t noticed. But the paradox of the painting is that, while drawing the world close, it also supplants or replaces or resists it. That is the oddity and fascination of Giorgio Morandi’s paintings: the way they seem at once to take hold of their objects yet also to push them away, smearing and blending their outlines in a paste of muted tones. There is something consoling in Morandi’s deep attachment to these pieces of the quotidian world. But his painting is also a way to hold the world at bay, the better to think about it.
I don’t think we can say on this basis that painting is a “critical” medium — critical being one of those terms that reveals more about the speaker than the thing spoken of. But because it is old, slow, difficult, stubborn, marginal and uncontemporary, painting is well placed to express a sense of estrangement from and discontentment with some of the prevailing conditions of our time. In our culture of outcomes, deliverables, efficiencies, instantaneity, spectacle and calculated obsolescence, painting that is slow, inquisitive, persistent and doubting reminds us there are other ways of being and seeing. Painting may not be much in the end: a delay, a lovely tremble, a minor heresy, a stammer in the speech of Culture. But it is not nothing.
Justin Paton is head curator of international art at the Art Gallery of NSW. This is an edited version of an essay written for Painting. More Painting, showing at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, from July 29 to September 25. he art of creating a sense of necessity with paint