In Tradition-Bound Britain, Brushing Off Paint
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2004; Page N06
Here are a few things a contemporary painting can do:
• It can talk about the world around us, and even tweak that world to make specific points.
• It can tease the eye with interesting tricks of form and color and surface -- either while it paints a picture of the world, or in a purely abstract composition.
• It can talk about art, and about how pictures work, and about how it relates to all the pictures that have come before.
And here are some things that contemporary artists worry a painting might do, whether they want it to or not:
• It can seem to speak to a marketplace that wants safe wall-filler that's easy to sell. A dealer whose prime goal is moving stock will always favor painting over any other medium.
• It can please a reactionary faction in the art world that goes for painted art, because that's what's always graced the walnut-paneled libraries of stately homes.
• It hints at a maker who has chosen paint simply because so many artists have gone that way before. After all, say the word "art" and most people imagine that you're talking painting.
• It suggests an artist as concerned with traditional handicraft -- with how a bunch of paint gets pushed across a canvas, and has been in the past -- as with any novel point a crafting hand might want to make.
It's not that these obstacles have killed painting. There will always be talented artists who can overcome the difficulties that painting faces. In fact, with the odds so stacked against them, the handful of truly good paintings that get turned out look that much more impressive. I'll bet that somehow, somewhere, someday -- in a decade, a century, could be a millennium or two -- a whole new kind of painted work will come along to breathe new life into the medium. Painting has dead-ended before, and each time a Titian or a Monet, a Picasso or a Pollock has hit on a way out that no critic could have guessed at in advance. Any critic who insists that can never happen again is asking to eat crow.
In the meantime, however, forward-looking artists who choose to work in paint had better realize what that implies: It will win them friends they may not have planned on cultivating -- friends who reject most anything that's new, cherishing tradition for tradition's sake. Conservative critic Robert Hughes, for instance, praises contemporary painting as putting to shame the work of Andy Warhol as well as "any of the other image-scavengers and recyclers who infest the wretchedly stylish woods of an already decayed, pulped-out postmodernism." Aspiring painters have to ask themselves if they really want to reject so much of the interesting art made and enjoyed over the last 40 years, or win the favor of those who choose to turn their backs on it. If lots of viewers praise a work of art for living in the past, then maybe, regardless of its maker's intentions, that's really what it's doing. The meaning of a work of art lies partly in who likes it, how it gets used and the place it settles into in society at large.
More and more of today's artists have simply decided to sidestep all the risks that painting carries. There are artistic media out there that let them get most of the benefits of painting without having to face its problems. A recent tour through the museums and galleries of London showed a crowd of curators and dealers and artists happy to do without the safe rewards of oils and tradition. England, archetypal home of the walnut-paneled library, was until even a dozen years ago the place where painting had hunkered down, guaranteed an audience with heels dug in against most newer media. But even there, other options have now opened up.
When it comes to dealing with the stuff the world contains, why turn to paint when photography and video are near at hand? Paint will always seem to get in the way of what is being represented, like a kind of scrim thrown in front of subject matter. Every single figurative painting style, from almost-abstract brushiness to absolutely slick high realism, comes weighed down with a sense of how it has been used before. (And they've all been used before.) Each technique talks as loudly about the role it's played in history as about the things it's being used to represent today.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company