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.
Art made with a camera, on the other hand, can at least pretend to give a more direct view of things than that. Outside the art world, we all still use photos just to talk about the stuff we see around us: To show the wreck a car crash leaves; to show the way that people dance in places far away. However naive it may be, we imagine that cameras can simply show us things as they are. By using cameras to make art, artists can tap into that Missourian tradition in ways that paint, now hopelessly wrapped up in artiness and divorced from daily use, could never let them do.
Last month, in a little gallery called Ibid Projects in London's down-at-heels East End, Maria Bustnes of Norway showed a video that was the ultimate in artistic show-and-tell. Bustnes projected straight-ahead, black-and-white documentary footage of a rock band called Chilimango from Lund, Sweden. The group is made up entirely of barely adolescent girls. In a charming video interview about their future prospects, shown in the gallery's back room, the members insist they have no intention of breaking up -- at very least until the end of middle school. Bustnes' video simply shows these squeaky-clean rockers, dressed in pressed jeans and tidy pullovers, covering Mick Jagger's famous "Paint It Black," and in the process managing to sanitize it as completely as could be.
The band members' sweet and sober concentration is exactly what you'd expect if they were rehearsing in a string quartet, rather than trying to be Rolling Stones. And indeed, they might as well be playing violins: In Sweden, schools and the local community promote rock music the way some parents get their kids to tinkle out Mozart.
Bustnes' piece looks at how the meaning of art -- including what was once the anti-art of rock-and-roll -- changes over time and across space, gender, age and culture.
An art form that was once about the bad-boy rebellion of the British working class -- itself derived from the musical expression of a racial underclass in the United States -- becomes a sanctioned form of cultural expression among the girls of Sweden's bourgeoisie. In their interview, the band members even complain about being asked to look glum for a newspaper photo shoot, as though they can't see the connection between rock-and-roll and angst.
And no suite of paintings could ever connect as directly with the contemporary reality that Chilimango comes wrapped up in as Bustnes' video can. By trawling the world for resonant, telling particularities it does a classic job that painting used to do, without having to deal with all the baggage painting now brings with it.
So much for the simple presentation of reality. How about painting's special ability to tweak reality as it gets documented, even to build entirely new worlds for us? Another London show proved that video can match that, too. At the elegant Serpentine Gallery, in the venerable heart of Kensington Gardens -- a favorite haunt of many old-time watercolorists -- a group show of younger artists included a recent work by Christian Jankowski, who's based in Berlin and New York. Like Bustnes' piece at Ibid, Jankowski's video, called "Puppet Conference," seemed to be a straightforward documentary. It was structured like your standard C-SPAN coverage of a panel or public commission, with experts sitting at a dais and taking turns expounding to an attentive audience. The only difference was that Jankowski's panelists were all famous puppets -- from "Sesame Street's" Grover to the execrably cute Lamb Chop -- whose comments, on the canned topic of "the state of puppetry in the mass media," were only approved after much wrangling between Jankowski and the corporate owners of the puppets' copyright. The piece was subtle and complex, going from broad humor to biting satire -- on public intellectuals, on our ideas of childhood, on corporate views of art and artists and free speech -- to fully surreal moments. And not a drop of turpentine was used to make the thing.
Back again in the East End, in a converted concrete shed just a little way from Ibid, I visited the artist-run Keith Talent Gallery. (It's named after a character in the Martin Amis novel "London Fields," whose title refers to the famously rough neighborhood that surrounds the gallery.) Here there was more video, this time doing yet slightly different work that painting used to do so well -- back when it was still our crucial means for dealing with the world we see.
The gallery's courtyard featured a projection by British artist Anthony Shapland, showing static footage of the top of a street lamp shot in soft, grainy color. Over the course of many minutes, we got to watch the lamp come on as the evening sky behind went dark. Once the lamp was fully lit, the scene cut to the early dawn; now we got to hear birds singing their morning songs, see the sky begin to lighten and watch the lamp turn off. These were little haiku glimpses of the neglected everyday, as full of poetry as any classic landscape painting rendering the English countryside at dawn or dusk. But by avoiding the easy appeal of Olde Englysh oil paint, Shapland keeps that poetry alive and current, instead of letting it become a thick brocade of poetastery. Every modern landscape done in oils inevitably has embedded in it a touch of "hark!" and "lo!" and " 'twas" that video can still avoid.
Video can even play with old ideas about abstraction, while giving them new life. In the main gallery at Keith Talent, Londoner Richard Birkett showed an installation that included a monitor showing some kind of deadly-dull administrative meeting, shot in a messy little office that looked like it belonged to a starving neighborhood association. There was no hint of poetry in sight, nothing to engage the eye or mind. And then, on an awkward bit of wall behind a droning committee member, a broad stripe of intense red light slowly hummed its way from floor to ceiling.
With a tiny moment of computer tweakery, Birkett inserts abstraction right into the fabric of the world at its most boring, bringing new energy to both abstraction and the gray reality that he's imposed it on.
There are, of course, some things that camera arts can't do that painting can. A video or photograph can never beckon to our sense of touch the way a thickly painted picture can. Many people love the fleshiness of paint, and the way its mess evokes the messy bodies that we all live in. In the 20th century, fleshy paint was a particular specialty of heroic British painters such as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach. On this trip to London, however, I saw at least one piece of art that worked in that tradition without bothering with palette or brush.
In a current group show at the Tate Britain called "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" -- dedicated to three of those famous Young British Artists, now no longer quite so young or so distinctly British -- Londoner Damien Hirst presented a circular, all-black canvas he called "Night Falls Fast." It had all the qualities of brooding expressionism that great modern painting has sought.
It managed to evoke the world-weary pessimism of a Bacon, the suicidal gloom of a Mark Rothko and the ascetic reticence of one of Ad Reinhardt's black-on-black abstractions. But rather than using paint to make its points -- and risking the facile traditionalism that goes along with that -- Hirst's crepuscular canvas was covered edge-to-edge with a thick goop of dead blue-bottle flies. Why use genteel paint to point a discreet finger at the darker side of things when you can put that darkness on the wall for all to see? Painting may or may not be dead, but Hirst presents it as a useful breeding ground for bugs.
Of course not every show in London gave painting a miss: An art market would have to be nuts to cut painting right out, especially in Britain.
Maureen Paley Interim Art, a leading gallery best known for showing photographs and videos by challenging artists like Wolfgang Tillmans and Gillian Wearing, had an exhibition by young Scottish painter Kaye Donachie. Her pictures, mostly in muddy blacks and olives contrasted with streams of incandescent yellow light, showed groups of teens hanging out in forest clearings or huddled in caves. Like many of today's best painters, Donachie uses a spare technique derived from advertising art of the 1960s -- just about the last time painting had a role to play beyond the gallery.
At first glance, Donachie's pictures could almost be ads for cigarettes or beauty products, targeted at the same long-haired teens she represents in them. The yellow light that fills Donachie's forest clearings has an advertiser's optimism to it, recalling the way businesses once used flower power to sell shampoo. No advertiser, however, could tolerate the adolescent anomie that also fills Donachie's pictures: She shows what a hippie-chic commune looks like at its end, when utopian dreams have to confront reality.
Donachie probably couldn't have used photography or video to get the same effects. She needed to set up the potential prettiness of painting, its cheery nostalgia and even its former ties to advertising culture, before she could shine her acid-yellow light of doubt on it. Painting has a special meaning in our culture's history, and contemporary painting can -- always has to -- comment on what that history can mean to us, as Donachie's pictures do.
Of course now that painting is always about other paintings first, and only then about the world, it doesn't have the larger import that it used to have. There used to be a class of painters known as "painters' painters." Now that's true of everyone who wields a brush to good effect.
Donachie's paintings looked good, and had a quiet eloquence, but their ambitions seemed to pale beside the unpainted art that London had on show. The camera has become the tool that brings the world to us, and this can leave an oil-covered canvas without much work to do. In today's art world, a painting can become a safe loss-leader for less hallowed forms of art. It can seem to rest on laurels won by paintings that have come before, rather than competing in the world of fresh ideas.