Gemma Tipton’s Irish Times article ‘Painting is not dead – it’s hard’,[1] paints a picture of an Irish art readership that has just woken up in 1985, four years subsequent to Douglas Crimp’s essay ‘The End of Painting’ being published in October in 1981, and skateboard propelled Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is being towed by a pickup truck in Back to the Future. This four year gap gives us Irish, who are so-called literary not visual heads, enough time to digest what is happening in the artworld elsewhere ... Oh, I forgot, it’s 2012, and it seems that we’re still trying to get a handle on the “Death of...” No, I am not saying it!


Let’s get the excuses out of the way first for an article that is irrelevant at best and regressive at worst. It must be noted that The Irish Times editorial line for visual art is not progressive. There is also the excuse that the writer is planting seeds rather than theoretical trees for a readership that is not as well disposed to art discourse as it is economics. But, there is no excuse for the recycling of art generalities that are not expanded upon – edited down into teaspoon measures so infant readers can better digest.


Gemma Tipton’s opening paragraph with the line “Reports of the imminent death of painting as an art form in Ireland have been greatly exaggerated” has a similar ring to Roberta Smith’s opening paragraph in her recent New York Times review of the Cindy Sherman retrospective: “reports of the death of the author have been greatly exaggerated.”[2] What reports??? There has never been so much good painting, and so many shows by local and international painters in Dublin. Painting is everywhere; the soles of our feet are gloopy with the stuff. I wrote in response to Smith’s review earlier in the year, that such an opening line is a good hook in the first paragraph of an art review to get the hurried capitalist to read further.[3] But, at least Roberta Smith gradually builds her argument, trusting the New York readership’s intelligence, not spoon-feeding them, we even get some poststructuralist handbagging.


Gemma Tipton asks why is it that the Venice Biennale, dOCUMENTA, and our own eva International Limerick continue to exclude painting? The critic throws out the question but fails to expand, although The Royal Hibernian Academy Director Patrick Murphy does take up the critical reins with a beautiful turn of phrase “aesthetic esperanto,” which for me describes perfectly the international curator’s hankering for neapolitan cross-cultural artworks to head up what are grand socio-political soap operas. Other reasons why painting is the black sheep of the herd include the individualism (bad word) of painting vs the false ideologies of collective commons that saturates contemporary art discourse and making; but we already know what happens when you don’t hold your weight within such collective frameworks – YOU’RE GREECE! Also, there is the rise of the new theory driven curator and the theorisation of art education. Not to forget the universally relevant idiom ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’, which afflicts the art community and its institutions – forcing some to run before they can jog, or even walk in Irish art circles.


Bottom line, painting is not selected for Biennales because it simply doesn’t fit the socio-political framing of these events – this year’s Berlin Biennale didn’t just exclude painting, it excluded ART. But as Mark O’Kelly said to me recently, there is also the commercial value of painting, which has the added baggage of insurance and transportation: how easy is it to post a DVD, or even fly and accommadate an artist to do their stuff on site.


There have been exceptions to the norm, such as Juan Davilia’s brilliantly painted assaults on culture at dOCUMENTA 12 in 2007; Francis Alÿs’ choice to use painting exclusively to poetically communicate his view on national borders, globalism, and community at this year’s Documenta; and one of the more individualist painters of our time, Merlin James, who represented Wales at the 52nd Venice Biennale.


It has to be said that dOCUMENTA doesn’t ignore painting, but selects paintings that somehow fit the socio-political jigsaw of what is a brand of contemporary art that exists on the border of the more obvious commercial outlets of art gallery and art fair. Although not enough painting was present at dOCUMENTA 13, Giorgio Morandi, Etel Adnan and Yan Lei provided memorable moments. However, Jerry Saltz is right to mourn the staging of painting in the stark Documenta- Halle: ‘As I walked through this dead zone, I thought, “This is where painting goes to die.”’[4]


But does painting need the Biennale? When I said to the Berlin based Russian born painter Andreas Golder that I loved dOCUMENTA this year even though there was no painting – feeling that he needed an apology for its absence –, he replied: “Sure painting is not part of dOCUMENTA anymore.” It was said with a matter of fact attitude. From his point of view, it wasn’t a case of painting being excluded, but that painting was better off outside such curatorial ring-fencing. He’s right. Curators utilise painting in such art events as a dioramic device to place video, installation, photography in their ‘rightful’ place as successors of the old guard. Painting has literally become a framing device of historical rather than future importance.


Nevertheless, the highlight of the Berlin Biennale this year was the fact that the commercial galleries around Berlin cast some of their best artists, and painting came out on top. The fact is the Biennale and dOCUMENTA are not the fashion police, the art fair is, where painting still holds court. Money maybe painting’s mistress but that has always been a transparent fact.


Douglas Crimp’s description of painting as a vanity project on the part of its maker, and to his mind the viewer, suggests that creative endeavour is not generally self-indulgent (not human): be careful, the one’s that proclaim collectivity and community and commonality are the harbingers of vanity – they are just waiting for their chance to be propelled forward.


“Is anyone doing anything worthwhile on canvas?” Gemma Tipton asks in The Irish Times. I can’t elongate my neck far enough to get my head around the broadness of that question. First you have to ask what art is worthwhile? – a crick is already forming and I’m not even considering going there.


Also, the long-sited observation that a cohesive and confident bunch of painters is ten years away? (Mike FitzPatrick) THEY’RE HERE – NOW – IN THIS COUNTRY! We have a golden generation of twenty-, thirty-, forty-, fifty-something painters that are at the peak of their powers – “confident” and “cohesive” (It would inappropriate and reductive to make a list).


There are lots of critical seeds in Gemma Tipton’s article that could be expanded on to greater effect, mainly offered up by Patrick Murphy, such as his insightful observation that painting is “culturally specific” and counter to contemporary art’s ‘common’ ideology: there is an article there somewhere.


The continually resurrection of painting’s death  as discourse – a theoretical argument by an academic like Douglas Crimp who wanted to be heard beyond the ruins of the university – is absurd. Although Gemma Tipton says that painting is alive and kicking, it’s said without any conviction. Painting is happening, always happening. It doesn’t have a chronological trajectory, or peaks and troughs, as South African painter Marlene Dumas observes: “Painting doesn’t freeze time, it circulates and recycles time like a wheel that turns. Those who are first might well be last.” (‘Women and Painting’. 1993)


I haven’t picked this opinion off the ground, artists are talking about this article behind backs. Don’t get me wrong, provocation is good, but only if it generates new ideas, not recycled irrelevance. Gemma Tipton once wrote a blog entry for Circa Magazine online entitled ‘On Mediocrity’, do I have to spell out the irony.


Notes
[Nitpicking: Julian Schnabel hasn’t recently “turned to filmmaking” if his sixteen years of working in the medium is anything to go by, starting with Basquiat in 1996. There is also a need for expansion on Schnabel’s position as an artist, as there is a suggestion that he has “turned to filmmaking” and given up on painting. The fact is Schnabel is still one of the most significant painters working today, one of the better painting shows this year was Schnabel’s Deus Ex Machina at Contemporary Fine Arts Berlin.]
[1]    Gemma Tipton, ‘Painting is not dead – it’s just hard’, The Irish Times, August 18, 2012: [
http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/weekend/2012/0818/1224322366782. html]
[2]    Roberta Smith, ‘Photography’s Angel Provocateur’, New York Times, Feb 23, 2012: [
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/24/arts/design/cindy-sherman-at-museum-of-modern- art.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=cindy%20sherman&st=cse]
[3]    James Merrigan, ‘Subjectively Yours’, [
http://www.billionjournal.com/time/38.html]

[4]    Jerry Saltz, ‘Eleven Things That Struck, Irked, or Awed Me at Documenta13’ June 15, 2012, [http://www.vulture.com/2012/06/saltz-notes-on-documenta-13.html]

Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), Back to the Future (1985).

SEPTEMBER_2012_


A Deflated ‘Hooray’ for Painting

A Response to Gemma Tipton’s Irish Times article ‘Painting is not dead – it’s hard’

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