Irish artist Damien Flood first drew my attention to Raphael Rubinstein’s article ‘Provisional Painting’[1] for the periodical Art in America (first published: 04.05.2009).* My first reaction to the article was a double-barreled, locked and loaded—‘what?’ and ‘So what!’ But as time drew on what the American critic was saying seemed to offer more than was first dismissed as—here we go again, another attempt to catagorise the ‘anything goes’ of contemporary painting. What Rubinstein observed about painting in the article was nothing new. The discussion around what he referred to as “provisional painting” was built on the notion of a particular way of applying paint, which questioned the very idea of a ‘finished’ artwork. What Rubinstein’s article did manage to reveal is that such sweeping statements that try to categorise what is a very complex genus of the artworld, are good for the jaded discourse that has followed the medium since the early ’80s: but “sweeping statement” it still remains.

Rubinstein's ‘sweeping’ began with the five painters he selected to prove his thesis: Raoul De Keyser, Albert Oehlen, Christopher Wool, Mary Heilmann, Michael Krebber; with Richard Tuttle, Martin Kippenberger, and Joan Miró mentioned in passing. Alluding to the Catalan artist Miró, Rubinstein gives us a clear definition of what he means by provisional painting: “I think the source of Miró’s daring, and the reason why his work is so close to what I’m calling ‘provisional painting,’ resides in his rejection of the idea of a finished, durable work.”[2] There is something very unsatisfying about the placement of the punk-conceptualist painters, Wool, Krebber, Oehlen, with the light, painterly lyricism of Mary Heilmann and Raoul De Keyser. It is true that they are all what I would describe as, ‘cognitive misers’, but their relationships with painting seems, at face-value at least, very divergent, in both approach and conceptual outcome. Heilmann and De Keyser insouciant brushstrokes cover up a deeply ingrained formalist manifesto of their generation—“It's all about the paint.” Whereas as Wool, Krebber, Oehlen are more brutalist in their approach, placing any obstacle they can find in front of the ‘canvas’ to interrupt and erase any potential of ‘painter’s painter’ idolatry.

Rubinstein's provisional painting thesis seems to be another ‘vain’ attempt to label something that is inherent in most painting practices that have reached a certain maturity. Although a sweeping generalisation all of my own, painters do gradually become more casual in painterly approach when they hit their thirties? As teenagers we fill the page from edge-to-edge—the Chapman brothers relive this adolescent trait over and over again in their model installations – but through experience this condition of ‘packing’ the canvas seems less important to most of us who make and view paintings. The reason for such casual and ‘unfinished’ painting methodology is to be found in what Rubinstein calls a growing “foundational skepticism,” but as Polish artist Wilhelm Sasnal admits, its also “about not boring oneself.”[3]

Rubinstein doesn’t consider ‘taste’ as part of his thesis, as in the personal taste of the artist making the work, and his/ her being conditioned to be ‘tasteful’, i.e. how the rest of the world responds to the painter’s language is a defining factor in how a painter evolves their personal taste? Perhaps, a better question is: is taste learnt? There is also the fact that as artists mature ‘language’ and ‘experience’ condition how they break down their evolving/devolving painting language, particularly painters that skirt the border between subject, object, and figuration in their work. If something reminds the painter of an explicit object, or references another painter’s language, do they not feel the need to cover this up, to find something that ‘personalises’ it for them, that sets them apart, so not to represent the ‘personality’ of another artist: the worst thing you can say to a painter is—it reminds me of so and so. I know it sounds flakey but I firmly believe that painters, more that any other artists, become their work: what Isabelle Graw calls “quasi-persons”[4].

CHRIS MARTIN             Bread Painting





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