The ‘question’ of the role of painting in contemporary art practice is immediately and obviously read as a ‘question’ of segregation and isolation. It is true that painting is the black sheep of contemporary art practice. But it is also true that painting is the golden calf of the art market (probably one of the reasons why it’s the black sheep). Painting situates itself awkwardly between this confluence of art and money.


There are many reasons for this perceived segregation. We could even admit to ourselves, here and now, that panel discussions like ‘this’ one, are part of the perpetuation of such pariahism? By presenting painting as a singular activity, vying against the increasingly collective ideology of contemporary art practice, and its removal of the ‘hero artist’ – replaced instead by communitarian attitudes and principals – painting is indeed the black sheep among the white, pluralizing, communitarian flock. A white and glorious flock, the increasingly homogenised artworld speaks the same language (what we insiders term International Art English). This white flock understand one another‘s theoretical ventriloquism. The painter on the other hand jabbers on incessantly and incoherently to him or herself, allowing, now and then, for the painting to get a word in.


Bottom line, painters are responsible for themselves. Their aesthetic leaps. Their stopping and starting. Their own subjectivities with regard to what to paint, and what NEW forms or style to commit to. Even though we proclaim to have moved on from traditional and conventional ways of seeing and thinking about painting, the medium still represents all those old hat notions of individualism, style and skill. It doesn’t matter how abstract a painting gets, or how loud and clear its subject is pronounced, painting still rejects notions of communitarianism and tribalism. A painting still exists within its own frame, and its own historical ‘framing’. In an artworld built on the aesthetic and conceptual architecture of the curator, wherein the group show is the architecture of ‘preferred’ choice, the painter is not only the black sheep, but the misunderstood, adolescent black sheep, stubbornly wanting to be part of, and not part of a community of its own picking. While pissing everyone off by playing its music too loud in the thinly partitioned bedroom next door.


So, why don the role of painter exclusively? Well, as an art critic and someone who is compelled into action by art, painting does stuff to me that other art forms simply don‘t. It produces language that surprises and tongue-ties. Descriptors that make you remember or feel. Forms that do the same. Textures too. Painting reminds you that you are human, not all brain and unfinished sentences. Minus all the historical and conceptual underpinning to Wilhelm Sasnal’s paintings, I would still be engaged in the always surprising forms that he produces, and the subjectivities that assault the brain in front of his work.


In conclusion, painting’s role in contemporary art practice is to be that black sheep that I spoken of here today. Of course, painters now wear many coats. (Although valid and exciting in its own right, I am ignoring notions of ‘expanded painting’ in my response to the question of painting’s role in contemporary art, because I think the painted edge defines the anxiety of painting proper, while painted extensions beyond that edge create very different tensions). The argument that the Idea should come first and the Medium second, I will discount for the sake of argument. Why? Because it forces the very focused and concentrated activity of painting into a mere conceptual skin of its potentially layered THINGNESS. For me, paintings shoehorned into group shows filled with video and text art is like presenting contemporary art practices afflicted by measles or something just as nasty. In such group show scenarios, I’m always framing the painting with my hands to block out the encyclopedia of peripheral motion and noise. But, we all need a bull in a China shop (or black sheep on Crack if you can’t afford a bull) to create incoherencies. Painting’s purpose is to upset the white flock status quo in their Ivory/Babel Tower of esoteric understanding. Painting’s role is to reduce language to word soup so we can rebuild again with our eyes, not our mouths.


It seems that everyone affiliated with art were painters at one time or another, or dreamt of being one before they went to art college and grew up. I am an ex-painter (said as if admitting an addiction). Perhaps those painters that stayed the course haven’t grown up? Please Don’t!

26 April_2014_


‘Golden Calf, Black Sheep‘

The following text was read out before the panel discussion on the role of painting in contemporary art practice, on the occasion of Wilhelm Sasnal’s solo exhibition ‘Take Me To The Other Side’, at Lismore Castle Arts, 25 April, 3pm. Panelists: Brian Fay (DIT) James Merrigan (+billion- journal) and Katy Moran (artist).

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