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Book Review: Painting – Documents of Contemporary Art

Painting – Documents of Contemporary Art. Edited by Terry R. Myers. 240 pages. Whitechapel Gallery.
In his introduction Myers quotes painter Paul Delaroche’s proclamation on first seeing a daguerreotype (the first commercially successful photographic process) in 1839: “From today painting is dead.”  The periodic death of painting and its perpetual rebirth is the essential theme in Painting. Myers has selected essays, interviews and statements written in the last thirty years that best reflect the leitmotif of the book: Painting is dead; but in fact not.
It begins with Douglas Crimp’s essay ‘End of Painting’ written in 1980. Crimp promoted the then new prominence of photography by discarding painting. While the debate is old now, it set a premise for discourse for the past 30 years. It comes as no surprise that photography remains a central concern throughout the book, and although for Crimp it may have overtaken painting in the late 70s, painting continued to find new avenues and appearances.
The death of painting has always been accompanied by its constant revival in the form of photography, video, installation and conceptual art. Many of the texts in this book take on this expanded field of painting. A good example would be Daniel Birnbaum’s contribution, “Where is painting now?” Referring to Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Green River’ project, Birnbaum questions the nature of the project – is it a performance, an urban happening or a gigantic painting?
In another essay titled ”Photo-unrealism,” Howard Halle refers to Andreas Gursky’s magnificent, large- scale photographs as paintings, suggesting that painting can be a philosophical stance that does not always involve paint. Whether the expansion of painting is an act of desperation or simply a rejection of outdated ideas remains an unresolved debate. And yet painting, in its traditional form, still exists and is widely practiced across the globe. Can we then assume that not all painting is art? And if that is the case, what qualifies as a painting?
Meyer Raphael Rubinstein’s 1991 essay, “The Painting Undone,” delves into the historical aspects of how we look at paintings. He refers to a group of artists in France during the 1970’s called the ‘Supports/ Surfaces’, who were concerned with the “problem” of painting:  that most artists had little regard for their medium. They made it their job to use painting to “show what was hidden” by deconstructing each element. On the contrary, Jeremy Gilbirt Rolfe in his 1996 essay “Cabbages, Raspberries and Video’s Thin Brightness” cites the work of a few artists whose paintings are, in fact, informed by videos and technology, such as Nancy Haynes whose works are conventional in the truest sense – till the lights are out and the paintings start to glow in the dark, bringing into the works other forms of comparison.
Painting draws us to conclude that the indefinable relationship between art and painting consists in two realms:  to paint only if the idea or concept allows it, or else venture into different genres; or use only paint to explore ideas, making the medium in essence the concept. The fact of the matter is, there is no right way, and, as Myers concludes, if painting remains important today, it is because these contradictions have been acknowledged.
Seher Naveed is a Fine Art senior lecturer at the Indus Valley School of Art and has shown at local and international group exhibitions.

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