Painting: Documents of Contemporary Art


Painting: Documents of Contemporary Art

Painting (word and act) has probably undergone more attempts at reinvention than any other means of visual expression. In many ways it seems that when

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Painting (word and act) has probably undergone more attempts at reinvention than any other means of visual expression. In many ways it seems that when painting is discussed today or approached in a pragmatic or hypothetical way, what is really being faced is a ghost or chimera. Assumed dead around the time of the daguerreotype’s birth (Paul Delaroche is credited with the original obituary, a dramatic and despairing “From today, painting is dead!”), painting has, nonetheless, survived in alternative, obstinate, surreptitious forms, finally experiencing a major resuscitation in the 1980s. Surveying this revival and the “story of the perpetual cycle of its deaths and rebirths in the face of photography, conceptual art, installation, digital imaging technologies, the world wide web, or plain lack of interest”[1], Whitechapel Gallery, in collaboration with the MIT Press, have produced Painting, one instalment in an ongoing series titled Documents of Contemporary Art.

The series brings together texts by artists, writers, critics on various themes and tenets vital to the making and critique of contemporary art. There are publications exploring Memory, Ruins, Appropriation, Beauty, Time, and Sound, among others. Painting, published in 2011, is introduced and edited by critic and curator Terry R. Myers. Myers borrows from a journal entry by Delacroix for his essay’s title – “What has already been said about painting is still not enough”, a generous hint at the spirit of most of the texts that follow. Ranging from discursive essays on painting to interviews of painters to screenplays of films about painters, Myers’ picks are thorough and eccentric. There is sufficient content for the mutinous and the disbelieving as well as the avid traditionalist and the sincere mourner.

Mira Schor, for example, discusses painting by emphasising the need for its reception to be tactile as well as optical – more so at present when it is, she believes, being relegated to the entrepreneurial designs of critics and curators.  She writes, in Course Proposal, “Since one is dealing with a type of blindness, I would suggest a kind of Braille in which paintings are actually to be touched…And because, in the precise moment of actually painting, the painter, no matter how intellectual or conceptual, is engaged in a non-verbal activity.” An inability to understand painting at a visceral level, and independently of what art history expounds, leads to what she terms the “P.I.S (Painting Illiteracy Syndrome)” and “P.D.S (Painting Deprivation Syndrome)”, and her essay is a wry treatise on how to prevent or cure these.

There is an excerpt from a conversation between Keith Seward and American painter John Currin who has, despite painting’s shaky contemporary existence, made it so far with adages and tools from painting’s firmer past. The part of the interview Myers chose to include in the book deals with the role of irony in contemporary painting. “Is your work ironic?”, asks Seward. Currin’s contemplative answer surveys irony by looking at the idea of labelling art: “A semiotician would say that the entire world is ironic, that it’s about understanding where the misapplied labels are, that the very idea of a label describing something is a lie anyway. It seems to me that great art always makes you feel like there isn’t a misapplied label.” Right there is a musing that could serve the dichotomous relationship between word and image in the contemporary art milieu.

Then there is Marlene Dumas’ disconcertingly autobiographical and disconcertingly ubiquitous poem Woman and Painting that, much like her work itself, brings the act of painting and the associations it evokes back to the privacy and the sanctity of the easel in the studio. “Painting doesn’t freeze time,” she writes, “It circulates and recycles time like a wheel that turns. Those who were first might well be last. Painting is a very slow art. It doesn’t travel with the speed of light. That’s why dead painters shine so bright.” Words like Dumas’, that place painting on quiet and hallowed ground, are put alongside texts like Lee Ufan’s Robots and Painters and Ulrike Groos’ On Paul McCarthy: Painter, texts that interrogate or satirise a painter’s relationship with or ownership of painting.

With this carefully and, at points, playfully compiled anthology, Myers ensures that as much of the “infinite variety” of contemporary painting as possible is covered; all its nuances and folds, its longevity, its ephemera, are reviewed and compared. What ultimately does set it apart from other surveys of contemporary painting is this heterogeneity of selection. A number of the texts included touch upon painting indirectly only (and so perhaps work better at redefining it). Fragments from Julian Schnabel’s screenplay for the 1996 film Basquiat, for example, and from Jim Shaw’s inventory of paintings found in thrift stores, offer definitions of painting that are original and offbeat, reinforcing Myers’ claim to have attempted to take on the “expanded field” of painting through this book.

Painting (Whitechapel: Documents of Contemporary Art), edited by Terry R. Myers, Paperback, 240 pp, 2011. Published by The MIT Press.

Dua Abbas Rizvi is a visual artist and writer based in Lahore, Pakistan.

[1]Terry R. Myers, What has already been said about painting is still not enough, Painting; Documents of Contemporary Art (Whitechapel Gallery and the MIT Press, 2011), p.12