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Issue 16 May 1994 RSS

Behind a Painted Smile

Art

'Unbound' at the Hayward

This exhibition wears an easygoing smile, not a sly smirk. That in itself is refreshing. But as everyone knows, a smile can be worn to hide all manner of anxiety. If the initial mood at the Hayward is upbeat, in an offbeat kind of way, there is also a nervous edginess to it. There are 14 participants and an average of about five works each. The artists come from all over: Britain, mainland Europe, the US, Latin America. Several are migrants from one place or another, which may or may not count for anything. The work is big and small, very big and medium-sized, bright and pastel, thick and thin, abstract and figurative, monochrome and decorative, bland and garish, half and half, and somewhere in-between. It is mostly rectangular, as one might imagine, and predominantly self-conscious, which is also to be expected.

A self-conscious smile is never an innocent one, but then again it doesn’t necessarily prove guilt. A little embarrassment perhaps, a level of uncertainty, and a touch of shame, even. ‘Doubt’ is one of the words used in the catalogue essay. ‘Irony’ is another. Written by Adrian Searle who co-curated the exhibition with Greg Hilty, the text carries over much of the sort-of-relaxed-but-also-rather-edgy mood of the show. So does the hanging at the Hayward, which deliberately plays up the irregular and inconsistent-looking selection of work. The subtitle of the show is ‘Possibilities in Painting’, which certainly has a tentative ring to it. It aims to be suggestive rather than assertive. Nothing is singular; there are only currents, themes, possibilities, doubts. The exhibition has nothing of the aggressive triumphalism of the Royal Academy’s ‘New Spirit in Painting’ of a decade ago, which is something to be grateful for. At a stretch it would be possible to replace the artists exhibited with 14 others and still have the same catalogue - the same exhibition even - and in one sense at least this would do more to confirm the curators’ claims than contradict them.

‘Irony’ has to carry a lot of luggage these days. ‘Doubt’ is one of the few things we seem to feel at all certain about. These terms are markers of what is widely assumed to be a crisis in painting, a crisis which itself marks or coincides with some kind of boundary between the modern and the postmodern. ‘We are all post-modernists these days’ says Searle, although not without a touch of irony. That there has been or is some ongoing crisis in painting is fairly widely accepted; whether we in the late 20th century have the monopoly on irony and doubt is a rather different matter. Part of the problem is that so much of what is claimed as defining the character of the postmodern - quotation, parody, scepticism, inauthenticity, pastiche and so on - is equally evident in much of what is canonically modern or modernist. ‘Manet was the first modernist’ said Greenberg, and where can you find a better quoter or ironist than the painter of Olympia? It is all but impossible to conceive of the hundred years of art after Manet without finding a consummate ironist, parodist or sceptic at every turn. Think of Picabia’s mechanamorphic portraits, or of Tzara’s instructions for how to write poetry - an exercise in pure randomness at the end of which he notes: ‘And there you are - an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd’.1 Or, taking it a bit further, consider Baudelaire’s use of irony, or Conrad’s, or Joyce’s, or Marx’s, or William Blake’s. Evidence in art of irony and doubt is not enough to distinguish our now from their then. That is not to say there are no differences, just that it may be necessary to look somewhere else to find them.

Certainly a lot of artists stopped painting some time during the 60s and turned to other media or away from art entirely. Many arguments have been put forward to account for this. It is said that it coincided with the moment at which the historical avant-garde became thoroughly institutionalised; when advanced painting began to propel you into the academy rather than away from it; when modernism became the official culture; and when the official culture had become increasingly coercive and increasingly desperate. It also coincided with the advent in painting of the ‘monochrome’, itself an attempt (in part) to keep painting beyond the expansive reach of the academy. And there was the very practical question of how to ‘advance’ painting beyond this point. From Rauschenberg in 1951 to Richter in the mid-60s/early 70s, (via Yves Klein, Fontana, Ryman, Charlton, and the ‘degree zero’ paintings of Buren, Mosset, Toroni, et al.) the flat, uniform, all-over, opaque surface became a kind of eye-of-the-needle through which painting had to pass - and come out either redundant, reinforced or transformed into something else in the process.

The monochrome stood as a kind of apotheosis of high modernism, but also perhaps its nemesis, as Greenberg noted in his famous (and semi-ironic) aside about the potential of a blank canvas to be a successful work of art. In Robert Rauschenberg’s case the monochrome seems to have abolished the picture plane’s potential for the creation of illusory space, and established it as an actual surface onto which things could literally be attached. Painting lost the illusion of three dimensions and took to these dimensions literally. For Gerhard Richter the monochrome faced the painter as a Beckett-like reminder of painting’s redundancy: ‘At first when I painted a few canvases grey I did so because I did not know what I should paint or what there might be to paint, and it was clear to me when I did this that such a wretched starting point could only lead to nonsensical results.’ ‘But’, he continued, ‘in time I noticed differences in the quality between the grey surfaces and also that these did not reveal anything of the destructive motivation. The pictures began to instruct me.‘2 In this case it is the artist more than the artwork which is transformed by the monochrome, and he comes to see - literally to see - possibilities in painting which were impossible to conceive. For Joseph Kosuth, on the other hand, something rather less dialectical happened when faced with the near- but not-quite-monochrome canvases of Ad Reinhardt. These were no more nor less than ‘the completion of the project of painting’.3 Henceforth for Kosuth advanced art would take place elsewhere and in different materials.

The monochrome exists as a memory in much painting today - usually as a compromised memory or as a quotation - and this is consciously acknowledged by many of the artists in this exhibition. ‘Actual’ monochromes are made by two of the more senior artists, Olivier Mosset and Imi Knoebel, both of whose work was born of that critical moment in the 60s. Zebedee Jones, an artist much younger than the monochrome tradition itself, either contributes to or comments on that tradition by overloading his small canvases with a measured excess of greasy grey-green or grey-blue paint. In the paintings of Fiona Rae and Jonathan Lasker, the monochrome becomes a motif quoted amongst a greater or lesser number of other motifs of 20th century ‘mark making’. Even Gary Hume’s new semi-figurative paintings, in their hard all-over gloss finish, carry a trace of his earlier monochrome ‘door’ paintings, in spite of their strident colour combinations. In fact there are only two painters in the exhibition whose work bears no self-conscious trace of the legacy of abstraction - Juan Davila and Paula Rego. Not that these artists lack self-consciousness; just that their self-consciousness is given a different kind of emphasis, one which, for better or worse, isn’t filtered through the lens of modernist painting.

In quotation, parody, pastiche and so forth, the idea of the authentic expressive self is also subject to ironic scrutiny. Nowhere in the exhibition (except perhaps in the light abstractions of Raoul De Keyser) is painting the ‘unqualified act’ that Harold Rosenberg once championed. Everywhere instead there is, as Benjamin Buchloh put it, ‘the spectacle of painting made visible in its rhetoric.’ The figurative paintings as much as the abstract ones inhabit the land of the ‘always already represented’. Michael Krebber’s figures, still-lives and painterly calligraphy have a studied carelessness, even a kind of copyist’s boredom about them, which is enough to kill off any sense of expressionist urgency or directness. In their schematised shapes, flat colours, low relief details and decorator’s finish, Gary Hume’s portraits seem to deny, or to denounce, any thought of spatial or psychological depth. Luc Tuymans’ small canvasses are in a different, far less nihilistic register, and exhibit some sense of pleasure in the image; but it is still the image as a kind of found object, a disconnected fragment which may be quoted but which will never rejoin the narrative from which it was sundered. Peter Doig’s large landscapes suggest an autobiographical narrative (inasmuch as some of them appear to be derived from photograph albums), but they are subject to a form of technical overload, a painterly noise which threatens to extinguish the image at the moment it is summoned up.

The idea that we can no longer speak directly, only adopt voices that have spoken previously, serves to link the most abstract and the most figurative work in the exhibition. Indeed the act of quotation renders the distinctions between ‘abstract’ and ‘figurative’ largely redundant. A Cézanne apple or a Pollock drip are equal icons in the parodist’s vocabulary; a quotation of abstract art is not abstract. But again, it is dangerous to assume a simple division between our present and their past in terms of their unqualified authenticity and our own deeply compromised inauthenticity. Max Ernst had talked at length about the ‘death of the author’ in the 20s; what Picasso admired most about Cézanne was his ‘doubt’; and so on.

Perhaps the argument (in general, not specifically in this exhibition) is that back then they had irony in amongst other things, whereas now irony is all we have left. This formulation sounds unbelievably complacent, and in any case, if it were somehow true, how could we possibly know it when any such notion of ‘truth’ has been abolished? Irony, as I understand it, is not the language of knowing better, it is the language of deep uncertainty. To say irony is all we have left is to say it is no longer possible to be taken by surprise, to have our expectations confounded. The whole history of art simply contradicts that claim. It may even be that what differentiates our present from their past is in fact a loss of irony, or a weakening of its effect. Take Conrad for example. Irony for him was never a matter merely of quoting the cultural mannerisms of his age. Rather it was an instrument for cutting into the dark heart of the European psyche. Irony was about life and death, not a device for avoiding such embarrassing themes. Perhaps the problem is that irony has become the conventional mode of address: art criticism now uses irony like a comfort-blanket. If uncertain or in doubt, we call it ironic, and if we call it ironic, then it will be made safe. I even read one critic’s embarrassed attempt to justify his predilection for Agnes Martin’s work on the grounds of its withering ‘irony’. It’s a strange world indeed when irony is used to abolish doubt.

1. Tristan Tzara, ‘To make a dadaist poem’, Seven Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries, London, 1977, p.39

2. Gerhard Richter, ‘Notes 1966-1990’, Gerhard Richter, Tate gallery (exhibition catalogue), London, 1991, p.112

3. Joseph Kosuth, ‘Eye’s limits’, A. Reinhardt J. Kosuth F. Gonzalez-Torres, Camden Arts Centre (exhibition catalogue), London, 1994, p.47

David Batchelor


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First published in
Issue 16, May 1994

by David Batchelor

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