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Issue 12 September-October 1993 RSS

The Broken Mirror

Kunsthalle Wein and Vienna Festival,, Vienna, Austria

Painting goes in and out of focus. Sometimes it is invisible, but still it’s there. Arguments against it are largely a matter of theoretical opportunism or fashion and fashion, though fun, is piffle. With the theory (the theory of your choice) you can substantiate or denigrate anything. Theory gives you something to think about while you’re making art, and stops you getting anxious when you look at other people’s. For many, theory becomes a substitute for thinking, and declines into dogma, at its worst, a dogma with totalitarian tendencies. At least, that’s my theory. Painting occupies a mysterious position, and continues to exert a peculiar fascination, and it goes on, despite, and also perhaps because of all the attacks upon it.

Curated by Kasper Königh and Hans-Ulrich Obrist,The Broken Mirroris a big painting show with a fat catalogue (In German, with no available translation). Why painting? Why now? Surely it’s over? But dark whispers from the art world suggest that painting isn’t dead again, and is going to be very big in the 90s. The audience is tired of tripping over installed objects, there’s no room for any more sculpture and even the video is on the blink. And yet, as a New York gallerist told me recently, ‘for younger artists, painting is no longer the medium of choice.”

So what are all those people doing with their canvases and brushes and painterly ointments: no one’s forcing them to paint. Most of it might bot be very good, but then most art, most of the time, isn’t very good, whatever the medium of choice. Imagination and invention are always in short supply.

Perhaps what we are heading for is Painting – the backlash. There’s no new spirit, no intimation of heady dreams, no overarching methodology, no dominant style or sense of a Zeitgeist of the moment. While The Broken Mirror is something of an anthology of current practice, it makes no claims for itself as a pointer to the Next Big Thing. It is possible that there won’t be a Next BIg Thing. Messy rather than encyclopaedic, largely Eurocentric, and – with the exception of Lisa Milroy and expat Malcolm Morley – absent of British artists, the show (on two sites in Vienna, though to be shown in Hamburg on one) is a catalogue of big names and relative unknowns. There are curiosities, calamities and fabulous moments. And it is a real dog’s dinner of a hang. All of which, I suppose, is intentional, as though the confusion of the exhibition is meant as an index of the perceived confusion within painting itself.

But what kind of mind, and what kind of eye, could possibly double-hang tow paintings by Malcolm Morley – a lurid first World War dogfight, skied above a painting of a harbourside bait and tackle store (both paintings filled with exhilarating and brutal internal disjunctions) - right beside a grandiose whiteness-of-the-whale Robert Ryman? Agnes Martin gets a little temple all to herself, as does Eugéne Leroy, while others, such as Eohlen and Clemente, are bunged into corners (some are not bunged far enough, to my mind). The introspective, the querulous, the mad and the bad are forced to fight things out in public. Hierarchies are scrambled and conspicuous effort has been spent in splitting up cliques of the like-minded. Mind you, few nowadays are like-minded with a painted such as Philip Akkerman, a Dutchman who paints a self-portrait a day. Whether he portrays himself wearing a cowboy hat or a sailor’s cap, a triby or a bobble hat he still looks like a miserable Alex Cox in every one.

The Broken Mirror is just another survey show with pretentious. If the art isn’t fashionable, at least the exhibition tries to be, with its refusal of stylistic imperatives, its imploded viewpoints and wacky mismatches. What are a pair of no-hoper4s like Edward Dwurnick and Michael Back doing in a face-out with Gerhard Richter? Ah – Got it! Realism! But the viewer would be mistaken to assume that the exhibition has a discernible thesis, or that its juxtapositions perform any useful purpose, apart from pressing the individual works into service as illustration of disjunction itself. On these terms we shall soon be talking about the Royal Academy Summer Show as a triumph of theatrical deconstruction (Why not? Next year the RA should invite Christian Leigh to hang the show). The 40-odd artist (double that, if one is to count the authors of the thrift-store paintings collected together as Jim Shaw’s wonderful contribution)are painting alone, and it is only the overblown scope of The Broken Mirror that turns them all into props and stand-ins for attitudes. Instead of dialogue, we get babble.

Hence it is the ostensibly quieter works, those which resist theatricalisation, and whose internal structures militate against immediate assimilation and stylistic train-spotting, which succeed the best. Or is it simply that some are so small you have to get in close, and intimacy with individual works allows one to forget that one is standing in a great hall amongst the chosen?

The internal processes of painting, its false movements, revisions, disclosures, cancellations and discoveries resist the trumped-up charges laid against the medium. The best works have a certain resistance: They resist the idea that painting is just something flat but lumpy to hang on the wall. They resist the notion that printing is just a long-winded way of producing an image, or that it is just about the dumbest kind of object that anyone ever came up with. A painting is not just an image, not quite an object(or it is an object so laden with cultural meanings that it can never simply be perceived as physical). Painters like Raoul de Keyser, Luc Tuymans, Helmut Federle, Marlene Dumas, René Daniels, Mary Heilmann and Dick Bengtsson stand out precisely because they have understood the peculiarity of painting, the haven of its marginality, its apparent uselessness, the creative pressures of its historical overlead, the irony to being defunct, dysfunctional and mesmerising. A painting is nearly nothing, but like a reflection in a mirror it exerts and enormous fascination. The mirror isn’t broken: instead of shards we simply have more mirrors.

Adrian Searle

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First published in
Issue 12, September-October 1993

by Adrian Searle

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