‘Painting’. The title seemed so simple. ‘This is a show,’ it seemed to say, ‘about painting with paintings in it.’ Not the end of painting, or the problems of painting, or painting with a question mark after it (we’ve seen a few of those in recent years), but ‘Painting’. An artistic practice that exists. No questions asked. Certainly, this exhibition at Galerie Konrad Fischer was about painting, and it did have paintings in it. But what was so odd, and fascinating, was that the works it brought together were the kind that are often considered the practice’s last haunt: a Conceptualism bordering on Minimalism. In the work of the three artists shown here, ‘Painting’ was uttered affirmatively at a moment when no one is sure what it means.
The show comprised works by Ilse D’Hollander, Charlotte Posenenske and Jessica Warboys – three female artists, something that should be noted, since women are so rarely grouped together under an ungendered title. Together, these artists presented a sort of history of Conceptual painting: Posenenske symbolizing the 1960s, D’Hollander personifying the 1990s and Warboys the present.
Heading up the stairs in Fischer’s wonderful two-storey space, one moved from Posenenske’s experimental knife scratchings and D’Hollander’s deceptively quiet oil paintings on the first floor to Warboys’s outsized pigmented canvases on the top floor. Mainly known for her sculptures, Posenenske’s ‘Palette-Knife Works’, made over the span of a few years in the late 1950s, feel like experiments: paint scratched onto Masonite boards in staccato bursts, applied unevenly and divided without balance, they seek the limits of painting, deconstructing conventional practices while demonstrating the inadequacy of alternative ones. In one work from 1959, for instance, paint does not so much seem to have been applied onto the Masonite, as carved out of it. It is as if the artist has been hacking away, layer after layer, in search of something she would not find. The colours overlap and fuse, but the scratches are hard and rigid, separating forms, strokes and levels. What we are shown is not the smooth, living, end-result, but the struggle to make dead materials speak. Indeed, Posenenske’s struggle here produces no single representative voice; but it cries out all the louder for it.
D’Hollander’s exceptional small oil paintings, by contrast, appeared at first sight to be oases of calm. Her compositions are clear; the lines are straight but soft, the colours pastel-like. There is a sense of order, of smooth categorization. But appearances are deceptive. In Untitled (1996), for example, the lines are never entirely straight, the borders always porous, ready to be infringed upon and invaded. The pastel palette is disrupted by patches, or blocks really, of dark brown, green and black – all of it almost imperceptible yet perfectly obvious. Everything is unapologetically unaccounted for. These minor irregularities achieve two things: on the one hand they suggest that these worlds – the worlds, perhaps, of the painter, who committed suicide at a young age – are simultaneously isolated and part of a larger implied but unavailable whole; on the other hand, they show that painting, the act of taking a brush, dipping it in oil paint and moving it across the canvas, is both ill-equipped and, because of its limits, particularly capable of presenting this tension.
The top floor was decorated with Warboys’s impressive Sea Paintings Dunwich 1 and 2, alongside a small sculpture (Kite Kite, Green, all 2012). The artist applied pigments onto the five-metre-wide canvases, which she then placed in the sea, leaving the salty waves to distribute the colours. The effect is a magical world of mysterious rhythms and alternative shapes and patterns. They remind you of something, but something that you have not yet experienced.
By way of its selection of artists and the positioning of their work, ‘Painting’ plotted an alternative history of the medium – one that has not ended. On the contrary. Seeing Warboys’s work in relation to that of D’Hollander and Posenenske, it became something more than itself, a symbol, a sign of the future. In Sea Paintings, painting is no longer the sole custodian of the art work. It is incredibly important, but no longer the only captain. For Warboys, painting becomes one of the many skippers, speaking in the multiple voices of Posenenske and the avant-garde, presenting the silent tension of D’Hollander and Postmodernism, but never exclusively. The practice of painting appears to coexist, cooperatively and in collusion, with other artistic practices, such as performance (of putting it into the sea, of draping the canvas organically in the gallery) and dance (the rhythms and movement of the ocean). Painting has not ended – most certainly not. It has, with a strange sort of romantic pragmatism, been reassigned. The possibilities are endless.