'Why, today, should we start looking at painting again?' muses the wall text of the inappropriately titled exhibition 'Urgent Painting'. This belated question reveals the inadequate nature of this cross-cultural pictorial confection, the latest in a string of exhibitions devoted to contemporary painting. Since the advent of photography in the mid-19th century art history has been plagued with the question of painting's continued validity; it may be back in fashion, but it has never ceased to be a significant aspect of artistic practice. It is therefore unsurprising that many people - painters in particular - find the recent flurry of articles and exhibitions misguided.
In the preface to the exhibition catalogue the commissioning curators, Laurence Bossé and Hans Ulrich Obrist, argue that with the 'apparent predominance of installation and new media' and 'the geopolitical opening up of the last decade or so' there is 'an urgent need to come back to painting'. This list of platitudes could be applied to just about any artistic practice - sculpture, installation, new media - and is an exemplary piece of museum fudging.
Opting for the 'biennale' brand of curatorial practice, Bossé and Obrist invited 17 international curators and artists to select the participating painters. The star-studded group of selectors (curiously described as 'protagonists') included Daniel Birnbaum, Okwui Enwezor, Charles Esche, Bernard Frize, Paulo Herkenhoff, Thelma Golden and Paul Schimmel and almost overshadowed the list of emerging and well-established artists. To aid the viewer's comprehension of 'authorship' in the show, each curator was assigned a colour, and the colour of the seat facing each work of art indicated who had chosen that particular artist. Given the celebrity factor of the participating curators, this strategy seemed to validate the artists through curatorial association more than through the quality of their work.
Despite the colour-coding, the diverse and inclusive nature of the exhibition was not checked by any sense of organizational strategy or structure. This can be a good thing. It certainly isn't helpful to look at a disparate group of artists, in this case from many different countries, under a doggedly restrictive theme. However, it also falls into the 'biennale' trap of cultural levelling - how useful is it to throw together this heterogeneous work under the ambiguous blanket term of painting? What can be learned from placing the elegant geometry of Sarah Morris or the dreamy tracings of Laura Owens, both so covetable and decorative, alongside the multi-media overspill of work by Matthew Ritchie, Carroll Dunham and Karen Leo? What does it mean to walk from the muted faux-Modernist abstract markings of Zambian Victor Mutale towards the faux-naif folksy fantasies of American Verne Dawson? By ignoring specific cultural contexts these juxtapositions fail to bring a greater understanding of individual practices, and the works by emerging artists tended to get lost in the fray.
It is also difficult to ignore the question of nationality in this exhibition. Consciously or not, the presentation fed rather than expanded cultural stereotypes. The clever kitsch canvases of Russian artists Vladimir E. Dubossarsky and Alexander A. Vinogradov, which depict Van Gogh sunbathing with naked girls among luscious foliage, seem so self-consciously un-Russian, and the presentation of Surasi Kusolwong's pictorial massage parlour is inescapably linked to the participatory tradition of fellow Thai artist Rikrit Tiravanija. Worse than falling into national stereotypes is the temptation to make cultural generalizations. Does the predominance of large-scale works comprising dizzying tangles of colour and overlapping forms (Arturo Herrera from Venezuela, Katharina Gross from Germany, Federico Herrero from Costa Rica, Sarah Morris from America, Beatriz Milhazes from Brazil, Julie Mehretu from Ethiopia) relate to visual overload and the information revolution? Or perhaps to the urban sprawl? Ironically the exhibition does exactly the opposite of what it sets out to do: it reveals that it is not possible, without gross generalization and simplification, to make these cross-cultural leaps and the exhibition fails to come to any global - let alone local - conclusions about the condition of painting today.
The only conclusion that can be drawn is that this kind of exhibition mirrors the supermarket eclecticism of free global economic markets. The apparent openness and non-exclusivity of 'Urgent Painting' simply exposed the reluctance of the curators to pin their colours to the mast. Given the obvious dangers of pigeon-holing inherent in any single-media exhibition, it was all the more important for the exhibition to define its position and put forward a clear set of questions. Without these, why should we start to look at painting again? What's so urgent?