Letter from London

The Painting of Modern Life
Hayward Gallery, London: October 4 – December 30, 2007

Andy Warhol, Big Electric Chair, 1967. Courtesy Hayward.

The Painting of Modern Life presents twenty-two artists whose work is preoccupied with the use of photography as a source. This means the exhibition covers a range of options, from Photorealism to the blurring of paint in ways that suggest video grabs or grainy, out-of–focus film. Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Richard Artschwager and Vija Celmins are proposed as pioneers who subsequently inspired key exponents such as Luc Tuymans and Marlene Dumas, and more recently Peter Doig, Elizabeth Peyton, Eberhard Havekost and others.

The idea of examining painting along these lines is welcome, as it explores something that can genuinely be said to be ongoing, but curator Ralph Rugoff’s premise, that the translation and re-invention of photographic imagery is the way that artists have freed themselves from an academic approach to painting, is not convincingly demonstrated by this particular selection and installation. The work is hung in categories: History and Politics; Work; Leisure and Everyday Life; Social Space; Modern Individuals, Family and Friends, but these seem more about anxiety on the part of the curators to reach a wide audience than an enlightening way to install the paintings on display. The Painting of Modern Life ends up seeming less than the sum of its parts, and despite the impressive list of lenders to the exhibition in the catalogue, comparatively few of the many paintings on display here stick in the mind as iconic examples of each artist’s work. Perhaps this exhibition is too busy defining categories and archetypes and maybe too densely hung. Perhaps, since the Hayward Gallery has not shown much painting recently, it currently seems overloaded with it.

Richard Artschwager is noticeable for his awkwardness in relation to the photography/painting thesis that gives the exhibition its rationale. Reading more as objects-masquerading-as-paintings-aping-photography than as a consideration of the photograph as a means of revitalizing the central concerns of painting, these pieces hardly proclaim photography as a liberator of painting in the 60´s in the way described in the catalogue introduction. In a note to himself at the time, Artschwager declared; “Painting, a residue from other times, broke the surface (1962) as grisaille works made by grid-enlarging photographs, and was apparently dragooned into the family of The Useful.”

Artschwager paints from photographs as only one aspect of his oeuvre. His furniture/objects, with their canny references to abstraction and minimalism are as much a model of his tricky approach as his Celotex paintings, and the two are much better viewed together. In one instance here, “Office Scene” (1966), the careful combination of painted Celotex surface and a frame of aluminium flashing make Malcolm Morley’s “Cristoforo Columbo” hung alongside it feel far less technically abrasive than it might have seemed in 1965—too politely contained within its silver leafed frame and glass and possibly a little too hung-up on being a Photorealist painting.

The apparently synchronous undoing of abstraction’s domination of painting in the work of Gerhard Richter, Artschwager, Vija Celmins and Andy Warhol is not so clear-cut when the complex and contradictory elements of their practise are taken in to account. And what of Martin Kippenberger? Kippenberger’s inclusion in this exhibition makes only partial sense, as the number of complex strategies he employed in his work leave him only semi-attached to the paradigm of painting from photography.

Liu Xiaodong’s “A Transsexual Getting Down Stairs” (2001) brings to mind both the changing state of present-day China as well as Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.” Such references interweave photography and art history in ways that work for most of us on a subconscious level born of an education in modern art. As a result, we inherently recognize that the action of memory on an image demands a more subtle exploration than the anodyne and literal strategy of using video stills and screen grabs, as represented here in the work of Johannes Kahrs and Judith Eisler. Memory and the fragmented or distorted photograph might seem to be the territory of Luc Tuymans, but Tuymans himself is much more respectful of the complex technical and alchemical processes through which he arrives at a painted image than many of his followers. However, despite the prominent positioning of his work in the same context as Celmins, Richter and Warhol, Tuymans generally comes out poorly in this exhibition. Compared with his contribution to Unbound at the Hayward in 1994, which was the first time his work was seen publicly in the UK, this work gives the impression that he is no longer an artist working with a genuine edge.

One wall, within the section Leisure and Everyday Life, showing Peter Doig, Elizabeth Peyton and Wilhelm Sasnal, most persuasively carries Ralph Rugoff’s argument for painting as “reinvesting feeling into images whose affect has been drained through repetition”. Doig’s “Lump (Olin MKIV part II)”, Peyton’s “Arsenal (Prince Harry)” and Sasnal’s “Kielce (Ski Jump)” speak of an otherness, of transformations, and of the multifarious moods and possibilities still available in a studio-based way of making art.

In Peter Doig’s “Lump…” the shock of the green snow stands up well as an alternative to his usually more laboured surfaces, as does the tension between one touch brush painting and the familiar spattering of blobs of paint in separate hues that make up the sky. Wilhelm Sasnal has painted a black-and-white, almost grisaille ski jump, with quick gestures, distorted as if it were a hasty and improvised version of a Chinese brush drawing. Elizabeth Peyton’s “Arsenal (Prince Harry)” sits between the two, literally as well as in its technique, an odd mixture of the laborious and insouciant. In each of the three paintings, the distance from a photographic source is more compelling than mere reinvention by grace of an unpredictable touch of the brush, angle, or shift of scale and proportion that sit outside curatorial categorization. Their disparate sizes—“Lump (Olin MKIV part II)”, is large, “Kielce (Ski Jump)” medium-sized and “Arsenal (Prince Harry)” is barely bigger than an A4 sheet of paper—make for a hang that (for one moment in the exhibition at least) breathes freely and points up visual correspondences and intriguing differences of technique and intention. An encounter with painting installed in this way also brings a sudden freedom from the categorical anchors that each section of the exhibition strains to propose.

More than Richter’s appropriation of Jackie Kennedy at the moment of her husband’s shooting (which hangs in the History and Politics section), Peyton’s slight “Arsenal (Prince Harry)” captures the emotion and ersatz emotion of an event fuelled by media speculation. Happily it goes beyond the trademark flip-flopping between sentimental painting and the celebrity fever of Heat magazine that is Peyton’s normal mode. Because “Arsenal…” is a “stolen” image from the time of a press embargo on photos of the princes after the death of Diana, it has an edgy political poignancy absent from Peyton’s painting of the Queen Mother’s funeral (which has itself been placed under the History and Politics rubric).

When looking at the paintings of Franz Gertsch and Robert Bechtle, particularly Bechtle’s “Alameda Chrysler” (1981), one cannot help thinking of qualities of surface, pattern, light and composition not just as cornerstones of the painters’ craft, but as the selective tools which carry meaning, at best, beyond painting’s comodification.

This is an oddly Greenbergian notion for an exhibition that spends a degree of its time explaining how artists got out of the Greenbergian tropes of the 1950’s. When a Photorealist painting seems to “turn towards the medium itself,” it is not so much as subject (in the Greenbergian sense that Barry Schwabsky describes in his catalogue text), but in order to better articulate the artists’ re-visualising of the photographic image as a locus of meaning. It is then that we experience a sense of amazement over the possibilities that painting offers. The important questions are how successful this exhibition is in demonstrating its thesis and whether any interesting new light is thrown on the subject of painting’s ongoing contemporaneity. On both counts it is only convincing in parts.

Contributor

Andrew Bick

Andrew Bick is a British painter. He lives and works in London.

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