RETURN TO PAINT
Artists have rediscovered joy in painting but their work can still be tentative, writes Sebastian Smee
PAINTING is a rum business. Apply logic to it and the conclusion is inescapable: there’s just no good reason to be doing it. Intelligent people have known this for eons. ‘‘ How vain painting is, exciting admiration by its resemblance to things we do not even admire in the original,’’ exclaimed Blaise Pascal, a model of 17th- century sanity.
Pascal, don’t forget, was talking 200 years before the invention of photography. After that, going to great lengths to make paint resemble discrete slices of the world began to look even more absurd. Why bother?
Abstract art emerged in the 20th century as one solution, quite a respectable one. But in the end a picture of nothing cannot be said to possess any inherent advantage over a picture of something. In the silly stakes, it’s a tie at best. The problem lies not with the nothing or with the something but with the idea of making a picture.
Dear reader, it’s not that I agree with what you have just been reading. It’s just that I want you to imagine what it may have been like to take up painting in, say, the 1960s, which is when Dale Hickey took it up. Hickey, the subject of a cerebral but quietly compelling survey show at the Ian Potter Museum in Melbourne, is an artist easier to admire than to love. Much of his work can look dry, over- deliberate and, well, a little too right- angled. But give it time and his disciplined, endlessly inquisitive art, forged in a period beset by doubts, begins to look heroic.
We hear every other year about a crisis in painting, but back in the late ’ 60s painting really was in crisis. Photography and photographic ways of seeing — which is to say film, television, advertising — were not only ubiquitous, they mattered, in a way painting had simply ceased to.
Abstraction, after its heroic flare- up in the postwar US, was fast losing credibility. The rhetoric it inspired had careened out of control; no matter how big or how provocatively empty the canvases became, they simply couldn’t match the claims made for them. Taking up painting at this point began to look like jumping voluntarily into quicksand. Sure, it had a glorious past. But no one was entirely convinced it had a future. The solution on all sides was to try to think one’s way out of the mire. For every diagnosed problem, there was a solution.
If art was being swamped by the mass media, pop art emerged to ironise the situation.
If moving images were more interesting than still ones, video art promised to fix that.
If picture- making was naively romantic and embarrassingly subjective, minimalism came along and banished not only illusionism but emotion, storytellng, lyricism, the lot.
If the market had turned art into a prestige commodity, cordoning it off from life and politics, then conceptualism turned images into ideas, which were ( at least in theory) unsaleable.
And so it went. The direction one chose to tunnel in depended on what one saw the problem to be. But no one seemed to emerge into the light. Each solution seemed partial, at best. Recognising this, plenty of artists shrugged their shoulders, remembered the seductive if toxic aroma of oil paint, like former smokers getting the old sniff of nicotine, and reverted to painting.
Hickey was one of them. Trained in painting, he had dabbled in a kind of vernacular variant of minimalism ( he installed three fences of slatted wood in three rooms of a Melbourne gallery in 1969) and conceptual photography ( he exhibited photographs of 90 white walls). But painting, finally, proved irresistible.
The Ian Potter Museum show, organised by Paul Zika, hangs paintings from different eras alongside each other. What seems constant is Hickey’s preoccupation with the tricks of illusionism, and with how fragile and provisional these tricks can seem when measured against the obstinate flatness of the canvas.
An early masterpiece, Untitled 1967- 68 , is all abstract. Yet slyly, systematically, Hickey seduces us with the sneaky pleasures of spatial illusionism. The canvas is divided into 36 squares. Presupposing a light source from above and to the left, each one is shaded to create the illusion of shallow relief ( like the slight swell of the keys on a laptop keyboard) or shallow recession. The design is given complexity and a kind of delicious optical buzz by a gridded overlay of blue dots. Yes, it was all mathematical, formulaic, but it was also sensuous and challengingly alive, like a ravishing polka dot dress.
In later works, Hickey treats the artist’s studio as a kind of optical laboratory. Gradually the sensuousness drains away, replaced by various enlivening forms of wit. The games Hickey plays have a coy, experimental aspect to them. One moment you’re looking at a three- dimensional object — a toy car, for instance, on a table — the next you’re looking at a mark that is purely graphic; it sits flat on the surface of the canvas.
Objects hover between being convincingly rendered and reduced to signs, like logos. Canvases sitting on easels and windows, for instance, are rendered in the same way: a rectangle divided in four by a cross. Which one can we see through? Which one reflects our gaze? Which one remains opaque? The game takes on a metaphysical aspect of fertile uncertainty, like the fictions of Italo Calvino.
Sometimes the laws of perspective or the spatial properties of colour are obeyed; other times they are flouted. But even when these laws are adhered to, what is missing from Hickey’s canvases — quite deliberately — is atmosphere, the quality of reality painters have learned to introduce by means of touch, texture, the blurring of edges, the blueing of distances, optical fuzziness and so forth.
There are exceptions: the studio works against black grounds from the mid-’ 80s, for instance, while appearing adamantly flat, make great play with uneven edges, shifting degrees of finish, sporadic outbreaks of splatter and glimpses of underpainting. But, as a whole, Hickey’s paintings can seem wilfully disconnected from what
Italian philosopher Mario Rossi called the great interests of man: air and light, the joy of having a body, the voluptuousness of looking’’. They can seem a little pinched. So preoccupied is Hickey with analysing the fundamental conditions of painting that he seems to ignore any possibility that paint may convey feeling.
Of course, in this he is cousin to hordes of painters of his generation, all of whom reacted to the crisis engulfing painting in the 60s by obsessing over first principles.
Many painters today no longer seem so racked by doubt. Graciously, they accept that painting is no longer as central to the culture as it was in the court of Philip IV of Spain. They have learned to live with TV, DVDs and the art market without necessarily succumbing to existential despair. The idea of connecting painted marks to various emotions no longer induces quite the same level of suspicion.
However, the return to confidence proceeds slowly. Much painting today is still overwhelmingly tentative, self- conscious.
Consider, for instance, an artist such as David Ralph, showing at Melbourne’s Arc One Gallery. Alongside Hickey, Ralph looks like a healthy teenager limbering up on a basketball court. He is having fun with paint, combining different visual registers on the same canvas, abstracting here, shading to create volume there, throwing in hints of trompe l’oeil and generally having a ball. He uses squeegees and palette knifes, poured turps, rags, brushes and computer- aided collage. He especially delights in quoting other painters, especially Germany’s Gerhard Richter. Ralph’s paintings are at once stunningly beautiful and dazzlingly clever. Look at a painting such as The Lodge at Tate Mountain , with its dynamic, spiralling composition, ambivalent space and thrilling painterly effects. It’s bold stuff, bristling with confidence.
Yet I feel Ralph may be as unconvinced by his subject matter as I am. His motifs — caravans, tents and other fragments of shelter set against glassily smooth semblances of nature — hint dutifully at the precariousness of our relationship with the natural world.
But Ralph infuses this apprehension with no gravity. Rather, his wisps of content feel designed to placate his conceptually inclined observers while he gets on with doing as he pleases with paint. A degree of conviction feels missing. Form and content may not yet have divorced but at times they seem to be sleeping in separate beds.
A certain what- the- hell attitude is needed if painters are once again to wield their brushes ( or squeegees) with conviction. It’s exactly this attitude — a by- product of passion, pure and simple — that I detect in Del Kathryn Barton, whose latest work will be on show at Karen Woodbury Gallery, Melbourne, from Wednesday.
Barton paints emaciated, androgynous females and small animals against lush backdrops of decorative dots, flowers, birds and ribbons. Her last show, at Kaliman Gallery in Sydney, was a knockout. So many people were so impressed that collectors went crazy. People’s expectations will inevitably slug it out with what the show actually delivers; Barton is bound to come off worse.
I saw the show in advance of the opening and regretfully admit I liked it less. One or two of the watercolours felt rote; a painting called Garden of Eden was an experiment that fell flat and the main sculptural element — glass vessels and soft, sewn- up objects stacked in glass cabinets — felt rather too safe.
Yet the show has two or three large- scaled paintings that are as wild and beautiful as anything Barton has done. She has the kind of imagination — fevered, unabashed, ecstatic — that will not be held back. She may wrestle with her own doubts from picture to picture, but you feel that, unlike painters of Hickey’s generation, she is far too immersed in her medium to make questioning it a conspicuous part of her approach.
Finally, the most dazzling show of the new gallery season — 32- year- old Benjamin Armstrong’s show of glass and wax sculptures and linocuts at the new Tolarno Galleries in Melbourne — reminds us that painting has been only one among many options for ambitiously original artists. Armstrong’s sculptures sit on the floor like empty, inflated condoms or giant eyeballs. They are entrancing objects, eliciting physical responses that flicker between disgust and sensuousness.
Armstrong plays with degrees of transparency and opacity, etching thin lines on the blown glass or lavishly wrapping it in turbans of gorgeously textured white wax. The linocuts are almost, but not quite, as impressive. Their rhythmic, linear designs are printed in metallic pigment or black ink on hand- dyed paper.
The two sets of work — sculptures and prints — speak to each other, generating layers of intrigue. But there’s no doubt that the sculptures are among the strangest, most beguiling works of art produced in Australia in the past 10 years.
Compelling: Dale Hickey’s Untitled ( Easel) ( 1986), opposite page; Are You Receiving Me? ( 2007), top, by David Ralph; Hollow Resistance ( 2007), above, blown glass and etching, by Benjamin Armstrong