The End of Painting (or Not)
Cats only have nine lives. Painting has had a few thousand.
Every time its death is declared with resolute certainty, it lands again feet first, defying the doomsday hucksters who retreat once more with their tails between their legs.
The proclamation that painting is dead couldn’t be more of a cliché. But the insistent persistence that drives such banal predictions is devout. Art’s every alternative incarnation is touted as a death blow to art’s very foundation, as if cumbersome, confusing audio-visual installations or pornographic performance “art” could ever usurp painting’s enchanted millennia.
I vehemently disagree with my freethinking idol and intellectual elder, Camille Paglia, on this subject. In her book Glittering Images, she writes, “…With the heady proliferation of other mediums available to artists, the genre of painting has lost its primacy and authority. Yet for five hundred years after the dawn of the Renaissance, the most complex and personally expressive works of art ever produced in the world were executed in paint- from tempera and oil to acrylics. The decline of painting has cut aspiring artists off from their noblest lineage.”
I beg to differ. I understand Paglia is lamenting the cultural and academic vogue given to lesser forms and the ignoble inanity of identity politics and shock value that passes for art these days. I share her pain. But no matter: these too shall pass.
There has never been any real threat to painting, not even photography.
The invention of photographic science understandably frightened artists. They had never had to put their history to the test. Legend quotes Paul Delaroche on the daguerreotype: “From today, painting is dead.” But instead of painting’s obituary, art exploded exponentially from the confines of its roles of representation.
Photography as a craft, science, and art has been a super nova of human achievement, giving us the ability to preserve history and communicate to our peers and our future ancestors in ways even more dramatic than language and the written word. Indeed, its language was universal; it was able to show a person or an event or a place to everyone, regardless of their mother tongue. No translations necessary.
But even so, instead of killing painting, photography expanded art’s reach and potential. Never before could so many people see so many paintings! Never before could the middle classes, and the poor, afford to look at so much art. People in South American could see works hanging in an Irish church or a French museum.
Mass reproduction allowed all of us to look at Van Gogh and Raphael and Gerome, but also important was how painting changed paths. It began branching out onto countless roads less travelled. Church- and patron-commissioned subject matters and acceptable mores of art could no longer tether fancy’s flight, and where isms had changed only periodically throughout the centuries, now a cornucopia of them bloomed labyrinthine. There have been dozens of isms in every decade and every region of the world ever since.
The very fact that photography could instantly create a likeness of a person, place, or object gave artists the freedom to experiment with paint, to invent and choose expressions that went beyond faithful reproduction.
It’s hard for anyone alive today to think of the world without abstract art. Abstract painting might be the boldest contribution of photography to art. Perhaps there has been no movement or style in all of art history as popular, among both academicians and the market, not to mention the tastes of every ilk of enthusiast and aficionado. There are some who question how this form of painting, stripped of its requirements of technical draftsmanship, divested of all narrative, plundered of allegory and meaning, could grip the human imagination with such ferocity. But I would argue that this stark reductionism is the very reason that it has.
The miraculous skills of rendering, the dense dictionary of context and history, were pared back to the bare bones of painting- nothing but the artist and the paint, nothing but the audience and the primal spell of magical colour that had always been there underneath the layers.
Abstract is epic and infinite, it is big bang, it is random chaos, it is nothing but colour and visceral emotion. Its expression is more primal than even cave paintings and crude early sculptures of ceremony and invocation. All the bells and whistles are swept away and the artist and audience could return to the beginning, a beginning that had never been given form during the first several thousand years of art.
Is it too much to compare abstract painting to the very dawn of creation, when darkness hovered over the face of the deep? I can see God in a beret, the first artist, swirling light without form from his magic wand of a brush. Cosmic glitter. I see him tossing the galaxies into the skies with the fervor of his loneliness and passion.
I am not one of those artists who would argue that abstract art requires as much skill as a meticulously studied Michelangelo fresco or an impossibly lifelike Bernini sculpture of man’s anatomy from stone. It does not. I love abstract art, and it is harder than it looks. But abstract painting’s appeal is in its gestural instinctiveness, and its raw emotive power, not in its technical prowess. The simple evocation of beauty or ugliness is its own kind of truth.
The wide appeal of abstract painting will never diminish the power of depictional art. But it could be said that the random combinations of blobs and swirls and drips and slashes bring us to the very heart of painting.
Everybody is mesmerized by Jackson Pollock’s cacophonies of dripping paint, and everyone else loves the elegant immensity of Mark Rothko’s colour fields. I am strangely seduced by the duotone abstracts of the award winning South Korean-American artist Hyunmee Lee, which are really nothing but a hint of calligraphy and some paint slapped down. I find the work of contemporary American abstract painter Doug Trump even more compelling. He layers variegated gray washes over charcoal scribbles, brightened with occasional slashes of vibrant blue or school bus yellow. I cannot fully explain what is so appealing to me, but I feel like an archeologist digging through textures, discovering treasures hidden in the freeform shapes.
The other gift of photography to painting, the one closest to my own heart, is collage. Of course collage has existed forever- assembling tidbits of flotsam and jetsam is as old as mosaic art, some 4000 years. Other streams of folk art and fine art gathered papers, and later print, to create new decorative forms. But collage could not really exist until the renewable or disposable image existed too. What images could a medieval peasant possibly tear up? Pictures were so precious that there was only one of each, and they were owned by churches or kings or the other 0.0001 percent. Only madmen and Calvinists dared destroy such rare markers of culture.
What is still relatively underexplored is collage and painting together. There are a number of mixed media artists stunning the world with the beauty of their innovation, but the marriage of both worlds remains exceptional. Massimo Nota and Line Juhl Hansen come to mind. They are both creating gorgeous, unusual artwork. But “mixed media” as a whole is crafty and cute. This kitsch factor may account for the under-recognition of this art merger. But that will change. Collage in and of itself is still struggling for wide curatorial acceptance. Audiences and artists are equally delighted by unexpected juxtapositions, but academics are slow to acknowledge the vast possibilities of collage and mixed media.
Even with Picasso and Braque credited as the inventors of modern collage, fear of complicated conservation, copyright, and questions of originality still stifle the progress of this form. The marriage of collage and painting is my own primary focus as an artist. I predict it will become more and more prominent as time goes by.
Of course, in addition to the limitless potential of snipping up imagery and text and adding them to painted media, there is the fact that paint as a product has never been so widespread and so varied.
Once upon a time, an artist would grind pigments from minerals and carefully combine a few precious colours with oil. Few could afford a broad palette. Colour mixing was its own art, of course, one that every artist should be serious about. But a restricted range of colours was matched by a very small selection of paints. Oils and egg tempera were all we had for centuries.
Some ingenuity on the part of our predecessors meant mixing charcoals and ochres with animal fat to make some cave paint. Otherwise, oil and tempera were the mainstays. Each of these has a rich history, defined as much by their limitations as by their possibilities.
Oil is the gold standard of painting. Its texture and tooth are unparalleled. It provides optimal blending options. Its scent is serious and sensual. Oil is durable enough to last, but fragile at first. It can take days, weeks, months, even years to dry. This wasn’t ideal for artists who travelled the desert or the northern bush to work in plein air. Masterpieces were easily destroyed before they were dry.
Tempera is a classic method of mixing pigments, using the glutinous egg as binder. Their brilliance can be seen a thousand years later in early icon paintings. But tempera’s drawbacks were many. It was especially useful for icons and altarpieces because it had to be used on sturdy surfaces like wood, never paper or canvas. These were too flexible and meant the dried paint would flake off. Tempera also meant a precise style of working, in paper thin layers. Using impasto techniques or thick strokes was impossible because the paint only held up in thin, even washes.
The Industrial Revolution meant pigments were ground en masse and the trend to paint interior walls began. During WW2, linseed oil shortages meant prohibitive costs, which spawned solutions like alkyd and polymer acrylics.
The acrylic medium is barely half a century old, and has already birthed millions of works of art. Even so, its vast potential is barely tapped. Acrylic is staggeringly versatile. It can be as transparent and fine as gossamer, and it can be so thick it is sculptural. It can be cut and sanded and painted on top of. It can be mixed with anything from oil pastels to sand. Collage was hardly possible before acrylic, even with images that could be cut, because oil paint stains paper. Acrylic dries in minutes, giving a previously unknown immediacy to the work of painting. It is a special magic to those of us who love layers.
Best of all, acrylic paint comes in thousands of colours, most of which were literally impossible before, no matter what mixing skills an artist possessed. It’s an “unnatural” medium which makes possible “unnatural” colours like neon pink and glow in the dark and pearl.
The decades since the advent of acrylic paint have been filled with more painting than ever before in human history, a strange parallel for the art’s ongoing death knell.
One Canadian artist who has defied the suggestion that he is himself for whom the bell tolls is Kim Dorland. This is the tenacity, the eternity, of painting- ten thousand years after its inception, Dorland reinvents painting. Inspired by Canadian icon Tom Thomson, Dorland is not content to mimic his master. Rather, he squeezes paint into sculpture, building thick, three-dimensional scenes out of tubes of oil. Indeed, his landmark exhibition at the McMichael was entitled, “You Are Here: Kim Dorland and the Return to Painting.”
And there’s another irony, too, in all of this art of dying- there is yes, a return- a return to traditional painting like still life, portraiture, figurative, and landscape. Collagists, abstract artists, outsider painters, minimalists, maximalists, et al have shirked longstanding emphases on draftsmanship and perspective and the colour wheel to welcome the primacy of emotion, colour, texture, and experiential mucking. And this very expansion of painting has heralded in response a massive renaissance of traditional techniques and mastery. There is a veritable revival of classical, academic styles of painting.
Still lifes have been dusted off, for example, breaking out of their stuffy reputation to bring their makers’ meticulous patience to the spotlight. Some contemporary still life painters rely on the tried and true apples or lemons or glass bottles; others have updated to donuts or ketchup bottles.
And if “realism” was a given for centuries, regardless of changing subjects, the dance away from it has also yielded its hyperreal rebirth. Hyperrealism yearns to be more real than the real thing, more perfect than photography. You know it when you see it, because it’s impossible. Except that it’s not.
The portrait and the figure have also witnessed a return to tradition, with life drawing classes all the rage in every urban centre. Many artists are again learning more about anatomy than medical students do, and sketching hands and feet and necks poised from every angle.
I readily admit that I have realist envy, because my drawing skills are the least impressive in my bag of tricks. I’m enamoured with hyperrealism and still life works because of the skill and focus they are made with. I consider these artists to be magicians! They conjure up specters of people and objects. I also love old religious works, and the Academy painters with their fairy tale worlds of adventure and beauty.
That said, my heart is where my own creative powers lie. I love the jumbling of juxtaposed ideas in mixed media collage painting. Combining various aesthetics creates powerful new ones. I feel a rush of emotion from larger than life abstracts where texture or colour take centre stage. There is a kind of a trance that comes from getting lost is the essence of paint, in a maze of images.
And I also love photography and other gifts of new technologies. But they will never destroy the primacy of paint.
Nor will the self-inflated, arrogant lot who print blots from barf or record audio of themselves on the toilet. Those who warble out tortured adjectives borrowed from French theory along with words like “parapraxis” and “intersectionality” can stop pretending they have special insights not available to the rest of us, reading into “challenging” works of garbage hauled from curbside.
Yes, the current penchant to tout critical theory and postmodern analysis, to deconstruct until there’s nothing left, is a fashionable frenzy. But it will pass into oblivion, a wisp with memories no one could make heads or tails of, never mind pronounce. And more important trends like the discoveries of various new creative technologies won’t replace their predecessors. Like photography and collage, they will become their own things, latecomers in art history with a full future ahead to blossom in. Art’s very nature, however, will always be soaked in paint.
Some of the predictions about the end come from earnest, excited young artists who are simply new and naive and absorb too readily the credos of their guides. They are to be forgiven. The others are to be laughed at: those swollen with the idea that their insights are so revolutionary.
The real revolution has come and never gone. It is the magic spell woven over man, when he first discovered he could colour one thing with another.
Lorette C. Luzajic
The Ekphrastic Review
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