Painting has now been declared dead more times than the proverbial cat with nine lives. Yet it refuses to lie down quietly and expire, unprepared to hand over the aesthetic reins entirely to competing visual art forms. Painting Now at Tate Britain aims to give wider exposure to five-British born artists. The exhibition in no way claims to be representative of any particular movement, nor is it an overarching survey. As one of the show’s curators, Andrew Wilson, claimed: “Painting is a many-headed beast, and we could have made the show with five other artists or ten or twenty”. Seemingly diverse, what these five all share is a concern with the language of painting itself. This takes place against the debate begun in the 1970s, which suggested that painting had little new to say in the wake of film, photography and installation.
Yet the traditions of painting go back to the cave. To draw and paint, to make marks, has long been a definition of what it means to be human. Yet within the arena of modernism painting became not so much a window onto the world or the soul – concerned with philosophical questions about origins and meaning – but a solipsistic investigation of its own forms and processes.
The exhibition starts with Tomma Abts, winner of the 2006 Turner Prize, and includes work by Simon Ling, Lucy McKenzie, Gillian Carnegie and Catherine Story. An air of quietude and restraint runs through the galleries. The arena in which these artists allow themselves to operate is tight and constrained. The works don’t suggest subterranean depths or passions. They are concerned with observation, technique and the distillation of composition. Measured and academic, they are intelligent, thoughtful and cold.
Abts work might loosely be described as ‘abstract’ but, in fact, is not ‘abstracted’ in the sense that the imagery is drawn from the ‘real world’. Her compositions of wedges, triangles and wavy lines are not graphic, in that they suggest something familiar beyond themselves. Rather they have a sculptural presence and are concerned with pattern and illusion. Meticulously painted, without the use of masking tape or rulers, the language is, nevertheless, tight-lipped. Her works don’t open themselves to metaphor or allusion. There are no correlations with human emotion; though the play on different depths does create an atmosphere that is both unstable and edgy.
There is also an uncanny stillness to Gillian Carnegie’s paintings. Whilst apparently figurative – vases of flowers, cats and staircases – the subject recedes to become simply the armature around which the painting is built. Based on spaces that might be real her canvases have another worldly quality, like images in dreams. Her flowers nod at art history (Chardin). Though these series of stark bouquets are too hermetic to be an investigation on the passing of time or the change of light, in the manner of Monet’s Haystacks. Rather they speak of absence and isolation. The black cats on empty landings have something of the loneliness of an Edward Hopper. A spiral staircase in monochromatic greys has a haunting quality. Where does it go? Where has it come from? But meaning is refused, as if altogether too dangerous. Enigmatic and silent, these works seem full of the shadows of death.
Lucy Mackenzie who studied decorative art such as tompe l’oeil at art school in Brussels stretches the idea of what painting can be the furthest. Using her 3-D skills she has built a walk-in sculptural environment and created and an installation of images, drawings, photographs and diagrams, pinned to kitchen corkboards. Catherine Story’s paintings of half-familiar forms have a weird distancing quality. Film and cubism are strong elements, as is sculpture. But all autobiography and emotion have been erased so that looking at them feels a bit like sitting in front of a car park surveillance monitor. There’s little, here, that is animated, little that is human. Hers is an inert world.
Of all the artists Simon Ling is the most expressive and lyrical. His plein air paintings of non-descript urban areas such as Old Street roundabout (London’s Silicon Valley) and his elaborate tableaux fabricated in the studio, reflect traditional qualities of direct observation. A shabby shop front, half covered with a metal grill, its windows stuffed full of old computer screens, hard drives and obsolete electrical equipment, not only makes reference to the grid of modernist painting but creates a metaphor of loss, neglect and
abandonment. His office windows are blank and the little shop selling cheap rucksacks and handbags not only provides him with an opportunity for some virtuoso painting but implicitly speaks of human desolation. The crumbling 19th century facades with their elaborate door pediments and modern replacement windows suggest the social changes overtaking this once close knit east London community. A painting that hones in on a battered security alarm suggests an underlying social anxiety.
This exhibition seems to illustrate that painting is still unsure what it might do in a contemporary world. Horizons are narrowed to its own academic grammar for fear of being ‘decorative’ or ‘narrative’. In so doing there’s a danger that it will cut itself off from the groundswell of human experience.
© Tomma Abts, Courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne
© Gillian Carnegie courtesy the artist and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne
Quodlibet XX (Fascism) 2012
© Lucy McKenzie Photo: Galerie Micheline Szwajcer
Lovelock (I) 2010
© Catherine Story Photo: Andy Keate
© Simon Ling
Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW14RG until 9th February 2014.