Painting modern life

images-3.jpegMany painters - Degas, Sickert, and Bacon come to mind - have used photographs in the way Gerhard Richter describes it, 'as a crutch to help me get to reality'. But the message of the show at the Hayward Gallery, The Painting of Modern Life, is that you cannot paint modern life (at least not since the 1960s) without photographs. Photography and 'our present day reality' are inseparable (although Richter's claim is more doubtful today, now that digital manipulation has so thoroughly confused reality and fantasy).

Yet what the show actually reveals is something else - how what was once disconcertingly immediate, a mute and indiscriminate recording of the real, has become historic: elusive fragments of time whose meanings (personal, political) are unstable and endlessly open to new contexts and associations. In this sense it is not a show about the ghost of painting (its aura long displaced by the camera) as about the ghost of photography captured in paint - its transience contained through its reworking in brush and pigment. Even Richter's slurred, cropped and rubbed surfaces, while mimicking photographs, contain more substance than their banal origins in newspaper and magazine reproductions.

images-2.jpegFor painting is not a singular moment but an accumulation of moments - a process in which its meanings are both concentrated and stretched out. Where the camera takes an image, the painter makes (or remakes) it: I like to think, says Vija Celmins, that time stops in art.. when you pack a lot of time into a work, something happens that slows the image down, makes it more physical, makes you stay with it. The ones I stayed with longest were Celmin's own work, 'Flying Fortress', Peter Doig's 'Lump' and Wilhelm Sasnal's 'Ski Jump'. As for the rest, many were as ephemeral and dated as their sources.