The Edge of Painting

‘Painting has died a thousand deaths in the last century. But it rises from the grave as many times. Doesn’t it?’ (Tess Jaray)

Two quite different perspectives on this question - one by a committee of writers and curators, the other by an artist - are offered by ‘Painting Now’ and ‘The Edge of Painting’, currently both showing in London.The exhibition at Tate Britain and it’s accompanying text read like a research paper on an endangered species, a clinical exercise in which the work of five disparate painters is put under the microscope to see what clues it might yield to its continued and - in Darwinian terms - surprising existence in ‘what has come to be understood as a post-medium age’.  Without saying who exactly has arrived at this understanding the committee goes on to report that what painting lacks is adequate textual underpinning, since ‘writing about painting is notably under-articulated at the moment’.

Tomma Abts 'Zebe 2010'.jpg

Yet all they really manage to adduce is that what the five have in common (apart from being born between 1967 and 1977) is ‘a deliberate and measured approach to the construction of the image’.  Drawing on Tomma Abts’ statement that ‘for me painting is a concrete experience that is anchored in the material I am handling’, they conclude, in a way that is hard to dispute, that ‘her paintings are “things in the world” as wrought objects and yet they also deliver illusions of fictive space’.  But simply offering ‘different explorations of the physicality of paint itself” as a form of resistance to ‘rootless postmodern hybridity’ is hardly likely to embolden painters or give these and others of their generation much cause for optimism.

In contrast Tess Jaray uses her long experience as practitioner and teacher to ask not what painting is but what it can do. In a show curated for the Piper gallery she turns the Tate’s assumption on its head by saying painting needs not words (or a rear-guard action) but a more imaginative and playful approach to the medium itself. The artists she has chosen - almost all of whom either trained or taught at the Slade - reflect her sense that rather than being adrift in a post-medium age, ‘now it seems, all art aspires to the condition of painting’. Here the medium need no longer be the message: indeed it is the medium - paint itself - which stands to limit painting’s progress. ‘The Edge of Painting’ (a title borrowed from a new and unusually abstract photo montage in the show by John Stezaker) indicates a practice that is most dynamic at its margins; if it still holds to the idea of a ‘painting’ as a unique artefact which engenders the illusion of space it departs radically from the assumption that paint is the necessary means of achieving this.

Jaray asks if the colour and materials variously employed here to generate patterns, shapes and movement in space still belong the language of painting: after all,  ‘what does it mean to class something as a painting?’.  For example, can’t Sophie Michael’s cine projection of a rotating field of coloured cards on a wall  (‘Carousel’, 2009) be viewed as a dynamic painting rather than video art? Or Onya McCausland’s delicate interplay of white matter and dark shadow across object and wall surface in ‘Support’ (2013) be a painting in chalk and calcium silicate rather than an installation piece? Or Rana Begum’s directional planes of colour modulated by the fall of light on folded steel (‘No. 441- Fold’, 2013) be approached as painting rather than wall mounted sculpture? And further out on the conceptual (or cutting) edge, when Martin Creed investigates the optical play of pattern and colour using no more than cropped lengths of masking tape and coloured ink is he not still ‘painting’?

Tess Jaray.jpg

Jaray’s own piece ‘Migration, Wide. Orange',2013 (shown left) is similar in its concern for the subtle process of order & disruption to Tomma Abts painting ‘Zebe’ (2010) in the Tate and shares in its geometry the same ‘deliberate and measured approach’. So too does the delicate mosaic-like patina of Giulia Ricci’s laser engraving, with its indented surfaces and rhythmic colour spacing. For Jaray these are not isolated acts of ‘post-medium’ resistance but, taken together, suggest the slippery nature of the medium’s perceived boundaries. Perhaps the best example she gives us of how ‘painting’ continues to adapt and mutate as a practice is ‘Silvery’(2013) by Nike Savvas, in which suspended strands of polished aluminium, tinted at irregular intervals along its length in blue & yellow, generate a brilliant curtain of light that shimmers and sways to the transitory presence of the viewer and reflects back the myriad colours it captures in that moment. While over at the Tate ‘the wide discourse around painting is fragmented’ here by contrast it appears fluid and permeable.

Giulia Ricci, Order/Disruption 2012, Laser engraved painting

Giulia Ricci, Order/Disruption 2012, Laser engraved painting

The full article appears in

‘The Edge of Painting’, The Piper Gallery, 29th November – 30 December 2013

‘Painting Now; Five Contemporary Artists’, Tate Britain, 12 Nov 2013 -9 February 2014



Vija Celmins

Although Vija Celmins has a dedicated following, her work is not particularly well known in this country. She is not a limelight seeker and this small display at Tate Britain (made possible with the support of Anthony D’Offay) is only the third time that her work has been seen in the UK.  And as John Berger says in The Shape of a Pocket : ‘You have to see them. Words can’t get round them. And reproduction sends them back to where they came from. (Most of her works originate in photographs.) You have to be within touching distance of them’


Small in scale, her darkly quiescent images, with their surface construction rigorously worked up over long periods of time in graphite & charcoal, draw you inexorably in to their force field.  Space, time and memory are condensed in the swelling seas, pulsing stars, and shimmering webs she finds herself drawn to over and over again. They are remarkably self-effacing: there is, in her own words ‘no ego, no expression, no angst, no composition’, and yet beneath their austerity, their apparent blankness and denial of meaning, they pulse with contained emotion. If in a superficial sense they are ‘not about much’, they nevertheless represent the summation - the ‘compression’ to use her own word – ‘of what I know’.

Vija Celmins, Artist Rooms, Tate Britain

Gerhard Richter's cage painting

Let's begin at the end of the show, with the Cage paintings. Starting with loose gestural marks, Richter steadily smears and obliterates the wet surface until what is left is an opaque film that only faintly reveals the fractured trace or accidental residue of previous actions. To the extent it follows its own logic it is reductively ‘abstract’, but without the floating incidents that animate Abstract 849 for example, there is little to hold onto visually, little to suggest a way in or through the pallid top coat. The surface, now verging on emptiness, becomes the work. The gallery text, by way of explanation, alludes to John Cage’s gnomic statement, ‘I have nothing to say and I am saying it’, while Richter, in his recent interview with Nicholas Serota, states that ‘paintings show what isn’t there’.

But it is unclear to me whether he means there is something which painting cannot grasp or whether there is nothing (or only silence) beyond the paint’s surface. If most painters instinctively adopt the former position, the latter is undoubtedly a more challenging premise from which to begin working, If there is nothing to begin with, then is the paint simply an iterative statement of existence (Richter: ‘I have no choice. I do it’), leaving the viewer with nowhere to go? The curatorial reference to Cage, resting on a title originally proposed by another curator, might equally be construed as another sort of cage, from which neither painter nor painting can escape.


Gerhard Richter: Panorama, Tate Modern, to Jan 2012



Peter Doig

Blotter 1993
Peter Doig is a good painter. In the earlier work collected here you can see his delight and curiosity with the effects he is achieving: the marks he makes are sometimes descriptive – the spatter of stars, the looping skate marks on ice, the pink glaze on the snow white impasto of Blotter – and sometimes, as with the scattering of irridescent blobs in Concrete Cabin, just devices for returning the eye to the surface of the canvas. If these devices arrest the eye, what holds it is the brooding strangeness of the stories embedded in their surfaces. There is something disquieting about the lone figures and drifting canoes in wild expanses of wood and water, and the houses he often depicts are far from homely, despite the sweetness of their colouring. Blotter and Ski Jacket, despite their extensive exposure since they were painted 15 years ago, still appear strikingly original.

Doig.jpgHowever the later work, which has become increasingly large in scale since he moved to Trinidad in 2002, displays a different kind of uncertainty, one that is less to do with the subjects in the painting as the way they are painted. Adrian Searle, in his review of the show at Tate Britain in the Guardian (05.02.08) describes this gradual releasing of the motif from the dense thickets of pigment as a kind of breakthrough. And yet it seems to me that the haunting vibrancy of an earler work like Jetty is driven precisely by the viscous matter and fractured patination of the medium.
For Searle these thinner, clearer, expanses of canvas allow for a ‘kind of authority that can’t be striven for, but only arrived at like an unexpected gift’. But as I stand looking at the more recent work in the show I wonder whether what this masterly thinness reveals - the staining in Figures in Red Boat, the barely touched ground of Man Dressed as Bat - is an artist spreading himself too thinly. And far from the motif asserting itself (with the possible exception of the deceptively simple Lapeyrouse Wall), it seems increasingly overshadowed by the stylistic presence of others: of Gauguin particularly (in Paragon and Purple Jesus), but also of Tuymans (along with stainers like Morris Louis) in Figures in Red Boat, Baselitz in Stag, and Keifer in Girl in White with Trees. In others too there are the unmistakable traces of Bonnard, Munch, Van Gogh and Bacon. 1685503-1329472-thumbnail.jpg
Lapeyrouse Wall 2004

It is as though what he wants to paint remains elsewhere. Twenty years ago, returning to London, he painted what he had left behind, his childhood memories and his Canadian home. Since moving to Trinidad however, it appears that the need to revive his own past has been superseded by a desire to converse with the past of painting itself: it is as if the new master is calling back to the old - the Museum masters - across time and space, from a safe distance and a new home.

Peter Doig - Tate Britain (until April 2008)