The Problem With Painting
I used to think the problem with painting was that it was most often a solitary endeavor.
It’s why I was drawn to the hustle and community of the printshop. Expensive, large equipment, production deadlines, even handling large sheets of paper necessitated making friends. It was easy in that space to feel like a team, to form a group aesthetic, to work toward goals together, to challenge each other, to collaborate. Painting, by contrast, was lonely, and crits were competitive. There was always this unspoken sentiment that every piece existed in a hierarchy, and your personal catalog of works placed you somewhere in line from best artist in the room to worst. But that’s not a very helpful way to look at the world, and not really a justified way to look at an art practice based on the way people interact with paintings, and the artists who make them.
I used to think the problem with painting was that it could never be a photograph.
But this too is a silly way to look at artmaking. The fact that paintings aren’t photographs only seem to make them more valuable over time. Not to mention the sizable group of painters using modern photography and computers to create some of the most remarkably realistic painted images ever created, the oily medium breathing life into the surface, the layers and glazes reflecting and refracting light as though an actual moment in time has been frozen, and the viewer is staring at it through an open window.
I used to think the dynamism of digital work rendered any static image meaningless. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that new media is always added to the existing, but never totally replaces it. How and why and when we use one material over all other may change, but there will always be a reason to return to older methods for some artists.
The fundamental problem of painting is that it insists on illusion as the highest form of itself.
We were supposedly freed from this logic trap by the modernist painters of the early 20th century. I scribbled down many frantic notes about Picasso and Mondrian and Matisse opening the art world back up and showing us form laid bare,materials comfortable being themselves. I “amen!”ed more than a few Greenberg essays, and craved a piece of that confident machismo that abstract expressionists like Mitchell and Frankenthaler and Krasner exuded. When people say “Painter” THIS is what they mean; when people say “Artist” with any measure of swagger, this is the cachet they’re referencing.
But contemporary painting doesn’t seem to know what it is anymore. We’re 70 years into “Contemporary Art” and we still have no sense of where we’re going. We just know we’re over “paint as material.” So we seem to be re-enamoured of the idea of painting as method of creating an illusion.
Photography is beginning to adopt this ethos, and that is why it is the most likely non-paint medium to be pronounced “Art” by those who pronounce such things. A Google search of “Fine Art Photography” roughly corresponds to what you will see hanging in the Photography wing of your local art school: Lots of black and white architectural shots, or surreal portraits, typically birds flying out of the chest of a woman freshly plunged into water. This is typically not staged even in part, but collaged with Photoshop, perhaps even from entirely stock image pieces.
You could argue that the first individual to create such an image was in fact practicing art, executing a more-or-less unique vision in a more-or-less novel way. I would argue that it’s beside the point. All other mediums seek to create something more or less real, and we call it craft and dismiss it. But paint decorating a surface, even in the aforementioned case of the photo-realistic work, openly admits it was made only to appear as a thing and is celebrated on the basis of how convincing an illusion it was. It is perverse to me that we want to dismiss paintings as “decorative” if they are not interested in making something appear to be what it is not. It is reprehensible to me that we want to discount all other art forms if they are not actively engaging in falsehood, and actually, if they are not placing the pursuit of falsehood at the pinnacle of their discipline.
I’m ready for the pendulum to swing back, for artists to be interested in the creation of objects that demand attention on the merits of their materially honest beauty again. There is room for living artists to paint images that are visceral, and meaningful, and moving to people outside the narrow discourse around Fine Art.