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Painting has been quarrelling over its role and function for nearly 200 years – since, at least, the invention of photography. A fresh twist, according to Tate Britain’s new show Painting Now, is that it has become “a medium under the condition of its de-specification”.
Poor painting! Its status collapsed long ago in museums more excited by installation, performance, film. Now it is deprived even of autonomy as a distinctive medium.
For the youngish mid-career artists selected for this exhibition, Tate says, “the activity of painting can be understood as a process of resistance”. This is not to say they hate it, rather that they acknowledge a cultural climate where painting is losing currency as a way of responding to the world. As a result, painting risks dwindling – defiantly, even aggressively, in works by four of the five artists here – into a self-referential, sealed language.
Converging painting and installation, Lucy McKenzie addresses this bankruptcy head-on. In 2007 McKenzie, “a bit bored with the way both my work and my career were going”, enrolled at the Institut Supérieur de Peinture Van Der Kelen Logelain, Brussels, a decorative painting academy founded in 1882 and more or less unchanged since. Under strict traditional discipline, McKenzie learnt skills of trompe l’oeil marbling, wood graining and panel decoration, then turned them to subversive effect as conceptual strategies. “Loos House”, her major installation at Tate, is a parody-copy of an interior by the modernist architect Adolf Loos. Wooden cubes pasted and stapled with trompe l’oeil marbling, rough and provisional, substitute for Loos’s concrete monumentality and aesthetic seriousness.
I read McKenzie’s subject here as the empty pleasure of faking it. Meticulous paintings of cork noticeboards pinned with reproductions – images of art deco objects, a photograph of deco-cubist Tamara de Lempicka, modernist architectural diagrams – also work by trompe l’oeil visual punning. This 2012 series, called “Quodlibet” – “that which pleases” – has subtitles (“Fascism”, “Nazism”, “Objectivism”) drawing attention to ways in which the modernist experiment was hijacked by political and philosophical extremists. Is all image-making propaganda? Are museum exhibitions mere demonstrations of cultural power? If so, as McKenzie said in an interview when “Loos House” was inaugurated earlier this year at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk, “social engagement within contemporary art is itself a form of trompe l’oeil”.
It was centuries of eye-deceiving painterly illusion, of course, that modernism set out to shatter. Gillian Carnegie, Tomma Abts and Catherine Story are not quite archivists in the manner of McKenzie, but each adopts a retro look to pursue challenges posed by cubism, Russian avant-gardes and early cinema.
Carnegie, whose best-known painting in Tate’s collection is the tree-tangled abstraction “Black Square”, is ostensibly a representational painter. Here she focuses on architecture, with Malevich as background. Interiors feature banisters, landings, stairs, their strict verticals and diagonals sometimes disrupted by the silhouette of a black cat. A still life, “Section” (2012), emphasises a room’s angular corners over a flattened arrangement of moribund flowers. In “Pearl Eyed” (2010), a façade and rear view of mock-Tudor houses imply an odd vantage point of turning back on oneself.
Employing a palette of shades of grey and dirty cream, rigid lines refusing to align with picture planes, and stagy cropping reminiscent of early black-and-white movies, Carnegie insists that none of this quotidian world be taken as real. Devoid of pictorial life, her images seem to me frustrated attempts to deny representational potential – or, as Tate says, “the very obscenity of representation itself in its materiality”.
Abts, 2007 Turner Prize winner, trained in Berlin making films of stripes blinking and fading in different rhythms, influenced by structuralist film-makers. That theory-drenched heritage persists in the interweaving diagonals, triangles, waving lines, arcs and circles, built up in layers of oil on acrylic in her small, identikit 2010 vertical-format abstractions: red and grey stripes within arc-like forms in “Zebe”, sharp-edged orange and red lines over black rings in “Jeels”, terracotta curves casting falsely angled shadows in “Uke”.
Abts’s fastidiously wrought surfaces, muted palette and monosyllabic, non-disclosing titles (plucked from a dictionary of German regional first names) admit no variety; no part of a painting arrests more than another, no single work claims particular attention. Though they use the geometric vocabulary of Utopian constructivism, Abts says her compositions are free of references: “I am constructing an image from nothing.”
Can something come of nothing? Refusing expressive possibilities of colour, brushwork, texture, Carnegie’s and Abts’s hermetic paintings struggle to make a case for their own existence. Sure, they test the limits to which painting can or cannot survive a complete neutrality of tone and detachment – but that cannot sustain interest, or an oeuvre, for long.
Story, a yet slighter talent, is concerned with painting’s relation to film. She depicts vintage wooden projectors in faux-cubist style – “Lovelock”, “Lowland” – as abstracted personages, sculpts them in white acrylic on clay (“8”), and anthropomorphises electricity pylons in black oil outline on baking paper in “Sweetwater”, an image faded and hazy as an old sepia photograph. Story says “painting is a way to communicate ... like silent film”. On this showing she has nothing to say, other than to comment on the de-specification of her medium. Like McKenzie, Story’s affinity lies with fashionable modernism-revisited practices of historicising artists in other media – sculptor Martin Boyce, installationist Goshka Macuga – rather than with painterly values.
Simon Ling, vibrant painter of Hackney’s disintegrating office blocks and shabby store fronts, stands in this conceptual battleground like a Trojan horse. Ling’s motifs – buildings – and a measured approach to pictorial construction, superficially connect him to the other artists in Painting Now, but his engagement with the world (he often paints en plein air) and exquisite physicality of paint lift his work to another level.
Seen as if fleetingly from the windows of a bus, yet investigated with intense close-up detail, architecture in Ling’s animated, fragmentary compositions is unstable, fluid. Layers of office windows precariously climb a canvas, resting awkwardly on a pavilion-like lower structure, itself perched uncertainly on a pavement: the whole edifice teeters towards breakdown. Windows, doors, drainpipes, chimneys slant and sway: piles of computers in a boarded-up electronic junk shop, framed in brilliant turquoise, threaten to topple; rococo cornices and neoclassical columns melt among garish hoardings and crumbling brickwork.
A milieu we know is here created anew by a painter of individual vision who pins down the everyday and takes it out of the moment, allowing us to re-experience it, through his making, for eternity. All good painting deals like this with time, by implication considering mortality. But painting also celebrates life – as Ling wonderfully reminds us in the face of his death-by-theory colleagues.
‘Painting Now: Five Contemporary Artists’, Tate Britain, to February 9 2014. tate.org.uk