Painting Now – an alternative view

Inspired by the lacklustre, boring effort of the Tate in their exhibition Painting Now, Edward Lucie-Smith nominates his own five painters

Contemporary painting, according to many critics and curators, is a dying art form. In the big Biennales it gets pushed aside by more ‘relevant’ forms of expression – installation, video, achingly fashionable performance art. We are encouraged to go to the major official galleries not to look but to think. In other words, to have conversations about economics with the likes of Tino Seghal and his acolytes (winner of the Golden Lion at the most recent Venice Biennale, then narrowly pipped for this year’s Turner Prize). In Seghal’s case, you could even get cash for participating – £2 for engaging in conversation, and thus being part of the show. There’s no way you can get paid just for looking at a painting. As an activity, this still ranks as self-indulgence, rather than as self-improvement.

It’s therefore been interesting, in more ways than one, to look at one of Tate Britain’s current exhibitions, demurely entitled Painting Now. Interesting to see the works themselves. Interesting to note the reactions of various reviewers. More interesting still to fantasize about what might have been. For the fact is that the art of painting has probably never been more alive in Britain than it is today. London’s studios are thronged with interesting young artists, and probably the majority of these are practitioners of this supposedly effete way of making art. If any one doubts this, they should look at the first volume of the iBook called 100 London Artists, which I recently put together in collaboration with Zavier Ellis, one of London’s savviest younger dealers. There are lots more who don’t live and work in the metropolis. You’ll find worthy contenders, already with established careers and reputations, almost wherever you look in contemporary Britain – in Glasgow, for example, in Liverpool, in Manchester and in Wales. They belong to an art world that is growing more and more isolated from that of our official institutions, but they are certainly not starving miserably in garrets. They hold exhibitions, they attract supportive collectors and they exist successfully within the framework of a capitalist society, where goods are produced in exchange for money. Which of course has been the basic pattern of the art market, at least since the later years of the 16th century. It’s the sort of world, economically, that Rembrandt and Vermeer were familiar with, not to mention our own Turner and Constable.

The problem is not any lack of talented artists who are practitioners of painting, but the way in which the social context has become skewed. There are, I think, two reasons for this, rather than just one. The first is the slightly unholy alliance between the world of ‘official art’, as represented by museums and increasingly numerous and ambitious biennials, and art that is supposedly innovatory. The avant-garde has triumphed, and the price of its success is that it has lost its mojo. It has become the pacificatory element in a ‘bread and circuses’ culture. Its job is to entertain – to keep our minds off the more depressing aspects of contemporary society, even when apparently criticizing it. It has to embrace a slightly fictional credo of democratization, despite something we all know, but don’t always like to say, which is that museums of contemporary art remain the playgrounds of the middle-class. Painting Now at Tate Britain is a case in point. The price of a standard ticket is £10. This reduces to £5 if you are in possession of a National Art Pass, which will cost you £53 a year for a singleton membership, reducing to £25 if you are under 25. The current National Minimum Wage for adults is £6.31 per hour. For 18-20 year olds it reduces to £5.03, and for 16-17 years olds it is £3.72, The job-seekers allowance is £56.80 per week. You can visit both the Tates for free, but not their supposedly cutting-edge exhibitions. If you are in a crap job, or out of work, these events are pretty certainly too much of a luxury.

The other factor is the ever-increasing emphasis on personal charisma, which, I think, at least partially explains the current fashion for Performance Art. A successful artist – the kind of successful artist who increasingly finds a showcase at major institutions – does not necessarily have to produce, only to be, like a certain type of medieval saint. With the decline of traditional faiths, contemporary art has become a kind of alternative religion. Yet this doesn’t alter the fact that, while an artist of this new charismatic type may convincingly display the stigmata, those eager to take a closer look at him or her usually need to have a bit of cash to jingle in their pockets. Medieval societies were more down to earth. If you enjoyed performances replete with subversive messages, you got to watch Dance of Death masquerades in your local churchyard. With any luck, you could also encounter an out-to-lunch high-as-a-kite visionary holy man right there in the street.

Given the situation I have outlined here, it is not surprising that critical responses to Painting Now have been somewhat confused. In his piece for the Sunday Times, Waldemar Januszczak began on a high note, saying “The curation and concept of this exhibition is fantastic and we wish other institutions would take gambles on shows like this…” Yet the review concludes with a savage parting shot: “This, then is a collection of painters who paint for the wrong reasons: not because they feel the joy or exhilaration of paint, but because using it is a means to an end.”

Richard Dorment, in the Daily Telegraph, took an almost diametrically opposite route. He begins where Januszczak leaves off: “What strikes me about these five artists is how suspicious they are about the expressive possibilities of painting, how they distance themselves from their subjects, damp down emotion, and refuse to use colour, texture or dynamic brushwork to seduce the viewer with an easy visual fix.” But then he changes tack: “I’d call them cerebral, but that’s not quite right. Nearer to the mark is the word integrity. This is painting you can respect.”

What does this all add up to? Basically, if you take the two reviews together, a sub-text emerges. What the two panjandrums are telling us is this: “Excuse me, folks, I really don’t want to say it outright in the columns of my big-circulation newspaper, but this is a thoroughly boring show. Not exactly bad, but very limited and – er, boring. Now will somebody please bring me a stiff drink.”

Reader, I went to see Painting Now, and believe me, this reaction was spot on.

Lucy McKenzie, also singled out by Januszczak, is the most engaging artist in the exhibition – apart that is from a galumphing and rather tacky installation in the middle of her space. The booklet informs one that this “painted architectural structure [is] a model of the marble cladding of the central living room of the Villa Müller in Prague, designed by the Austrian architect Adolf Loos (1870-1933).” To which the only relevant reaction is ‘So what?’ The rest of her offerings are smaller but much more skilful examples of the ancient art – or craft – of trompe l’oeil.

The interesting thing here is that stories about, and indeed debates about, trompe l’oeil effects form part of the very earliest literature about painting. The Historia Naturalis of Pliny the Elder, who died in the eruption that destroyed Pompeii, contains a famous story about a contest, long before Pliny’s own time, between the two Ancient Greek artists Zeuxis and Parrhasius, as to which was the more gifted artist. Zeuxis painted a still life of grapes so realistically that the birds flew down to peck them. Parrhasius then produced a work that was apparently concealed by a curtain. When Zeuxis asked him to pull the curtain aside, it turned out that this was in fact a painted illusion. Zeuxis conceded defeat, admitting that “I have deceived