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 the birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis.”

There is a modern footnote to this story. Discussing it in a seminar held not so recently – in 1964 – the innovative French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan suggested that it represents the fundamental difference between human and animal cognition – animals are attracted by superficial appearances, while human beings are enticed by what is apparently hidden.

It does, however, occur to me to apply Lacan’s analogy in a different way. Januszczak, in his review, offered a fairly deadly quote from the catalogue of the show. Here it is again: “As painting is no longer in a position of autonomy — alone and apart — this also entails a move away from an idea of medium specificity, defining a practice as ‘painting’ or ‘film’, and towards a post-medium age, what a recent conference at Harvard examined as the ‘medium under the condition of its de-specification’ ”

One glance tells you that this is a prime example of contemporary curator-speak. It is designed to hide meaning rather than to clarify an aesthetic and philosophical situation. Does it, however, arouse curiosity, like Parrhasius’s fictive curtain? I fear not.

It does, however, offer clues why Painting Now has such a blank, repressive effect. It is in fact an elitist show that attempts to convince the audience that it is, on the contrary, populist, because that is the remit that our great official galleries now have to follow. To translate: this is the condition that central government imposes when it gives them the money. Curators (of a certain sort) feel that painting is past it, no longer viable, hardly worthy of their notice. To survive, they think, it has to ape, however clumsily, the supposed higher values of more contemporary forms of ‘art’ – the inverted commas because this art, like the activity of Tino Seghal, whose contribution to the recent Turner prize show I cited earlier, may not be visual in any recognisable sense, while painting remains stubbornly addressed to the eye. What I carried away from Painting Now was a sense that the organisers – no fewer than three curators for just five artists – were muttering to themselves “I wish we didn’t have to do this kind of stupid show, but the public, dammit, persists in liking this old-fashioned past-it stuff, so let’s make it as close to respectable avant-garde intellectualising as we can get.”

I’m conscious, at this point, that the retort I am likely to provoke here is “Do you really think, given the present situation in British art, that you could do any better?” Well, yes, I believe I can – although the show I’m now going to propose is most unlikely to find itself on the walls of any gallery here in Britain. If it were to be presented abroad, I think well-informed spectators on the continent of Europe, or in the United States, would immediately recognise it as offering a fairly convincing image of what is happening in British painting today. For the time being, however, an imaginary museum in my head, and perhaps in that of the reader, will have to suffice. The five artists I now suggest all seem currently significant on the British art scene, though they are so for different reasons. They are, of course, not the only possible choices, but they do give an idea about how rich the British art scene currently is, and what some of its key preoccupations are. One thing it is not is timid and repressed, which is what the Tate Britain show benightedly suggests.

My first pick for such an event would be the work of Charming Baker. Baker is a recent phenomenon who seems to have passed the Tate and its acolytes by, while having a very considerable impact elsewhere. His career has been a slow burn. He was born in 1964, and thus belongs to exactly the same generation as the now declining YBAs. After working for a while as a manual labourer, he enrolled at Central St Martin’s, and later held a post there as a lecturer. For many years, however, his main source of income was derived from working as a commercial artist. Things changed for him when he attracted the attention of an American management company whose main business was not art but popular music. Since then he has done a series of high profile, hit-and-run type exhibitions, usually lasting just a few days. The most recent took place last March, at Milk Studios in Los Angeles, and lasted just three days. Milk Studios is a converted aircraft hangar, and describes itself as a creative hub, standing “at the crossroads of the fashion, music, photography and film worlds”. Usually he sells out, though Tate Britain, tellingly enough, has yet to acquire a work, even a print, by an artist who has attracted many of the most savvy collectors of contemporary art.

The basic attractions of Charming Baker’s work are easy enough to see. He is extremely fluent and inventive technically, but uses a wide array of skills with wit, combined with lightness of touch. He is, like many contemporary artists, interested in appropriation, but never in the rather crude fashion exemplified by Richard Prince’s versions of billboards advertising Marlborough cigarettes or Glenn Brown’s enlarged copies of SF book covers. What he does is to trawl the vast ocean of the Internet, finding unconsidered trifles, and magically transforming them. For example, a photo of a dead cat – road kill – found on some teenager’s web site – is magically transformed so as to bring the creature to life again.

My second pick would be Iain Andrews (b. 1974). Andrews is an example of the increasing vitality of art outside the all-devouring metropolis. He did not train at a London art school, and now lives and works in Manchester. He too is an appropriationist of a sort. He describes his creative process in this way: “My paintings begin as a dialogue with an image from art history – a painting by an Old Master that may be rearranged or used as a starting point from which to playfully but reverently deviate.”

In addition to working as a painter, he also works as an art psychotherapist with emotionally damaged children. It is not surprising to find him saying this: “My recent work is concerned with the struggle to capture the relationship between the spirit and the flesh, incongruous subjects that are expressed in my work through the conflict of high religious themes with sensuous painterly marks. I look to the tradition of great religious painting throughout art history, and often reference particular images through my work. This is done in a way that plays between the borders of figuration and abstraction, and hopefully presents the audience with new possibilities of viewing the work. Paintings are often stained or blurred to create the effect of an image viewed through the faded layers of time and history and to further disrupt the literalness of what is depicted.”

For me his work has resonances that are completely absent from anything I saw in Tate Britain’s Painting Now.

My third choice is the work of Joe Machine (b. 1973). Machine, born Joe Stokes, was nurtured by the Medway Arts scene – a provincial avant-garde entity that originally sprang out of the Punk Rock upsurge of the 1970s. Tracey Emin, unsinkable queen of the YBAs, came from the same background. Machine is a founder member of the Stuckist Group, inveterate opponents of Tate’s self-congratulatory Turner Prize. He, like, Iain Andrews, has strong links with the world of therapy. After a troubled adolescence and early manhood, including a spell in Borstal, he has used his art as a way of recognising and controlling his own demons. He has recently produced two remarkable series of paintings – one about the Book of Genesis “as the account of a failure”, the other about the Russian Revolution, also considered as a failure.

Machine belongs to a couple of important traditions in the history of British culture. One is that of radical provincial efforts to challenge the complacency of the centre. The Medway Scene was the successor of the Liverpool Scene of the 1960s. Both were as much about poetry and pop music as about involvement with the visual arts. The other is that Britain has always produced powerful Outsider artists, with little or no formal training. Francis Bacon, now the darling of the great auction rooms, had no training of this sort. Lucian Freud had very little. The artist Joe Machine most reminds me of, however, especially in the Genesis series, is William Blake. And he, like Blake, is also a poet.

My roster of artists – five, to equal the number whose work is now on show at the Tate – is completed by two figurative painters, John Stark (b. 1979) and Emma Bennett (b. 1974). Both are intensely interested in the work of the Old Masters. Stark says, for example: “Zurbaran’s monks in meditation have always struck me. They are mirrors which I literally fall into, and they become Avatar. David Teniers alluring paintings of caves with Saints in penitence fighting off demons and alchemists toiling away in their grottos have always captivated my imagination. I’m intensely drawn to the Flemish painter Joachim Patinir and his depictions of St. Jerome as a scholar in study, a hermit retired to the rocky wilderness of the Syrian desert in search of divine consciousness and sublime union. The landscapes are like models of earth, maps on kilter, a stage for the narrative of existence.”

The press release for a recent solo exhibition held in Milan declares: “The pursuit of truth through the creation or perception of these works leads us towards an experience of the true meaning of occult: that which is clandestine, recondite, and perhaps inherently unknowable. Here, within foreign lands, Stark becomes the foreigner offering us images that operate between immersion and reinterpretation, fragmentation and the whole, and which ultimately confront the apparent self with the necessity of its dependence upon the vertiginously unfathomable.”

Bennett makes faithful transcriptions of things borrowed from Dutch 17th century still life and marine painters, presented in fragmented form against a black background, with occasional disruptive interventions borrowed from the 20th century Abstract Expressionists.

Both painters use their borrowings to create fascinating and slightly troubling metaphysical universes. Bennett says: “I describe my paintings as personal explorations of the emotions associated with death and the fact that we die, yet also as contemplations of the value of life and of living things, and – again – as amusing explorations of paint and the act of painting.”

I admire their work, just as I admire that of the other three painters I have cited, because it resonates in my imagination. This is exactly what the paintings presented in Tate Britain’s Painting Now fail to do. There is also the fact that it very obviously reflects a much broader and more complex cultural situation than anything that exhibition has to offer.