News & Commentary, Visual Arts

Artist John Kelly says reports of the death of painting have been greatly exaggerated

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I’m writing this under the duress of jet lag so anything I say is after a 24-hour flight from Sydney to Dublin with only an hour’s break in Singapore and London along the way. However as I wake at midnight, I feel compelled to write and while I am supposed to be composing a proposal I actually begin to respond to artist Gareth Sansom’s post on Facebook where he mentions somebody saying; “painting is dead”.

‘Just a quick snappy reply,’ I thought, for I too, had read Fairfax Media’s Melbourne visual arts critic Robert Nelson’s review of Painting. More Painting at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) in Melbourne where he regurgitated this much repeated – but meaningless – term. I had read Nelson’s review soon after seeing a sneak preview of John Olsen’s exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, just before I got on the plane.

Robert Nelson has some history with painting. A while back he referred to Fred Williams as “producing these dull spotty things…” and has suggested that when Jan Senbergs’ painting exceeds “…the mannerism of its construction, the result is artistically valuable”. One might ask Nelson – “Valuable to whom?” It sounds an extremely glib, or pompous statement especially when degenerating an artist’s lifetime of toil in a few words. How does Robert Nelson write from such a lofty position?

This reminds me of the artist cum critic Ronald Millar who used to write for the Melbourne Herald-Sun in the early ’80 (or was it just The Herald back then?). When I was a student at RMIT Ronald would write enthusiastic reviews for his artist cum lecturer colleagues, but when he had a show he would take leave from The Herald, (or was it The Sun?), and his stand-in would write an effusive review of Ronald’s exhibition. That’s the inherent problem of artist-critics – how do we untangle their biases and friendships? Sydney Morning Herald art critic John McDonald was once quoted as saying: “Apollinaire! He was the greatest nepotist. He just happened to be mixing with Picasso and friends. His writing was gushing and ghastly”.

If offered a choice, what would you prefer to be given: a Gareth Sansom painting of which he has many (a very good one at ACCA), or a video of a spinning coin?

I found the above quote from the Crikey’s Culture Mulcher – really Chong Weng Ho – who once reported on a critics’ round-table which included the former doyen of the Melbourne bow tie, Patrick McCaughey.

“And finally McCaughey deals with the unacknowledged elephant in the room, notably missing as a panellist — Robert Nelson, chief art critic of the Age: ‘I can’t believe the Age would have the critic they have if they could find another good critic.’” 

Based on his writing, one might hazard a guess that Nelson struggles to empathise with painters. For he makes a direct comparison of painting with a trite video of a spinning coin.

“This ingenious allegory for the circulation of currency – deliriously “watching money” – displays a symbolic power that has made video so successful. The balletic revolutions of the coin explore the contention between energy and gravity; and the beautifully observed footage also becomes meaningful by metaphor.”

To counter his “beautifully observed” point of view that is so meaningful, might be to point out the ubiquitous nature and facility of video art – the spinning coin video might have been created on The Gruen Transfer (the advertising expose ABC TV show) in response to a pitch. The Gruen says it “…lifts the lid on advertising, spin and marketing”. But anything can be art, can’t it? Even spin?

Well, yes. But if offered a choice, what would you prefer to be given: a Gareth Sansom painting of which he has many (a very good one at ACCA), or a video of a spinning coin, or even a Gareth Sansom photograph? After all, his photographs could hold as much currency of meaning as his paintings, and even more than the spinning coin video! The fact we know is that most would choose the painting. (For evidence just look at the auction records for Gareth’s photos). The reason is there is something magical about the art of creating something yourself sans-technology.

Where am I going with this? I’m not sure as the clock ticks past 4am, but the night before we left Australia, I sat – by coincidence – in the Lord Nelson pub in Sydney and on a screen it showed stunts being performed by cyclists, skateboarders and skiers including lots of spinning in the air. It could equally have been a spinning coin art video cum art-work for it was simultaneously both meaningless and mesmerising – operating on the level that one can’t take your eyes off the screen – like the experience at someone’s house for a cup of tea and a chat while they leave the telly on. One’s eye automatically connects no matter how banal the show and how hard you try not to. (I once read this could be a ‘flight or fight’ instinct reacting.) It’s powerful in the way sport on a big screen is, which is why they put them in pubs, even the Lord Nelson.

The week before I was in Melbourne and saw the Basil Sellers Art Prize exhibition (for art related to sport) at the Ian Potter Museum. Shaun Gladwell was exhibiting a similar spinning experience. At the Lord Nelson it was curry night (Tuesday) so I had multiple sensory experiences and a conversation whilst my eye darted to the daredevils on the screen. In comparison Gladwell in the gallery-museum seemed gimmicky as the ‘actor’ on a Duchampian cycle spun a 3D reality. Much like Nelson’s review, it seemed banal and unoriginal even with the stool in it (yes, a metaphor too) – and yes, I liked the arty joke (his, not mine) and even the technology – although we had come from a 3D gaming pop-up in Collingwood – neither impressed my 15 year-old son!

In contrast, there was the Olsen exhibition and a sensory experience and wonder at the power of painting, and the artist’s engagement with the landscape, both internally and externally. I would take a guess that at least 90% of the paintings in the ACCA show (I am being conservative) were created in a studio, in a city, just as the Gladwell video was.

To be fair, the wall text at ACCA did suggest it was looking at painters who had engaged with new technology – which is what exactly? In 2016, video of any kind is certainly not ‘new’. Olsen, on the other hand, engages the landscape and is of a mind where the paintings are not conceived under the fluorescent lights – even if they are painted there.

While Olsen painting on the wall is merely a calling card gimmick, the use of a mural at ACCA reminded one of a screen-saver with the paintings acting as the icons. The problem was that when you clicked on many of them, the folders just didn’t open or were empty. But maybe that was a reference to the lack of religion in contemporary art, and the installation was a form of secular advent calendar. The small amount that did open gave some rewards.

Could the next step be to have a computer curate – or has that been done already? Maybe the curator will soon be ‘dead’!

What was fascinating about the ACCA shows was that (in part-one of the two-part show) there seemed to have been some sort of consistency of pattern to the paintings. For example, I struggled to find a painting with a clearly defined horizon line in the entire show – strange in a country where the horizon dominates. Have we begun to look more inwards, now, as our cities grow and the politics of the past decade would suggest? There seemed to be a sense that an all-over pattern was the stylistic selection rationale, and everybody had employed the Luc Tuymans school of painting technique.

I question if a computer could have chosen these paintings based on a set of algorithms – set just to find relationships based on pattern and composition. More bizarre still, then one wonders – do individual curators essentially have a similar pre-disposition when selecting work? Could the next step be to have a computer curate – or has that been done already? Maybe the curator will also soon be ‘dead’!

The other question raised was why were so many brilliant Australian painters left out – I am sure John Olsen has looked at the odd photo or two in his day. Robert Nelson’s advice is; “Painting could make a comeback but painters would first need to rediscover the perceptual roots of pictorial construction to have life for more than the roll of a coin.” Maybe this is an old sage talking, but it also sounds like an extremely arrogant pontification in mixed metaphors.

At the same time, the review fails to ask other pertinent questions of the ACCA shows. Such as: Should any medium be separated by a kind of artistic apartheid? Will ACCA present similar exhibitions based on sculpture, printmaking or installation/video art? Is painting part of a broader contemporary culture or does it have a special status, given its longevity as the Methuselah of Art? Does this separation elevate or undermine its artistic currency that continues to turn or spin in its grave despite the regular last rites proffered?

By 6am I am beginning to wonder if painters in Melbourne should, in return, be critical of Robert Nelson’s dress sense, so he might begin to understand how we feel when he uses his podium to describe painting as ‘dead’ – a tired term that might mean; ‘past it’, ‘out of date’, ‘unoriginal and not worthy of any respect or attention’.

One might retaliate and describe his public writing as somewhat theatrical or clown-like, in that he seems to be looking for the pantomime response of ‘OH NO IT ISN’T’! This fits perfectly with his spotty shirts and bow ties and brings to mind the aphorism; if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck.

One might say that since the advent of the internet photography and video are now, also, dead – killed by over exposure and ease of access! But this would not be true, for both live on, through the internet platforms of Facebook, YouTube and Instagram – however their artistic currency has been greatly devalued by their accessibility online – take a look at the 76,000 hits you get when Googling ‘spinning coin’ in video search. On the other hand, painting lives on in the exalted gallery – just look at Olsen in the NGV again. At nearly 90, he just ‘killed it’!

[box]Main image: Sorry to kill the vibe, but time does exist 2016, wall painting by Sam Songailo at ACCA.[/box]




4 responses to “Artist John Kelly says reports of the death of painting have been greatly exaggerated

  1. Very nice text Mr Kelly.

    Q: ” Could the next step be to have a computer curate – or has that been done already? Maybe the curator will also soon be ‘dead’!”
    A: Well this has already occurred, the aggregation of a Google Image search will often throw up a more inspired and often more visually elegant coherent group of images and objects than any curator or artist could. I’m constantly thrilled by this.

    Art such as Gladwell’s can only be “Art” because it has been accepted into Art. Fine Art has borrowed (stolen?) relentlessly from “the Low”…maybe its time we rethought the whole Equation and reversed it conceptually. What if everything doesn’t move up (with a dubious neo-liberal trickle down effect), what if the internet and social media has caused Art to devolve back down the chain? And anyway ALL ART IS JPEG NOW anyway.

    Painting has lost its preeminent status (although in the Market Place it is Supreme) HOWEVER Painting is still the only medium that we can still safely say is ART and not the rest of the visual culture. Oil Paint was invented to depict human flesh better as de Kooning once said. So Painting is needed more than ever in the 21st century as a sort of “constant” to the thrilling and often overwhelming “everything” of the Internet and Social Media.

    To be very honest I was at QAGOMA the other day and couldn’t wait to leave. It was so dull, Contemporary Art is so repetitive. When I got home I went looking on eBay and found myself far more excited at making screen shots of all the weird photos people put up. Also I love looking at Shutterstock imagery…Generic imagery calms me, its the most aesthetic art there is.

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