‘The death of painting’ is an event (or non-event) that has sparked heated debate across the art world for well over a century. Some proclaim it occurred a long time ago, while others assert such a day will never come. The roots and narrative of the argument are complex and varied. Aside from the blow delivered by the arrival of photography (which could capture the world with a far higher degree of technical accuracy and speed), the rise of abstraction and conceptual art, and the decline of realism, over the last 150 years or so, has played a significant part; positing figurative modes of expression as limited, ‘outmoded’ and ‘anti-progressive’.
In fact, figurative painting is far from extinct and has seen a notable resurgence within the field of contemporary art over recent years. One thing that has remained relatively constant however, is the polarised, binary relationship between which abstraction and figuration are generally conceived; each held in direct contrast to the other. Taking this framework as an initial point of investigation, two recent group shows organised by PAPER in collaboration with the LA-based gallery Durden & Ray have provided a fascinating look at the state of painting today, and the symbiotic relationship that exists between these two painterly modes.
The Surface of Things (July/August 2017 in Manchester) and The Sense of Things (November 2017 in LA) both stemmed in part from a quote by one of the great pioneers of 20th century abstract art – Piet Mondrian – scribbled in his sketchbook around 1911: “The surface of things gives enjoyment; their interiority gives life.” Dipping between these two parallel planes of ‘surface’ and ‘interiority’, the summer exhibition explored abstract painting’s potential for examining the relative world of physical, lived experience; while the winter exhibition looked at figurative painting as a means of connecting with a ‘higher’ or ‘deeper’ realm of symbolic or abstract ideas.
This emerged in The Surface of Things through works such as Lisa Denyer’s X (2017), which references the standard ‘X’ icon used in various design software, and the degree to which digital screens and computers now dominate our day-to-day lives. While The Sense of Things included numerous works alluding to dreamlike, surreal or subconscious spaces and ideas. Jack Duplock’s Today is Tomorrow, Yesterday was Today (2017), for example, has a distinctly magical realist feel to it; the central figure perhaps drawn from folklore or the artist’s imagination. And John Mills’ interest in the history of human mark making – from the graffiti and cartoon lines that appear in popular culture to the earliest cave paintings – could be read as psychoanalytical.
Interestingly, David Leapman is one of only two of the artists who seem to have wholly straddled the gap between sense and surface, by appearing in both shows. Perhaps this is fitting as the London-born, California-based painter’s notion of the art form as a ‘journey’ (in reference to William Blake’s notion of “Innocence to Experience”), and of images as ‘vessels’ or ‘carriers’ of ideas, seems to touch upon a point of fundamental commonality between figuration and abstraction.
The ‘death of painting’ debate has not only rumbled on over the course of many years, but also been blurred with politics throughout. The most famous example of this is perhaps Herbert Read and Kenneth Clarke’s charged exchange in the pages of The Listener magazine in 1935, shaped by fears around rising fascism in the build-up to WWII. Though the conditions are very different today, the artists in both The Sense and Surface of Things have been equally affected by the openly hostile conditions and far right politics that have surfaced in Britain and the USA over the last couple of years, leaving the populations of both countries deeply polarised. The traces of this can be found in Richard Meaghan’s crowded scenes, for example, which address the ‘never-ending stream’ of political corruption that runs throughout ancient history and theology right up to the globalised world of today. And David Hancock’s dystopic, post-apoplectic landscapes, based on digital avatar communities turned ghost towns.
Overall, both exhibitions present a fascinating provocation to artists today; challenging painters to question the ideas which have developed around longstanding conventions, and explore ways of confounding the expectations that precede established modes.
Words by Sara Jaspan