Published in the catalogue of the Freelands Foundation Painting Prize 2020
If painting is about any one thing, then it’s about rooms. Since contemporary painting, at time of writing, isn’t necessarily about paint, and isn’t necessarily about a received idea of surface, and has become by definition not easily defined – not that that stops us – then one thing it is about is rooms. Rooms are where paintings are made, stored, bought, sold, hung up, taken down, slashed, restored, and, sometimes, looked at. Caves are rooms for paintings just as chapels and mosques and temples are, and as palaces and libraries and train stations and nightclubs and schools and airports and garden sheds and bedrooms and boardrooms are. A history of painting is really a history of rooms, and painting on the whole reiterates the basic shapes of rooms. Most paintings are either literally walls/ceilings or are like walls/ceilings, and paintings that move carry the ghosts of the rooms they’ve been in around with them. All of this is to say that any address to painting’s place in culture ought to account for the shifting nature of its rooms, the expansion or shrinking of which is part of painting’s history, too. The economics of making painting are inscribed within it as a cultural expression, since a history of rooms is always also a history of economic life. Painting, I guess I’m saying, remains perpetually current because it is uniquely porous, constantly letting the rooms and lives it moves through soak into it. It’s not a coincidence, by the way, that paint itself behaves like that. Spilling, leaking, dripping and staining are fundamental to its vocabulary. Porosity is its only consistent trait.
Many of the paintings in this selection of undergraduate painters are notable for their embrace of this porosity, which, for the sake of argument, let’s position as the antipode of the formalist tendency of the second half of the last century. That’s not to say that these painters don’t find nourishment in the avant-gardes of post-war painting – the spectres of Joan Mitchell, Frank Stella and Jackson Pollock, among others, are loitering around, going boo – but it’s painting’s ability to speak beyond the confines of its own premises, to soak into and be soaked by the world itself, that feels compelling here. It’s there in the veils of translucent colour in works by Charlotte Guerard and Anna Woodward; in the slippery glimpses of bodies and objects in Fischer Mustin and Jack Whitelock’s work; even in the complex interlocking geometries in Lewis Deeney’s paintings, which seem infused by natural processes of erosion and decay. The point is that painting as a cultural practice, more than most forms of human culture, feels embedded in a phenomenal experience of the world we live in. It’s not that this is a novelty – all painting does this, has always done this – but it is perhaps a useful reminder in the face of questions around the validity of the enterprise, which have been part of the story probably since the very beginning, and show no signs of letting up. This selection of paintings is as good an argument as any not for the vitality or relevance of the medium – that’s never reasonably been in question – but for its central place as a point of contact between bodies and the spaces they inhabit, which is not a subject that’s ever likely to lose its currency.
My just-about-legible pencil notes on Anna Woodward’s work, scrawled on the margins of a printed-out page, have ended up somewhat resembling her paintings, in that they are palimpsests of looping cursive that teeter at the brink of recognition. It’s also that the visual effect of the words themselves – “lobes, frills, tentacles, loops, fronds, curlicues”, I think it says – graphically recalls Woodward’s use of paint to an extent that her paintings feel like something almost being said. Their interplay between sensuous pastel throbs, dark geometric slashes and whirling, feathered curls holds resolution at bay: no part has the upper hand. They are becoming something before your very eyes. Woodward’s paintings, as many of the paintings in this selection do, make a case for painting as something capable of speaking in a range of registers at once. That’s something made plain in Jack Whitelock’s paintings, too, in which unresolved narrative elements share space on a single surface without quite coalescing into a single voice. Although Whitelock’s work might at first appear to belong to a tradition of appropriation whose famous names don’t need to be pointed out, a more sustained engagement with his work reveals a knottier relationship to that tradition than it might otherwise seem. In ‘Shiny Boots Have No Laces’, the two horizontal parts of the painting – a schematised lilac brick wall above and an interior scene of two trousered legs, cut off at the knees, facing each other, below – generate a perplexing visual experience in which the shallow space of the bottom section suddenly bumps up against the flat wall above. This abrupt shift of register is part of its collage-like collision of elements, which resemble other things without directly citing them. The territory that Whitelock’s paintings seem to claim is this simultaneity of visual information, in which paintings are always speaking in tongues, and are never reducible to a unified reading. The fact that his reference points tease at but never satisfy the cultural memory of a given viewer is part of that evasion.
Perhaps it’s because paintings are conventionally made out of elements of the natural world – wood, stone, water, earth – that they retain a certain intimacy with the landscape. Perhaps it’s also because those organic elements are of necessity transformed, somewhat violently – stripped, crushed, mixed, dried – that painting can’t help but sit at the troubled intersection of the cultural and the natural. In the works in this selection that address the natural world, sensory experience of the landscape is continually checked in reference to cultural knowledge. In Stuart Raynor’s paintings, for instance, analogue photographs taken on walks in suburban areas (themselves, of course, pitched between the built environment and the rural) form the basis of paintings made in the studio. This is a practice reminiscent of John Constable’s built-in experiential delay, in which paintings of rural labour were created in the artist’s London studio, far in space and time from their point of origin. Raynor’s painting ‘Will-o’wisp in Between’, an evocation of the British hinterland between labour and listlessness, pits scrabbled brushwork against uncannily symmetrical compositional elements. That’s a way of layering different kinds of experience: the seen, the felt, and, crucially, the remembered. That spectral body in the centre, while calling to mind the British Gothic tradition, is also a remembering body, a way of visualising the body’s act of memory. This phenomenological tracing of the experience of the landscape on the body is there in Georgina Harris’ works, too. Painting out-of-doors, Harris uses paint as (in Constable’s words) ‘another word for feeling’, relying on its fluidity and speed to shorten the gap between experiencing and making. It’s a temporal gap that yawns open in Raynor’s work, making Harris’ works by contrast seem to be immediate and responsive, though it’s in the presence of that gap that Harris’ work gathers its force. Grey Winter Afternoon, for instance, has none of the melancholy associations of its title, and instead whirls with jabbed, scooped and swirled paint, in which light disintegrates every solid thing. This is landscape as something felt by the body, and Harris’ works dramatise the experience of transcribing that sensation. Like all of the paintings in this selection, Harris’ paintings celebrate the medium’s quality of slipping between positions, of saying many things at once, of equivocating. Something similar might be said of the work of Charlotte Guerard, whose titles (‘The Gherkin’, ‘I saw the sea sailing away’, ‘Sorry I’ve left you behind’) read like snippets of poetry or overheard speech, and embed her apparently abstract paintings in a world of quotidian emotional experience. Guerard’s veils of thinned pinks, olives, ochres and reds are described in abbreviated, even tentative touches, lending them an intimacy and sensuality that is distantly, though discernibly, related to Bonnard. The airy openness and translucency of Guerard’s palette, and her paintings’ tendency to slip over the edges of the canvas, is a quiet argument against containment. As in Harris’ paintings, experience is always filtered, partial, and glancing.Mentioning John Constable – twice! – in an essay about contemporary painting might seem retrograde, but it’s a tribute to the sincerity of many of the works here, in which the historic problems of the medium are, if not overlooked, then put to one side. Looking through the works, there is a sense that the implications (if not the techniques) of painters who have expanded the terrain of painting in recent decades – say, Katharina Grosse, Jutta Koether, Amy Sillman, Tala Madani, Kerry James Marshall, Angela de la Cruz – have been absorbed as new benchmarks for painting as practice. This has resulted, in this writer’s opinion anyway, in a kind of renewed faith in the medium’s ability to speak beyond a reiteration of its formal qualities or the history of itself, and to position it as of value because of that porosity and equivocation. Lewis Deeney’s paintings, though evidently informed by a tradition of transcendental abstraction that includes Richard Pousette-Dart and Hilma af Klint, remain materially embedded in the world of human culture. His painting ‘Our Equilibrium’, a complex pattern of unfolding geometric shapes in autumnal bronzes and browns, rewards close attention: its uneven pattern of brushed marks, made by cutting and reassembling the canvas, speaks to a world of battered and rusted surfaces, objects tarnished by use. Far from undermining his philosophical ambitions, this physical actuality and visible facture is a means of making understanding visible, of rooting thought in the life of the body. His work’s apparent lack of resemblance to current trends in painting is a reminder that there is always more to be said, and that painting’s history is by definition flexible, and continually open for reappraisal and reassembly.
Bodies are only themselves for a short while in Fischer Mustin’s paintings, which also feel reassembled out of existing parts. In ‘Night at the Museum’, spatial registers slide against each other, in a visual equivalent of distraction or intoxication. Heads and limbs modelled in a kind of muzzy tonality interrupt and are interrupted by passages of geometric abstraction (or Wetherspoons carpet patterns, or both). This dive in and out of flatness and depth is how Mustin deploys old tropes of modernist painting for new expressive ends. His are paintings that return bodily experience, in all its awkwardness and disorientation, to the centre of painterly practice. His work and that of Michael Hanrahan provide an opportunity to think through the role of figuration in current painting. In both artists’ works, the human body is a broken thing, loaded down, in the latter’s case, by thickly worked passages of description. Hanrahan’s ‘Untitled’ makes use of the intimacy of the painted mark, the closeness between the depicted body and that of the artist, in a scene isolated from narrative context which nevertheless calls on traditions of storytelling in visual art. An accordion player (or, more accurately, a man with an accordion; there’s no playing per se taking place) is held still against a dark background. Associations between peripatetic musicians and artists themselves have a long tradition that takes in Watteau, early Picasso, Rainer Fetting, and many others. That said, Hanrahan’s painting, like all of the works in this selection, is not so much beholden to painting’s past as able to revitalise elements of it in the service of speaking to a moment in time we happen to share. That’s what these paintings do, just by being themselves: they illuminate an alternative history of the medium, one in which making a painting is an act in the physical world, where human experience, like paint, is soaked deeply into every surface of every room.