Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Is Painting Dead?

No, not quite

My painting of Theseus fighting the Minotaur was a big hit at the faculty show recently. The kids loved it. Of course they would, a hero battling a monster is right up their alley. But on another level, their praise meant a lot to me. These are kids used to playing video games that can be more vividly real-looking than life itself. That a painted image could catch and hold their attention meant a lot to me. Which leads me to the conclusion that not only am I a pretty good painter, but that painting itself still has lots of life left in it.

People have been pronouncing painting to be dead ever since photography was invented around 1839. Critics eagerly wrote its death certificate and obituary many times over in the past 40 years, and yet, it persists. The critic Peter Schejldahl about 20 years ago said that painting has become an underground art form. Perhaps. It hasn't quite disappeared entirely from the big international contemporary art shows, the Biennials and Events. But, it is being crowded out by installations and related multi-media art forms.

Painting flourishes on the walls of buildings in the Bronx and in parts of Brooklyn, and some of it is quite good. Not all of it is vandalism. Store owners will commission spray-can artists to paint a wall to attract attention and business. Bereaved families will commission memorial walls, painted memorials on street corners, especially for deceased young people. It seems to me that these are continuations of very old social functions for painting.

Something else that really strikes me about so much contemporary art, at least the official stuff in the gallery, museum, academia circuit, is that it is so patronage dependent. Those big multi-media spectacles require a big down payment in order to happen. These artists spend as much time as movie producers hitting up corporations and foundations for money. Without those grants, these things just aren't going to happen. It seems to me that an anti-corporate message funded by corporate money is a compromised message. Of course, not all artists take an anti-establishment view. Many these days embrace the corporate consumer culture with enthusiasm (or resignation). Some are happy to cheer lead for international capitalism. In return, international capital embraces them for the prestige, glamor, and edge these artists can bring.

And yet, in a world so full of vivid and noisy distractions competing for our attention, painting quietly continues to flourish.

I predict that painting will be dead only when Marcel Duchamp's prophecy about using a Rembrandt for an ironing board comes true.


JCF said...


(you'll note from my phrasing I'm uneducated when it comes to painting. I'm just trying to be descriptive, as best I can)

Your style seems to have a kind of cartoonish quality (ala comics, graphic novels): I'll assume that's intentional. Could you tell us about that?

Counterlight said...

Why yes it does have a comic-book quality to it. I look at all kinds of sources sublime and not-so-sublime. I look at movies and the way shots and sequences are put together to tell a story (as do comic book artists). I also look at ancient Classical sculpture, in this case at the Parthenon metopes (the few that are left in the British Museum). When those were in their original brightly colored state, I would image that they too would have had a kind of "comic book" quality about them.
I look to the ancient stuff for this project to try to give my pictures a kind of completion and sense of the momentous that comic book pictures and movies don't always have.

rick allen said...

The experience of each of us takes in such an infinitesimally small swatch of experience that I am always doubtful of sweeping statements such as the "death of painting."

In the fifties the mainstream media had it that serious painters were bearded Communist who flung paint at canvases in miserable garrats. By the mid-eighties I suppose middle America must have continued to believe in paint flinging, but now by the painters lived in upscale brownstones, sold their paintings at a million a pop, and gave interviews in Vogue.

How much of that was true, I don't know. But my wife is a full-time painter, and, through her, I know ten to fifteen full-time painters, many of whom make their livings at it 100%. It is a hard life, and requires a lot of dedication. But all have a unique style and following.

One thing required for this to continue to flourish is a public, a middle America, that values the original and the hand-made. When I was in college I taped posters to the wall. When I began working I started framing the posters. But over the last two decades, even with some episodes of financial disaster, we have always tried to patronize our local artists, and now have a decent store of santos, small bronzes, prints and paintings. None cost a huge amount of money, compared to the electronics that seem most desired at Christmas, and none are expected to skyrocket in value (one of the most awful reasons that people are urged to buy art, "as an investment"--ugh). So I guess my point is simple: in my small corner of the world, painting seems much alive. And though modest in cost and unlikely to generate any world-historical trends, it is largely free of corporate or other big-money dictation.

rick allen said...

P.S. I had intended, when you posted your "Theseus" paintings, to comment on them, and I never had the time--maybe for the best.

Still, I would like to say, that I think it remarkable that you paint the figure, which I think the most ambitious and difficult subject.

June Butler said...

One thing required for this to continue to flourish is a public, a middle America, that values the original and the hand-made.

Rick, that is so true. Our house is full of handmade objects, from paintings, to ceramics, to baskets, to quilts, to furniture. The hand-made has a special quality about it that Tom and I both love and value. Oh, I forgot Tom's hand-made duck decoy collection, some of which are old worked decoys that actually went in the water. What's sad is that I doubt that our children will value the items as we do.

Doug, I see why your students were drawn to Theseus v. the Minotaur. You are an excellent painter, and painting is not dead.

Counterlight said...

Merry Christmas David G.