Painting after technology

Alaena Turner

Hal Foster and Mark Godfrey in conversation, chaired by Dan Sturgis. 08/06/2015 Tate Modern.

How do we define a contemporary idea of painting? Perhaps through considering the relation to both history and the modern. Pursuing how traditions of expressive mark-making are used by contemporary painters to create points of resemblance or departure from earlier forms of painting, whilst also considering the extent to which current practitioners situate painting in relation to a ‘modern’ experience of the world, increasingly mediated through technology.

The curation of Painting After Technology simultaneously presents these two ways of defining the contemporary within painting practice, exploring the strategies and devices used by a selection of contemporary painters to respond to the history of the medium, and making visible the way technology may be engaged with through the use of industrialised production processes, digital image manipulation or presentation through new media.

The conversation between curator, Mark Godfrey, and critic, Hal Foster, framed this self-reflexivity and contextualisation around two key terms: gesture and the screen, as a way to suggest that painting might offer an alternative form of visibility and a mode of attention, that differentiates painting from technology, through an emphasis on the particular form of looking that is enabled through a direct and first-hand experience of material and scale. As Dan Sturgis noted in his introduction to this conversation, exploring the development of painting in relation to the prevalence of technology in our everyday experience enables one to question the critical relevance of painting: What is the critical debate of contemporary painting? Does the potential criticality of painting towards technology come to define a particular form of subjectivity?

21.-Technophobe,-Install-at-UCL-library,-2013

Technophobe, 2013. Oil on wood. 40 x50cm. Alaena Turner.

Godfrey stressed that the 11 artworks on display as part of the Painting after Technology room[1] had been “consciously collected”, as one possible response to the question of defining the contemporary in painting, a question, he argued, that is prompted by a shift in painting that occurs in the 1980s, with a return to expressionism and representation, and a rejection of the languages of minimalism and conceptualism.

Foster observed that whilst these selected works may be indebted to this transition in painting, collectively they actually took on some of the formal elements that the painting of the 1980s was opposing. As a series of flat rectangles on the wall, these works, including Amy Sillman’s animated work shown on an iPad[2], provide the conceptual minimum for an artwork to be positioned and read as a painting by assuming a conventional format. In addition to this, the pictoral content, with several references to the grid (Jacqueline Humphries[3] and Wade Guyton[4]) and representation of gesture (most obvious in Charlene von Heyl[5]), seem to continue the self-referential position that is particularly associated with Minimalism, taking the question of ‘what is painting?’ as subject.

The importance of establishing a historical trajectory of painting was questioned by contrasting this curatorial approach with the recent Forever Now exhibition of contemporary painting at MoMA, which sought instead to present painting as a-historical by exhibiting a selection of painters (including three of the artists in Painting after Technology) whose work “paradoxically doesn’t represent through style, through content, or through medium, the time from which it comes”[6] . Godfrey’s argument that this position is weak because it is pluralistic makes clear that at the Tate the notion of technology is used at the Tate to define a specific position, or a specific temporality.

This leads one to question what is particularly significant about the relationship between painting and technology at this current moment? As Foster highlighted, the positioning of painting in relation to technology is itself a historical way of thinking, that can be taken as far back in time to the invention of the camera obscura. In this regard, how useful is the notion of technology as a means to define contemporary painting?

When speaking in direct relation to the paintings on display, the term ‘technology’ was used primarily in a general (and not especially modern sense) to refer to a range of processes which the artists had made use of, including screen-printing, scanning, photography and digital image manipulation. The curation of Painting after Technology presents various strategies for using technology as an aid within painting, with an emphasis on using technology to produce/ reproduce painterly gestural effects, such as- the drip, the stain or the smudge, rather than as a means to pursue an aesthetic of exactitude. For example, Wade Guyton’s Untitled,2011, appears as a series of inconsistent black lines on an unprimed canvas, which begin to misalign and then stop before the entire surface of the painting is covered. Close inspection of these lines and the fluctuation in the density of black pigment may reveal that these marks were printed; this painting being the result of a digital file for a black rectangle that has then been transferred onto the canvas using an inkjet printer. Similarly, the positioning of Christopher Wool’s painting[7] next to his print[8] makes obvious the process used of sampling a mark from the corner of his painting and reproducing it as the starting point for the print, using photography, digital image manipulation and printing as a means to generate a new work. Technology then is important in our understanding of these paintings because it enables us to think of the gestural mark-making as appropriated, initiating a layering of processes that distances the gestural mark from the literal action of the painter’s hand, re-conceptualising the gesture as ready-made.

Foster highlighted that this use of technology within a painting process as a means to investigate painting aligns these works to Richard Hamilton’s use of photography and incorporation of pop in the 1960s, which was a means to counter the apparent challenge from photography to painting. Foster suggested that the scope of this exhibition could be extended by including works that are associated more with the legacy of Andy Warhol than Hamilton, pursuing seriality rather than singularity, and exploring how technology might be used to debase painting, or lead painting further towards a form of base materialism.

But, is it possible to conceive of a painting that can offer a heightened sense of physical awareness, a base engagement with material, without this coming to define the painting as a singular visual object?

The selected works in Painting after Technology seem to avoid a sense of hierarchy in image production. However, whilst the use of everyday technological processes, such as scanning, printing and photography, may be a move towards democratising painting, making the stages involved in the making of a work visible and allowing the process to be repeated results in an aesthetic where the singularity of these works is re-enforced. If we are to follow Godfrey’s assertion that these paintings are significant because they propose a particular “offer to look” we must take into account the specific scale, the sensory encounter with material, and the layering of mark-making, responding to the uniqueness of visual experience that is on offer. Therefore, whilst these paintings may allude to the possibility of repetition or reproduction through technology they remain autonomous artworks in the traditional sense.

Godfrey made repeated reference to the idea of the screen as a way to specify how these paintings might dissociate the physical act of looking from technology, outlining how this approach to painting might be understood as a response to technology, or “the rule of the screen in our daily life”. A key part of Godfrey’s rationale for positioning painting in relation to technology is that nowadays a significant proportion of our experience of looking occurs on a screen, on personal technological devices such as laptops or phones, meaning that the potential risk posed by technology could be defined by how it affects our sensitivity towards visual information, including our ability to concentrate our attention and judge scale and sensory material.

He stressed how these paintings call for a direct firsthand form of experience and a slower pace of engagement by describing the physical experience of looking at the work, such as observing the way light hits the metallic paint in Jacqueline Humphrie’s work[9] or the necessity to have to choose a point from which to view Laura Owen’s painting[10]: either close enough to be able to read the small screen-printed text and to notice the thickness of the impasto forms, or far enough away to be able to read these impasto forms as fragments of a linguistic phrase. Godfrey’s proposal that these painters call for a different mode of attention to that prompted and facilitated by technological devices is reinforced by the inclusion of Tomma Abt’s work[11], which initially appears as an anomaly in this curation due to the fact that it has no direct relation to technology. Abt’s process of working intuitively with layers of carefully placed oil paint within geometric boundaries, allowing the painting to come to its own form of resolution without a pre-conceived idea of image or composition, puts forward slowness and abstraction as values that may be in need of reappraisal in a culture where technology seems to promote instantaneity and the pursuit of information as the dominant mode of thinking.

The conversation between Foster and Godfrey was orientated around an idea of individual subjectivity, exploring how these painters may use technology to call for a form of looking that is both careful and active; inviting close physical inspection and an investigative approach to discover how painterly gesture may be faked and recognise that the appearance of style may not in itself be enough to orientate the work within a particular frame of history.

The unaddressed question raised by this curation is, how does painting, after technology, come to define a sense of community? Instead of considering how technology may have affected the means of communication between artist and audience, has technology, with the possibilities it has created for accessing new communities and sharing information, actually led to a change in the way painting establishes itself as a community of practitioners?

The curation of this show according to geographical connections and personal relations between the artists[12] suggests it hasn’t yet, but perhaps positioning painting in relation to technology is enough for a new generation of painters to begin to consider possibilities for contemporary painting in assuming the technological model of a connected and collective practice.

[1]                One part of the current MakingTraces display at Tate Modern.

[2]                13 Possible Futures, Cartoon for a Painting, 2012. Amy Sillman.

[3]                Untitled, 2014. Jacqueline Humphries.

[4]                Untitled, 2011. Wade Guyton.

[5]                Jakealoo, 2012. Charlene von Heyl.

[6]                https://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/1498#

[7]                Untitled, 2007. Christopher Wool.

[8]                Unititled, 2009. Christopher Wool.

[9]                Untitled, 2014. Jacqueline Humphries.

[10]              Untitled, 2012. Laura Owens.

[11]              Zebe, 2010. Tomma Abts.

[12]              The artists exhibited in Painting After Technology are all linked to either Dusseldorf or New York.

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