Contemporary Visual Art Magazine (N°15), 1997.
It is not a matter of relegating the question of art to a sort of tiresome derision (and moving on to chess) but of establishing a light displacement permitting the perversion of the "formal" effects in order to evince what is intellectually at stake1

Painting, for some time now, has represented all that a revolutionary aspect of the avant-garde seeks to overthrow and all that a reactionary cultural vanguard strives to conserve. Caught within this crossfire, the practice of painting has ritually been pronounced dead or miraculously revived in a type of 'now you see it, now you don't' game. The use of painting within narratives of avant-garde transgression (painting's death) or in terms of a reactionary relationship to history and tradition (the revival of painting) reduces the possibility that a radical aspect which is specific to painting can find a genuine place within critical thinking.

The last few years has seen painting mis-used within yet another narrative confusing this situation even further. In his essay Art After The End of Art 2 Arthur Danto said with, some confidence, that Modernism as a project had finally ended and that western culture had entered a 'post-historical' phase. By this he meant that a sense of the history of art as an evolving succession of developments had been supplanted by the idea that at any one moment anything is possible. For Danto painting was what most appropriately constituted this new found pluralism. He acknowledged within the same article that the pluralism he was advocating was problematic. A situation where everything is possible raises the problem of how one addresses aspects of the culture where difference and polemics are at work . In his article Danto refers particularly to feminism in this context but the position of cultural minorities applies equally here. Ideas of post-history do not make such issues of identity magically disappear. Danto has a tranquil view of a post-historical after-life. Painting suddenly finds itself in business again, but this time it's reborn as pluralism (instead of finality or origin). Surely this is somewhat over determined?

I'd like to talk about the work of some contemporary painters without resorting to temporal frames like post-history and pluralism, with the intention rather of deploying painting within a critique of such terms. It may be useful to begin with a reference to the writings of Yves-Alain Bois, recently collected into Painting as Model 3 and an essay by Benjamin Buchloh, From Faktura to Factography 4

In Resisting Blackmail , Bois's introduction to Painting as Model , he talks of 'two formalisms'. In the post-war period the term 'formalism' became overwhelming associated with Greenberg's system of criticism which has played such a major role in Modernist critical thinking. With Greenberg form and content were locked into an opposition, works of art were accounted for in either one of those terms. Bois regards this as being a fundamental flaw of Greenberg's thinking (although it must be said Bois never dismisses Greenberg out of hand). Bois identifies European formalism as being distinct from its American variety. Within this context he quotes the writings of Bakhtin/Medvedev:

"European formalism not only did not deny content, did not make content a conditional and detachable element of the work, but on the contrary, strove to attribute deep ideological meaning to form itself..The formalists therefore reduced form and content to one common denominator, although one with two aspects: (1) form and content were both constructive elements in the closed unity of the work, and (2) form and content were ideological elements. The principle of contrast between form and content was thus eliminated." 5

One way of viewing form and content as a 'common denominator' with two aspects is to consider faktura which is another word from the vocabulary of the soviet avant-garde which has been the subject of the writings of both Bois and Buchloh. For Buchloh it would seem to be a term that has perhaps informed his writings on Gerhard Richter. Faktura is quite distinct from facture the latter referring to the masterful intervention of the painter's hand, spiritualising the mere materiality of the picture. In Buchloh's words:
"the new concern for faktura in the Soviet avant-garde emphasizes precisely the mechanical quality, the materiality, and the anonymity of the painterly procedure from a perspective of empirico-critical positivism".

He later refers this to Rodchenko's project "to reduce the process of representation to purely indexical signs: matter seemingly generates its own representation without mediation (the old positivistic's dream, as it was, of course, that of the early photographers)." 

Thus faktura is a complex distinction, at one point challenging the status of the artist's hand in the painting and at another point looking at a work of art in terms of representation within an unmediated status of matter. It is faktura which was possibly a model for Buchloh to open up his reading of Richter's paintings whereby the photo and abstract works are linked as two parts of a common project. It seems that much turns on and is compounded within faktura as a term in painting and to apply it in practice across a field of painting might open up a useful discussion. 

I'd like to throw into question a critical axis which is currently at work in the reception and the making of painting particularly in Britain. The reception and success of Thérèse Oulton's paintings during the 1980s involved a misreading of her references to landscape. Many critics viewed her as operating within a landscape genre whereas in fact her work was more like a critique of romanticism and the sublime. She withdrew from such references in her work and instead her painting turned toward a problematic where identity is at issue. (This is why Oulton's work has been important for a way of thinking for women within a kind of 'radicalisation' of painting). An avant-gardist (or neo-conservative) discourse which accounted for her work within a genre of abstraction and a conservative faction accounting for it within a genre of landscape obscured a genuine reading of her work. This denied the most radical implication of her work which addresses questions of what constitutes painting. 6

The contrast with an artist like Ian Mckeever may be telling here. The peculiar hybrid term lyrical abstraction goes some way to sum up the collusion in his work of landscape and abstraction . Despite a recent call by Mckeever that painting should be strictly of itself7 there is a continual mesh of narratives around his work. One narrative relates to the specificity of the practice of painting and is consigned to a thinking of his work as 'abstraction'. Another focuses on the naturalising and essentialising aspect of his encounters with landscape in his quest for equivalencies to something that he associates with painting8. The confusion which is evident here is probably why Oulton has distanced herself from such narratives which were early distractions from what lay at the heart of her work.

Oulton has withdrawn to a place which it is unwise to call a position. It is a place rather that she inhabits where faktura in painting is her chief concern. She asks: 

"Is painting a speculative model for something else which isn't painting or can painting be a model for something that painting itself is? And what could it mean to be such a model? Whether it is a model for something else or some model of what painting could be, if that were the case one would have to always be aware that whatever else a painting is doing it would be proposing something that doesn't exist prior to that painting. Put differently this would mean that a painting if not a model at the symbolic level for the social-philosophical, could be a model for how art is made, could be made. Here we would have to decide whether it is a model at all, of the social kind or of itself kind. If not, it would have to be bereft of all echoes beyond itself. In as much as it is itself, it is outside of meaning. Which could be a real problem of what painting is; always itself and always a speculation of what is not. 

Here for painting to be itself or a model of what it might be is to displace the function it has had as a support for re-presentation. Oulton views representation as involving painting within everything that it is not. More importantly she sees this as chain of repetition of what she terms 'recognitions'. Painting as representation functions as the empowerment of that which is known prior to the making of a painting. The causality that is bound up in this relationship reduces painting to a function within a wider apparatus whereby the identities which result from recognition within representation are rendered as seemingly obvious, even natural. This configuration of identity is something she regards as possible to counter in painting. The faktura in Oulton's work is the point at which, as she says, "the that that it is" could be said to be operating. Aside from Oulton's tight reasoning there is also a wider imperative at work which is counter to the sense of a pluralism introduced earlier in this essay. Identity, recognition and representation can be read across a much wider field than painting but this is not the place to enter into such a discussion in relation to Oulton's painting*.

The painter Sadie Murdoch' shares similar concerns. Her 'wiped' paintings begin with black and white transcriptions of photographic images derived from interior design publications. She subjects this transcription to a cleaning process. Wiping the once immaculate representation transforms an ideal interior into a contingency of domestic life. There is a movement here from a representation of an ideal, in this case an immaculate interior, to a level of signification situated in 'base' material and process (the wiping of the painting). The faktura involved here challenges the position of an ideal within an hierarchical order of things. The ideal becomes dislodged from an elevated status by being literally de-based, and the movement involved is a descent from image to material. In this context she has quoted Barthes: 
"In a smear we find the truth of redness, in a wobbly line the truth of pencil....these gestures which aim to establish matter as fact, are all associated with making something dirty. Here is a paradox; a fact is more purely defined if it is not clean...the truth of things is best read in refuse."

The idea that matter in painting can be subject to a movement through an axis and thereby put its reading at risk is relevant to the work of Torie Begg. She makes groups of paintings which are apparently identical. to each other which she presents on the floor and ceiling as well as the walls. Through this way of presentation readings that identify similarities between paintings compete with the possibility to read differences between the works. She uses a computer generated 'score' from which she derives a procedure. Her paintings are a performance of a sequence of translucent layers of differently coloured paint, applied in a 'mechanical' fashion, resulting in a final colour which is the product of the traces of all the layers beneath it. Faktura here resides in the combination of mechanical procedure and a final surface being the sum of different traces. The relationship to photography is important in this context particularly in terms of a trace as being indexical; literally having a physical relationship to something the way a photographic film has to an object by means of light. 

The indexical status of traces and a connection to photography and painting bring Richter to mind again. Collage is a more recent invention than photography but shares a relationship to it in that objects from the world are brought onto or into or through a surface. This process could be described as an obscuring one or as 'effacement'. Like Oulton, Laura Lisbon is involved in a epistemological questioning. She asks simply what is a painting? Her enquiry has led her to think about effacement as a strategy for finding painting. In Painting and Ethics (or looking for painting) 9she says: 

A difficult negotiation of the question of the subject is a kind of erotic relationship of helplessness in the face of the other. It is an obliterating of the known for an engagement with the unknown. 

Painting on photographs is a clear effacement of sorts, a covering. Painting from photographs effaces the photograph as well in order to reveal the painting.

The French painter Christian Bonnefoi shares with Lisbon an epistemological enquiry into painting which has involved collage at a fundamental level. Bonnefoi regards collage as a way towards the continuation of painting rather than as a strategy to overcome it. Collage, like effacement, is way of thinking that moves toward the specificity of painting, toward a faktura of painting as being productive and not expressive, and within a temporality where painting is situated within a present perpetually open to future events. He says that collage is a:

'productivity of site for the reception of the future, unknown as such, unforeseeable, that I call the Obscure, in a positive acceptance, not as that which is taken in the absence of light but as that which, in an autonomous world, holds itself facing it.' 10

The faktura of painting is a way of thinking and making that is engaged at the level of painting. At the same time it involves an awareness that residing in the most localised or unmediated signification of matter are also ideological and ethical issues. This article has been for the most part about the vigilance of some artists in the light of such an awareness. I have also tried to emphasize that it is precisely in painting that this vigilance is possible. To circumscribe painting within the free-fall of pluralism or within the ghettos of genre diminishes its effectiveness and its potential for vigilance is weakened. 

(c) Mick Finch. 1997

Mick Finch is a painter living in France. He exhibits at the Purdy Hicks gallery London where he will be having his next solo exhibition in Spring 1998. He is also a professor at Parsons School of Design, Paris. 

1 Christian Prigent, Comme la Peinture (about the painter Daniel Dezeuze),Yvon Lambert, Paris, 1983. Quoted in Laura Lisbon's essay Painting and Ethics (or Looking for Painting) to be published in a forthcoming book, Painting and Ethics , ed Richard Roth, 

2 Artforum, April 1993.

3 Painting as Model, An October Book for the M.I.T. Press, 1990.

4 Originally published in October no. 30, pp. 82-119. Also published in October: The First Decade, the M.I.T. Press, 1987.

5Quoted by Bois in Painting as Model p.xviii, his reference to the quote is P.N.Medvedev/M.M. Bakhtin, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship (1928), English translation Albert J. Wehrle (John Hopkins University Press, 1978.

6 Notable exceptions here being Andrew Benjamin's Other Abstractions: Thérèse Oulton's Abstract with Memories, (in The Journal of Philosophy and the Visual Arts no. 5) and Peter Gidal initially in his catalogue text for Oulton's Fools Gold exhibition catalogue, Gimpel Fils London, 1984. 

7 Mckeever and Oulton both gave papers at a recent conference Questions on Painting at the Trent University, Nottingham, organised by the School of Fine Art.

8 This is most effectively evoked through a small text for his exhibition at the Angel Row Gallery in Nottingham describing his work thus: 

The works draw on a nature which he seeks out through journeys to such places as Siberia, Tasmania or Greenland. However, the paintings worked in the studio are about the nature of paint and painting and not travel reflections. 

Here a heroic allusion is made to Mckeever as tourist of the world's wildernesses and a parallel activity within his practice of painting. The linkage of art to nature here involves a sublime that is heavily hampered by a naive exoticism. Mckeever talked at the Nottingham conference of colour operating in terms of black as darkness and white as luminosity. This was said as if it were a certainty of fact. That such a statement is culturally specific (rather than phenomenally or materially specific) and is already being stated at a level of signification I think is as evident in the way Mckeever both makes and talks about making paintings.

9 To be published shortly in Painting and Ethics , ed Richard Roth, Lisbon is a painter but this text was written in connection to her role as a professor in the Art Critical Practices department of The Ohio State University, U.S.A. 

10 From The Objection that the Obscure makes to Painting by Christian Bonnefoi, 1996, catalogue text for a touring exhibition. This translation by Philip Armstrong. There will be a solo exhibition of Bonnefoi's work at the Theo Waddington Gallery, London during September 1997.