Contemporary Magazine (N° 58), 2003.

In 1997 I wrote an article for the first 'condition of painting' edition of Contemporary Visual Art magazine entitled 'Painting As Vigilance' (1). In the interim painting has found itself in a world that was unimaginable from the vantage point of 1997. It does, however, find itself to be still very much in business and thriving. Maybe the reasons for this are entirely pragmatic and remote from the rhetoric of death and finality that have, for so long, surrounded discussions about painting. In economic recession and down turns, when the public purses are tightened the market invariably turns to painting. It is always flexible, polyvalent, perfectly adapted to phases of down sizing. The eighties saw a similar situation, economic uncertainty, a republican in the White House and painting everywhere. Or perhaps, in a less Darwinian sense, the death knell so often ritually pronounced around painting throughout the eighties and nineties was effective in recasting it in a kind of after life, less in terms of an incipient rebirth, more as a chimera haunting the wider culture, or perhaps as the after glow of some spent radioactive substance. Such an awry perspective could make painting an appropriate signifying practice for such apocalyptic times.

Painting's not only evident survival but embedded position as a contemporary visual art practice(2) must be in part due to the fact that the diverse modernizing strategies that painters have applied in response to the demands of 'post conceptual' protocols of practice, can result in the realised work being identifiable, as a specific medium and more or less as painting (3). An example of this has been a recontextualisation of painting in terms of the logic of the 'expanded field' that was formerly applied to a context of sculpture, and through its relationship to minimalism, was pitched against painting. Here painting is not limited to being wall bound, questions of surface and support lead to questions of volume and its status as an object (4). This strategy formally involves an idea of painting being in excess of itself which in turn depends upon the categorical regime of medium specificity. In short, the possibility that painting can be somehow said to be 'itself'. Other high modernist debating points such as shape and pictoriality are arguably as important here as they were in the nineteen sixties. However the cogent aspect here is more to do with juxtaposing painting with questions of exhibition and presentation, questions that bring painting into line with a 'post conceptual' concern for context (5).

If such a strategy can be broadly thought of as presentation or exhibition its twin terms are invariably those of the studio and production. The last decade or so has found productivist attitudes to be popular with painters. Likening the studio to the factory, distancing the artist from the point of production is familiar at least since Warhol. However the tiredness of such strategies has been noticeable with artists like Bernard Frize. The questioning of 'authorship' and 'expressivity' by employing teams of assistants armed with 'instructions' to make the paintings has become to feel almost charming and anachronistic (especially in its seemingly nostalgic relationship to an implied Fordism). Alongside this has, for some, been the dizzy sense of how fast some syntactical forms of abstraction have come to feel outmoded and quaint (6). Their relationship to 'technology' seems to have been the reason for this. Skating upon on such slippery surfaces, making hopelessly optimistic bids at prefiguring, the then, emerging technological sensorium. It is tempting to attribute some of the success of Neo Raush to his referencing of productivist painting in relationship to the laboratory and the factory as a kind of cheap 'B' movie slapstick(7).

This cursory résumé of the relative success of painting to survive and thrive in a broadly post-conceptual situation is made to point to a more pressing and present situation where key questions of context are being brought to bare upon painting as well as upon 'art in general'. For, at least in Paris, the collapsing of the spaces of production and exhibition of works of art into a single space has been, at least symbolically, an institutional objective. The Palais de Tokyo in Paris, which is not an exhibition space so much as a 'site of contemporary creation', has sought the logical outcome of a post conceptual objective; to fold art into life and eliminate the aesthetic object as a mediating factor of social relations. This has been ritually viewed as either hopelessly utopian or as a smart management ruse in down-sizing cultural production, redefining the artist as a cultural mediator or worker within a broadly social space. One can imagine such a model of a visual art institution will prove irresistible in the future, where questions of funding and the political capital of cultural initiatives that promise tangible social outcomes are at a premium. Such an institution, that foregrounds the context of cultural work, militating for the utter dematerialisation of the art object and displacing the autonomous art object will surely put further pressures upon practices like painting to confront issues of context arising from 'art in general'(8).

The rhetorical background to much of what is at work at present is worth noting in relation to future 'calls to context' in terms of painting. Hysterical allusions made throughout the eighties and the nineties to a baroque, free fall, renaissance in painting have become to seem tawdry, perhaps in the light of recent seismic global events. If such historical allusions must be made maybe a neo-rococo in painting more accurately typifies a general state of affairs (an allusion that can be equally applied to 'art in general'). Likening a 'realist' tendency of art in general to a pastoral rhetoric (9) is perhaps a useful trope for a future recontextualisation of painting. Its relationship to the framing conditions of representation invariably stand it apart from any utopian 'art into life' project as either its feisty opponent or the colourful lame duck.

Never-the-less questions of context in regard to painting are as numerous as ever. Perhaps the most positive challenge of esthétique relationnelle and the Palais de Tokyo has been to buck the automatic presumption that painting should be shown, as finished, fait accompli, objects in the brightly lit and visually intense environment of the gallery space. The environment of the studio for so many painters working today has become a darkened space where an image or motif is transcribed upon a surface from an image whose origin is remote from the studio. Painting and its many prostheses seems to be an important and live question of current painting practices. It implies an interesting alternative to the strategy of an 'expanded field' of painting. The prostheses of painting implies a relationship to image, imaging technologies and transcription processes (10). Alongside this the position of 'image' within the dynamic of abstraction that is so materially and historically akin to painting has become arguably more pressing an issue now than it has ever been (11). The global situation, at least since nine-eleven and also the recent iraq war, arguably spells out a need for a revision of the former view that the modernist project signified hegemonic power. It would seem now that minimalist and conceptual art, with their taste for totalising structures and a tendency toward creating 'situations' seem to be clearly the appropriate tropes with which to characterise and understand the emerging hegemonic order within a field of representation (12). Within such a field, fetishised objects, such as paintings are potentially at least an antidote (and maybe at best a riposte) to larger insidious forces (13). Perhaps here the real issue is not one of endless recontextualisations of painting in the name of modernization but instead the bringing to processes of reification a context through which scrutiny becomes possibile.

(1) 'Painting As Vigilance', Contemporary Visual Art magazine n°. 15, 1997 . Contemporary in another of it's lives being known as
Contemporary Visual Art magazine. This text can be found at:
(2) Which perhaps , strangely, cannot be quite said to be the case of sculpture? Although the eighties did see the return to the gallery and museum of the 'statue' most importantly in the work of Koons and then later the wax figure and the mannequin in the work of countless artists during the nineties and up to the present.
(3) This situation it shares with other mediums, photography and video, respectively the defining mediums in terms of technological advances in the 19th and 20th centuries. At least in Paris, where I most regularly visit galleries, painting, photo and video are very much in evidence and are often the strangest of bed fellows within the framework of a single group exhibition . The reasons for this might be
very complicated in that all three mediums, conventionally ,inhabit the vertical plane, perhaps the efficacy of these mediums has more to do with the price of real estate from the perspective of both collectors and galleries in terms of questions of exhibition, storage and portability.
(4) In the U.S.A. Jessica Stockholder, James Hyde and Polly Appelbaum have long been examples of this. In France such examples are artists such as Philippe Richard and Edouard Prulhière. Imi Knoebel can also be seen in these terms. Schnattenraum 4, 1988 is an interesting example that was recently exhibited in the exhibition As Painting: Division and Displacement (Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio, U.S.A., 2001). This exhibition was perhaps the most comprehensive survey to date of issues merely touched upon in this section of this essay. The accompanying book of the exhibition, As Painting: Division and Displacement, Philip Armstrong, Laura Lisbon and Stephen Melville, MIT Press, 2001) has rapidly become a standard reference book for those interested and engaged in this territory.
(5) Artists such as D.J. Simpson and Matthew Ritchie, although more concerned with an axis of culture seem to benefit from the modernizing dynamic of an expanded field of painting.
(6) I am thinking here of artists like Lydia, Dona, Fiona Rae, Stephen Ellis.....
(7) Neo Rauch's Die Wahl of 1998 particularly comes to mind in this context.
(8) Agnes Thurnauer, the only painter, in my knowledge, to have been given a solo exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo, made a clear demonstration of how the 'relationnelle' aspect of a practice of painting is imagined to map out by some of its players. Context in her terms seemed to add up to some pages torn from a sketch book, exhibiting some paintings on a raised podium on the floor (perhaps to demonstrate that the works are made within this axis), videos of the view from her studio and sharing a marker pen in the making of a painting with the directors of the Palais de Tokyo.
(9) Developed by Thomas Crow in Modern Art in the Common Culture (Yale University Press 1996), and applied to recent British art to great effect by Julian Stallabrass in High Art Lite. The pastoral was also a key term in Amar Lakel and Tristan Trémeau's recent critique of the Palais de Tokyo in their text , "Le tournant pastoral de l'art contemporain", a paper given at the conference, "L'art contemporain et son exposition", 2 october 2002, at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and soon to be published later this year by Harmattan, Paris. The relationship of the pastoral to esthétique relationnelle is evident where
the Palais de Tokyo has repeatedly used the vernacular of the 'friche' or the squat as the framework for the space itself as well as for exhibitions in a way that could be though of as 'pastoral contrast'. Crow says of this: "....... the basic character of pastoral contrast: those who fashion or enjoy cultivated forms of art are compelled to compare their own condition, which permits this refinement, with
that of the rustic whose existence affords no such luxury but who enjoys in compensation a natural, more "truthful" simplicity of life. One tests the truth of one's sentiments by translating them, within the circuit of the poem, from a high idiom into a vernacular one".
(10) These ideas have been, for some time now, the subject of "Machine Group", an on going collaboration between five painters, Mick Finch, Olivier Gourvil, Beth Harland, Louisa Minkin, and Claude Temin-Vergez.
(11) Two texts spring to mind here. Philip Armstrong's In the Image of Painting from Closer than you think, Art et Patrimoine, 1998, Paris. The english translation of this text can be can be found at:
And also Zigzag : l'art d'Olivier Gourvil by Marjorie Welish in Olivier Gourvil , La Quartier, 2003.
(12) Arguably an underlying motif in the work of Art & Language, at least since the point at which they turned away from conceptual art toward 'painting' in terms of 'critical realism'
(13) Two texts are relevant in this context. Torie Begg? Apparently by
Ian Carr-Harris (Contemporary, July/August 2002) and The Two Secrets of the Fetish by Jean-Luc Nancy in the catalogue of the exhibition of the work of Guillaume Paris, Mixed Blessings
(Musée d'Art moderne et contemporain de Strasbourg, 2002).