John Armstrong

Painting: dead again?
The coffin keeps being slammed shut on painting but then the lid springs open

Painting on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown: It seemed a prankish title for a recent panel held by Toronto's Power Plant gallery. Until I was asked to be on a panel in Germany next year. The topic? The Crisis in Contemporary Painting.

Painting must be in trouble. Or not.

Like the novel and Hollywood film, painting has had many putative deaths. But while repeated reports of one's demise may be greatly exaggerated, they are terrible for one's psychological health, points out Power Plant director Marc Mayer, who coined the panel's title.

For evidence of its decline, look, for example, at the current exhibit Elusive Paradise at the National Gallery of Canada, which showcases works by the 10 Canadian and international artists competing for the $50,000 Millennium Prize. Canadian artist Janet Cardiff won the prize with Forty Part Motet, a work executed in the medium of sound. Only one of the competitors could be termed a painter (Pakistani artist Shahazia Sikander, who incorporates miniature painting in conjunction with her installations.)

But the first blow to modern painting was arguably dealt early in the 20th century by Marcel Duchamp, an accomplished French painter. In 1918, at age 31, Duchamp finished his "last" painting, a commissioned work that contained, among other elements, a receding display of colour swatches and the shadow of a hat rack, both painted by Duchamp, and a pointing hand, which Duchamp paid a sign painter to add. The work was titled Tu m' — a contraction of "You annoy me."

Duchamp held that painting was overly sensuous and the work of the eye rather than of the mind. Painters' dedication to their medium was fuelled, Duchamp mischievously speculated, by olfactory attachment; they were driven to erotic frenzy by the smell of turpentine and oil paint. Duchamp went on to make artworks of great sensuality and conceptual sophistication in media other than painting. But his idea of the separation of the work of the mind and the work of the hand has persisted. When some contemporary viewers look at painting, they see only a rear-guard action, not a vital medium, and link it to the historical values and images that painting has over many centuries preserved.

Reading through painting's visual, metaphorical and often poetic structures to identify reflections of contemporaneity is an activity now less often practised in our culture. 

Now, in fact, part of art's critical apparatus regards painting as a kind of perpetual Lazarus. No sooner are they finished with the internment than the coffin lid springs unpredictably open again.

This attitude is a little irksome to artists — and mystifying. Artists in general don't like to be lumped into one medium-specific category. Painting is not a unified field of endeavour prescribed by the medium's material possibilities. Painters explore an infinite number of ideas. And painting has a rich and long history of interacting with the world.

At a 1993 lecture in Toronto, Susan Sontag said that the wonderful thing about writing was that it gave her the opportunity to regularly mull over texts by authors who had long since died. This made a great deal of sense to me: It's something painters are also able to do.

Painting is also in a unique position among contemporary art practices. Galleries and museums are designed to a great degree with the display of paintings in mind. Painting does not often enough unpack the assumptions that come along with its museum status that suggest it must be the de facto receptacle of human culture, of charismatic individualism, genius and a litany other musty notions. Plus, it's the amateur artistic medium of overwhelming choice: There's a daunting amount of it around, and it is not all good. (Photography is hot on painting's heels in this category.) So there are strong conservative forces at work here.

Hence painting is seen through a lens of wary conditionality, even by painters.

I encountered this idea in the first year of my university fine-art program in the mid-1970s. The studio faculty endlessly bickered about the viability of painting. I took this to be a somewhat unprofessional rivalry between disciplines. 

And when I showed my own art to my philosophy professor (he had asked to see it), he pointed out that I was involved in the gratuitous production of so much bourgeois commodity. He thought, given my course work in philosophy, that I ought to be explicitly questioning this. And then he cited a chapter in Plato's Republic as proof that all was lost for painting.

The chapter, How Representation in Art is Related to Truth, sets out the argument that painting is a highly suspect enterprise. Plato uses the example of a bed to illustrate his point: There is the ideal bed, one created by the gods; then there is a material bed, the one that required the skills of a furniture-maker to create, and lastly, there is an illusionistic representation of the bed, that is endlessly open to the interpretation of the artist (whom Plato compares unfavourably to a randomly placed mirror). There is, Plato argues, no guarantee that any one view of the bed would be more truthful than any other view. And the painter falsely appears to embody the skills necessary to create the bed, whereas in fact he only possesses the skills of dissimulation.

Wrote Plato: "And yet [the artist] will go on with his work without knowing in any way if any of his representations are sound or unsound . . . . The artist knows nothing worth mentioning about the subjects he represents, and that art is a form of play, not to be taken seriously."

Now, I'm not going to argue that Plato forever poisoned the waters for painters back in antiquity; Plato was really on about the rivalry between dramatic poetry and philosophy. The image of the bed was a way of outlining the subjective limitations of the poetic form rather than any thoroughgoing critique of painting. My reading of this passage early on introduced me to the notion of painting needing to somehow slyly foreground matters of representation and craft.

The two Canadian paintings inextricably linked for me to Plato are Doug Kirton's Untitled of 1980 and Shirley Wiitasalo's Green Mirror with Sculpture of 1986. And I am not at all certain either artist had Plato in mind when they created these works.

The setting in Green Mirror with Sculpture recalls Plato's allegory of the cave, in which humanity is portrayed as trapped in the darkness of its own limited perspective. There are wonderful parallels between the artificial and self-contained world of shadow play in Plato's allegory and Wiitasalo's creation of a coherent universe made of curvilinear tunnels and the reflected image of a biomorphic modernist sculpture in a mirror. Wiitasalo wryly sets out the most rudimentary conventions of visual representation in a searingly vivid chromatic palette.

Like Wiitasalo, Kirton's Untitled is not based on an observational study of an actual, or as Plato would have it, material bed, but is the result of a number of drawings that the artist has made to arrive at a pared-down, emblematic bed. There is tension between the illusionistic rendering of the subject and the absence of rendering of the setting. Kirton's bed seems to infect the otherwise blank surrounding space. In apparent recognition of painting's demise, Kirton's silhouetted bed is ominous, almost coffin-like.

Both works reflect developments in painting that began in the 1970s, significantly with a 1978 Whitney Museum exhibition, The New Image. The exhibition, which included the work of Neil Jenney and Jennifer Bartlett, among others, placed illusionistic images in painterly grounds that revitalized the then-tired austerities of formalizing abstraction. New Image painting was heralded by many as another of painting's rebirths.

There are some who see yet another surge in painting's importance in the work of artists such as Keri James Marshall and Lari Pittman, represented in 1997's Documenta X, but that may be a relative thing. Simply put: Painting is no longer the pre-eminent art form it was in the 19th century but it is still able to garner serious critical attention in public institutions. By my count, there are 12 curated exhibits featuring the work of contemporary painters currently on view in Ontario public galleries.

I think of painting as comprising a number of languages, some more rarefied than others. Beyond that there is a clipped, almost epigrammatic, suggestiveness to painting that is quite different from the linearity and precision required in writing or, indeed, in philosophy.

Plato was right that there is a strong element of play, constructive play, in much artwork. Good painting in its nervous-making, give-and-take manufacture often courts a loss of control. The trick, of course, is to use painting's various idioms to get to one's own questions.

Duchamp aptly summed up the debate in 1955: "I consider painting as a means of expression, not as a goal."

Adapted from remarks John Armstrong made at the panel discussion Feb. 20 at Toronto's Power Plant gallery titled Painting On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. Armstrong teaches painting in Art and Art History, a collaborative program between Sheridan College and the University of Toronto at Mississauga.

The Globe and Mail, Monday, March 12, 2001