Pavel Büchler, Moyra Derby, Mick Finch, Jane Harris, Gerard Hemsworth, Louise Hopkins, Richard Kirwan, Sadie Murdoch, Katherine McKee, Ben Ravenscroft, Caragh Thuring, Amikam Toren, John Wilkins.
The linguistic term 'double use' is offered as an analogy for painting that attempts to hold mutually contradictory positions. In 'double use' two meanings function in the same word; meaning remains unstable and unresolved.
The work here demonstrates an engagement with painting as a problematic and inconclusive field of practice. The strategies, rules and repeated processes put to work by each of the artists operate in a forced bounce back from edge to edge, and corner to corner; a dead end that does not create stasis but in fact provokes activity.
This active loop, bounded by art historical precedent and expectation, has arguably a connection with the psychological limbo of a 'double bind'. 'Double bind' implies a circumstance in which irreconcilable demands are repeatedly asserted, creating a response field that cannot be exited. The severity of this type of no win situation was argued by Gregory Bateson in the 1950's as a trigger for schizophrenia. The contradictory assertions inferred here are the double invoking of truth and deception obligations within painting; for example truth in terms of depiction versus deception in terms of illusion; or more generally how painting has been implicated in a philosophy of ethics or deconstructions of truth, while being dismissed as a redundant fiction.
Contemporary practitioners continue to draw on painting as a useful and functioning context, despite and because of its inherited difficulties. The lexical ambiguity of 'double use' is able to hold together opposed meaning in order for both to still operate simultaneously. Performed at arms length or through a form of ventriloquism, labouring under self imposed limitations or historically inherited restrictions, painting is still put to work.
Pavel Büchler Modern Paintings 1997 - 2000
Mick Finch Prosopopoeia 18.1, 18.2, 18.3 & 18.4
Gerard Hemsworth Past Caring
Louise Hopkins Grid (Grey)
Richard Kirwan Common Culture
Sadie Murdoch As Gray and Blue
Caragh Thuring Soldiers of the 10th Light Dragoons
The exhibition DOUBLEUSE at The Nunnery Gallery, London, 23rd February - 18th March 2007, is part of the ongoing research project 'MYTHOMANIA' shared by Moyra Derby and Katherine McKee.
The history of contemporary painting over the past three decades bears witness to the reconstitution of an attempt to consider the possibility of painting's truth, in a period where notions of truth have been subject to systematic and sustained critique. Whilst certain ways of thinking about painting have been comprehensively abandoned, the practice of painting itself has survived, even if, in the moment of the greatest rejection of modernist traditions during the late 60s and 70s, many artists did effectively abandon painting for other practices. Since then, though, the discussion around contemporary painting has realised that a practice cannot simply be talked out of existence, that whilst some may abandon it, others continue.
But how might a critical painterly practice develop, one which allows the practice of painting to persist, in a way that is not purely a sceptical, quizzical or nihilistic performance of painting's redundancy, nor a reactive reaffirmation of the intuition that there is value in a practice that otherwise seems anachronistic, no more than the conventional perpetuation of a form of commodity production and antique sentiment, but otherwise no longer a significant part of the cultural dynamic of art?
Without making a comprehensive summary of every trend and tendency to have appeared in the painting of the last three decades, it's at least useful, in order to comment on the project established in Mythomania/Doubleuse, to sketch out some important positions in the development of painting-as-a-problem that the project intervenes in, as these seem relevant to the peculiarly rigorous critical analysis that is at work in the selection of artists the project brings together. It's a rigour, I would argue, that suggests a form of self-consciousness about the practice that is neither sceptical nor affirmative, but that in some ways produces a critical synthesis of this opposition. This synthesis no doubt makes an evaluation of painting in terms of such notions as affirmation and scepticism, but in ways which work above the particularities of style or a consciousness of apparent precedents evident in contemporary practice, to overcome the 'partisanship' of affirming one approach over another or, conversely, of privileging an approach whose value is its disbelief at the claims of another.
The polar opposites of scepticism and affirmation produce a sort of underlying tension that has driven contemporary painting since the first widespread declaration of a crisis in the cultural scene of Modernist painting in the 1970s. Whatever the terms of the debates that raged then, around the apprehension that high modernist abstraction was on its last legs, it was perhaps the first instance in which painting as an artistic practice had to justify itself, to re-legitimise itself, if it was not simply to be swept away by the exigencies of a critical post-modernism. Such a need for self-justification, perhaps, which was not internally motivated, but something exacted by external, hostile critical forces, in part drives the tension that produces the contemporary ambiguity between scepticism and affirmation in current painting; between feeling critically responsible towards an understanding of its specificity as a practice, and an awareness that reflexivity may give way to a different, less self-critical investment in the practice of painting; that is, a positive realisation of painting's potential for effect and for meaning directed at the viewer, rather than directed at the history of the practice.
If painting in the 70s was caught in the last gasp of older modernist arguments about commitment and autonomy, art and politics, representation and abstraction, by the early 80s the collapse of those points of reference allows the ambiguous mix of scepticism and affirmation to define itself in the mainstream. The exhibition A New Spirit in Painting at the Royal Academy in 1981 is an important reference point for its attempt to invent a new narrative for painting which might allow for both the impulses towards affirmation and scepticism to co-habit, without the pressure of totalising accounts of historical purpose. So David Salle or Francesco Clemente could rub shoulders with Lucian Freud and David Hockney, as if this was nothing out of the ordinary. More than anything, it rehabilitated figuration in a big way, stripped of the politicised rhetoric of the 60s, and did so through the relegitimation of 'expressionism'. As the conservative American critic Hilton Kramer would enthuse at the time:
"In the visual arts, a change of this sort is now apparently upon us in the form of an energetic wave of Neo-Expressionist painting. This is, in some respects, an astonishing development. For nearly two decades, ever since the combined forces of Minimal art, Pop art and Color-field abstraction took the art world by storm in the 1960's, a consensus of ''advanced'' opinion has programmatically decried the Expressionist esthetic... Now a new manifestation of the Expressionist spirit has arisen to challenge the established view of these matters, and it is making extraordinary headway in winning converts and altering taste."1
Kramer's delight is of course short-sighted, and clearly based on a desire to get back to something which he sees as having been repressed. Expressionism, as a substantial claim to a 'truth' in painting was not making a 'comeback' in 1981. Rather, Expressionism appears as more as a 'question of faith'; if young German painters such as Baselitz, Penck and Lupertz displayed an investment in expressionistic gesture and figuration, it was already inflected with the self-conscious performativity that would soon inform the ludic scepticism of painters such as Albert Oehlen and Martin Kippenberger.
Kramer's old-fashioned partisanship, I would argue, is an example of a rearguard commitment to one truth over another, and is in this sense still caught in the affirmative/disaffirmative opposition. The partisanship of this position is what sets it apart from more recent reflections on the effects and potentials of paintings, and it is the interest in the redundancy of such approaches to paintings that connects the works found in Mythomania/Doubleuse. By this I mean a rejection of any uninflected notion of positive effect, any affirmation in the first degree, and the power of one discursive position, approach or discourse, or any one formal style or visual framework. Affirmation in the second degree, that paradoxically interrogates scepticism as a route to more sustained truths, may however still be at stake.
Painterly paradigms which contain some promise of positive effect are in Mythomania/Doubleuse, performative. These are no longer a question of abstraction or representation, for example, but a demonstration of the enactment of these categories of painting. Nor are these a question either of gesture, but the enactment of a frame of reference in which the meaning (or lack of meaning) of gesture is the subject. These are visual manifestations that are be preceded by an intention which is itself reflecting self-consciously on how intention can be preconceived. That's to say that there is always the danger that any preconception of gesture, of figure, of abstraction, of materiality - in other words, any resort to precedent that can be understood as critically self-evident and functional - can delimit and territorialise the action that is then carried out. This was always, in one sense, a positive act (based on a notion, again, of a desirable effect, the desirable exposition of a truth), but these exclusive formations were always an epistemological self-limitation. Exposition, in the sense of demonstrating, setting out by example and practical experiment, might understand the truth to be that contained in one or other exclusive or purified category of action and form.
If the artists in Mythomania/Doubleuse work 'abstractly', or 'figuratively' or with regard to 'gesture' or to the 'materiality' of paint, or to the 'effects of colour', or are preoccupied with 'the grid' or 'the edge', they do not seem to do so because these are 'concerns in painting' of a primary order. But nor does putting all these in quotation indicate a distancing from these concerns. Fundamentally, there is a question here about identifying formal designations as conceptual and epistemological constructions, but not in order to deny their potential or indeed to expose these as mythologizing conventions, as might have been typical in earlier post-modernist approaches to the 'death of painting'. They are not in this sense 'ironic' and are not engaged in an exercise of 'quoting'. It is interesting in this regard that Mythomania/Doubleuse does not present works that deliberately quote specific references in art history, which might produce a more acute sense of reflexive distance and self-consciousness about the conventional nature of these approaches. Rather, many of these works are already palimpsests that combine and amalgamate their many predecessors, themselves subsumed by such critical categories as gesture, abstraction, materiality and so on.
But neither are these works affirmative in the sense of elaborating or purifying an affect/effect. A retrospective account of modernism in painting should at least remark that discussions of 'style' also described the partisan or polemic identification with certain formal adventures, explorations, innovations, in which these developments are affirmed as contesting of a previous or hegemonic approach, and which themselves are later hegemonising and contested. So all manner of figuring is contested by abstraction, but abstraction is riven with disagreement between the geometric and the lyrical, the expressionistic versus the objectivistic and so on. What is important in this historical trajectory, from a contemporary perspective, is not the veracity of the claims of one or other contested affirmative practice but the fact of the pursuit of one approach over another. Only in post-modern art, heralded too early by Dada and Duchamp, does one find disaffirmative practice; that's to say forms of practice that refuse to continue the modernist frame of reference in which development is understood as progressive, and do not necessarily make a claim to a 'truth' or a 'good'. Post-modernity therefore, especially in painting, is famously sceptical, recursive and tactical. Historically enduring conceptions of truth and progress cannot figure in these terms.
But if 'truth' and 'good', in the utopian modernist sense no longer function together, it is also possible that the dystopian postmodernist inversion of those terms as 'lies' and 'bad', that could dominate the 80s and some of the 90s no longer holds. Instead, a more complex designation of truth, in a different ethical relationship to a 'lie' might emerge, and in which Mythomania/Doubleuse begins to indicate some of the possibilities of that new relationship, which relate both to the question of performative, and of the subjective investment in 'the truth' of a practice.
In terms of these comments about scepticism and the dissolution of historical trajectory in which the practice could be seen to progress - a keystone of modernist purpose - I would suggest that Mythomania/Doubleuse begins to rearticulate forms of affirmative investment in the work that at once accepts the weakness and redundancy of past paradigms, and yet puts them into play in order to see what they can do. The point here is that the motivation for doing so is subjective - the desire to continue painting, in a way that does not repeat or return to the failures of past practice - and doubly so in the sense that it is cut off from any broader sustaining narrative, such as modernism or political commitment, that would orient and contextualise it in a broader framework of cultural meaning. If post-modernist scepticism, especially in painting, could be about affirming one's self as a practitioner through the negation of the practice conducted against the institution of modernism, this clearly is no longer an option for a more recent generation of artists. The pluralism that has evolved out of post-modernism and post-structuralism does not provide much space for broad articulations of truth, so scepticism is already in some sense institutional. It is not surprising that in much recent young painting, similar revivals of expressionism' have erupted, alongside romantic landscape painting and modernist formalism. The point is that all these, in reality, indicate a subjective demand for authenticity and affirmative truth claims in practice, from a personal and subjective perspective, one where the individual cannot connect these genres and approaches to any substantial form of institutional sanction. It is not important what 'style' is being revived: the dynamic is in terms of the individual, and its assertion of a demand for meaning faced with the relativist abstention from it.
This is where the works in Mythomania/Doubleuse avoid the possible impasse of repeating the impulse to revivalism, and it suggests a sophisticated relation between the desire for an active space in which meaning can be tested and asserted, and the consciousness that this has necessarily to be conducted in unpropitious circumstances. Scepticism has always been a participating condition within modernity. But there are differing forms of scepticism historically, and it is worth briefly considering how these affect our subjective relationship to knowledge; if 20th century post-structuralism has tended to question the possibility of systematic knowledge per se, this is in contrast to the earlier scepticism at work in the 18th century Enlightenment, in which not knowing and sceptical questioning was a motive towards further exploration, investigation and greater knowledge. This is a sweeping summary, but the difference is that the latter tends towards a dynamic, active attitude to scepticism, whilst the former has the effect of pacifying and demobilising our relationship to truth claims and to the possibility of knowledge. It is no surprise that connected to this is the deprivileging of the active subject in post-structuralist theory, in contrast to the centrality of the human subject in much Enlightenment thinking. Indeed, it needs to be remarked that the post-structuralist critique of knowledge develops in tandem with it's dismantling of the active, centred subject: the two go together because the notion of a centred subject and its ability to negotiate knowledge and scepticism only makes sense if one also conceives of the subject as an active, acting, testing and exploring one. A passive, inactive subject can have no certain access to knowledge because it cannot or does not test it against reality through action.
The tragedy of post-modern scepticism is that it historically mistakes the pacification and alienation of human subjectivity as a discovery of ahistorical, abstract truth about human society, rather than understanding it as a political, historical shift in the way Western society understood itself and the place of human action in establishing truth, and in transforming the state of things accordingly. It is an understandable mistake and has to do with the way in which, in late, postwar Capitalism, human subjectivity became increasingly regulated, policed, bureacratised and conventionalised. It was such a culture of bureaucratisation that came to be reflected in the equal bureacratisation of modernism after the war, changing it from a fiercely committed, partisan engagement within a culture divided by a substantial confrontation between progress and reaction, to a depoliticised orthodox style. From this perspective, both critical post-modern attacks against it, as much as 'reactionary' revivalisms, share a common misapprehension of modernism's hegemony; it could so easily crumble when pushed because it no longer represented any substantial cultural dynamic within society; the resurgence of 'the political' in critical practice, as much as the revival of 'subjective' individualisms such as 'expressionism', simply expressed the lifelessness and irrelevance of modernism's increasingly tenuous claim to truth, and the various attempts to retrieve subjective meaning - whether through political commitment or through individualised aesthetic affirmation - in a cultural space where the active negotiation of commonly shared truths had ceased to operate.
The interrogation of truth in Mythomania/Doubleuse is conducted as a sustained questioning of how individual subjectivity can produce painting which is not merely the blind acceptance of institutionally sanctioned conventions of art-making, nor an institutionally sanctioned rejection of those conventions, nor again the rejection of any possible discussion about common truths that might be sustained between individuals by the solipsistic recourse to individualism which effectively cuts individuals off from any responsibility to one another. Mythomania/Doubleuse is effectively engaged, it seems, in the tentative creation of a community through the examination of how conventional, historically loaded and often antithetical approaches to painting can nevertheless elicit authentic subjective meaning and value. This is why much of the work gathered shares a commitment to a robust and pared-down use of figure or motif, where eccentric and personalised flourishes are demoted; such forms are democratic and trans-subjective because they do not require deference to the idiosyncrasies of one individual by another, nor the privileging of unverifiable individual predilection. It is perhaps also why much of the work cautions against an exploitation of high colour and other easy visual comforts that might allow seduction to overcome active reflection - a kind of austerity that comes from a demand that individuals do not just acquiesce to a privatised condition of fascination, but remark on the objective nature of what is before them.
In the absence of any social and cultural dynamic in which links between individual action and collective significance can easily be established, artists nevertheless create fragile affinities between their various practices, even though the meaning born of these connections become attenuated and trivialised. Affinities are most easily formed amongst those who delude themselves that they are doing something novel, or doing it for the first time, even if it does appear to mean something to those involved, as with the continued fascination with the various recent revivalisms. Mythomania/Doubleuse attempts a more grounded collective affinity, whose origin can be found in a common commitment to examine how historical precedent continues to provide resources for the contemporary, and how those forms that have been deemed conventional or redundant can still produce an encounter which is subjectively substantial, in the here-and-now. Above all, it attempts to test the conditions of truth by the paradoxical investigation of fictions that gain substance through the fact that they are commonly agreed to; that is to say, that they gain the status of a kind of truth because what is commonly agreed to is not a passive or conformist acceptance of orthodoxy, but born out of a similar active questioning of the moment at which convention ceases to be so, and becomes a living, active event that draws its strength from a common, collective realisation of its continued potential: A new cultural community, emerging from an active, sceptical and ongoing interrogation of the enduring possibilities of the tangible, concrete reality of the work of art.