The Painting of Modern Life - Hayward Gallery

David Mollin

I get a sinking feeling when I go to the Hayward. Maybe it's the proximity to the water in conjunction with the concrete, it's hard to say.

Painting from photographic images of one sort or another is clearly not a simple business. Malcolm Morley's initial solution to this complexity was to show he was simply painting a photograph by putting his painted image of a postcard 'in parenthesis', painting the photographic image within white border. And it is a fact that the use of some form of quotation mark is prevalent when dealing with, or presenting, paintings from photographs. Like with Morley, it appears to function as a way of stabilising what is perhaps not such a stable relationship, or else why would Morley need the device?

I suppose if you are looking at an exhibition of paintings from photographic images, which this is, then there is no doubt you are, in the first instant, looking at paintings from photographic images; it is unavoidable given the circumstances. But crafty attempts to displace this being the predominant motif of this exhibition are in place. Little trick-switches that attempt to complexify, such as the title, Painting from Modern Life, as opposed to Painting from Photographic Images of One Sort or Another. Modern life. The equation there is that painting from newspaper photos, from video stills, family snaps, etc., etc., is a fair equivalent of modern life. So this is painting from modern life, fair enough. Modern life is more often than not a little sluggish and dull, and the idea of it not being so is dull in itself. I remember figures from the seventies in their Oxford Bags and long Hunky-Dory hair and they were no different to today - bored, irritable, fighting and washing the car. They did smoke, however. HMV was the same, but without the magnetic tabs.

The idea of the photograph as the subject and object of painting and its translation into paint is also true of the work in this exhibition. Certainly the second part, anyway (the first part is obvious, isn't it?). It's worth knowing the specifics of artists such as Haverkost's stretched limo approach to rendering the photograph into paint, the artist struggling with his own exposure as a wide-open aperture. It brings to mind Haverkost's own burnt white body, opened up in some photosensitive ecstasy and laid neatly on the table. Other ideas are thereby hung on formal descriptions of Haverkost's working process; such is the nature of the formal, and the danger of enrolling it to complexify a simple idea that is neither here nor there.

Again, in parenthesis, titles to the rooms such as Politics, Family and Friends, Leisure and Everyday Life, are strict categories that appear to confuse the idea of what modern life is in reference to painting from it, rather than explain its facets. But a space is redeemed for the paintings through a subtle, almost subliminal, reference to slide libraries and the accompanying association with fully functioning journalism and advertising. And in that spirit you can't help but root around for info about the photograph itself. If you've been told it's there, subliminally or otherwise, you want to see it. You want to know why. It helps. It is one way to get the mind working in the exhibition (although I wouldn't go overboard on that). More interestingly, it transfers a kind of collectors' photographic compulsion back on to the visitor. Not educating, as such, but allowing the visitor to host the compulsion to a certain extent, enabling the work to sit within the space of its own quotation. It is this doubling up of the work being housed within the curator's space, and a collectors compulsion housing itself in the visitor, that specifies this exhibition.

The titles to the works, with the occasional quotes from the artist, were placed neatly in grey, but slightly irregular around the walls, sometimes with little offsetting arrows pointing you to the opposite wall. It had the look of a projectionist's handiwork, slightly offset, displaced and watery in relation to the physically hung paintings. Perhaps it is a fear of the sheer lumpen physicality of paintings that such offsetting devices, reminders of light and transience, are deemed so important in this context. But it is the physicality that is present, and more so when shadow play is enrolled to ease the weight.

And in this weight is its more worrying relation to photography. While Morley also stated that the use of photographs was a way of broadening the painters' landscape, and a sentiment that is surely endorsed by this exhibition, this is not necessarily what appears to be happening. Painting can also assume the limitations of the landscape of the photographic image once its gene pool has been 'enlarged'. It is not broadening, in the sense that the weight of the painting, at best, remains the same. If anything, it is more concentrated through its relation to the photographic source. The worrying part of this is the way painting itself uses various types of photographs as a host, capitalising on the various 'untrustworthy' elements of photography. The camera lies, that's true, but the photograph also changes over time and, as such, so must the object and subject of the painting; 'A satanic idea if there ever was one! What pride and aberration!' as Baudelaire might say. Such a satanic idea would probably be close to Baudelaire's heart.

Richter, it is suggested, misleads in a particular painting — lets be blunt, he lies like a camera. He paints a picture entitled Volker Bradke (1966), who is in fact not Volker Bradke at all but Richter's friend — his friend the anonymous artist. But maybe we are being a little hard on Richter. As time goes on this will be Volker Bradke; models were often used to pose as a historical figure in painting and here is a friend of Richter unwittingly walking into that role, striding confidently into his own fate. In that sense what is currently strange about this painting is the anonymity of his friend, the unknown artist who not only becomes more defined as anonymous as time goes on, but looks like a few unknown artists that can be seen today in London, wearing the same thick glasses and striding confidently into their own life of either artistic obscurity or to be stand-ins for some easily forgotten German politician. One anonymous artist used to represent the forgotten image of Volker Bradke; both become empty kernels as time passes. Time passes but, when you look at it in relation to the amount of stand-ins around today, here, now, time is also one big compressed sandwich in the back of someone's pocket, leaking out different chutneys. Now there's the rub.

Another artist, who compresses time albeit like a darker grey sandwich, is Vija Celmins. Her painting Suspended Plane (1966), an American bomber from the second world war, is still and on the plane of the picture, a subliminal pun perhaps on the flatness that was Celmins own personal obsession. The stillness of a bomber in flight or of a civilians' car riddled with Japanese bullets after Pearl Harbour, photographed with the equally still hand of an official archivist. The drama is taken out, the cut and thrust of the engines, the horror, but it is there in absence, functioning as contrast, a contrast missing in the tonal quality of these two paintings. I think the best way to see Celmins' video work is while going up an escalator, if she has done any.

Liu Xiaodong paints like John Singer Sargent; you can feel the weight of that loaded brush pushing paint well beyond the photograph by the end. Meaty paintings of psychological attachment, transferred through the hubbub of paint, no doubt. This is not about photography and society but about Xiaodong's cast iron facts about life in China, which he seems to enjoy in a socially-critical sort of way: when you see some lady-boy bounding down the stairs in his paintings you just know Liu was there and needed to get it down. This is fun under a naked bulb with fluorescent trimmings. He is no Luc Tuymans, dwelling on old photographs found in a basement of the Overlook, but a real good time Charlie. Okay, so the next day, in Watching (2000),figures stair at an accident that Xaiodong nearly witnessed but arrived moments after. The lake is conjured up with an agile wrist and people are poking their noses in. Can't have fun all the time.

Like wise with Franz Gertsch. He paints his own personal experiences in works such asAt Luciano's House (1973), putting these largely in the foreground rather than linking them to broader ideas of painting. He hung around with some boho's from Europe and brings up questions such as 'why did everyone stack their LP's on the floor leaning against the wall?' and 'Why did everyone put Sticky Fingers by the Stones at the front of their pile?' Gertsch's friends are massive and have long hair, but they also hike up mountains — all things that seem very Swiss to me. And it is through the sheer scale of these people that an odd colour arrangement starts appearing in the hair and around the edges of these, basically quite fit young people, a strange psychic phenomenon occurs through what amounts to a recreation of staring intently at very small details. Like a sickly smell in the room, permeating your nostrils while listening to Toto's Expanding Head Band, a sickly burnt smell that appears only to be in your nostrils on further inspection, and not in the room at all.

Robert Bechter's paintings are of his family and are situated in the same room as one of the Gertsch's, a room entitled Family and Friends (not to be confused with Friends and Family). Present in Bechter's paintings is also a lot of the pride, as can happen when dealing with families. He and his mother clearly had a lot of pride in their cars. As well as that, the San Francisco neighbourhood where the cars are parked is very clean and trimmed and would make anyone proud. Robert's family in 61 Pontiac (1968-69) looks like they could not have come from anywhere else other than that time and place, despite the similarity to staff of Earth Organic food store — the mother gives it away, this is definitely San Francisco, late-sixties, the land of GI Joe, Mattel and The Archies. I want a Dad like that, with a big beard and a hippy family. I was genuinely concerned for his children as to whether he was still alive. It made me sad. I figured his Mom must be dead, but that didn't matter in the sense that her pride lives on in the painting Alameda Chrysler (1981). But I was worried about him. It changes the paintings once he is dead. Not in financial value, but in the sense they become keepsakes for his children. When he is alive they are images that are strongly present and carving out their own little niche in the field of imagery, they have a paternal authority. When Robert has passed away, they will be brought out when Robert Jnr wants to say proudly 'This was my Dad'. Pride is the issue here. Images of pride, pride of the cars we own, pride of our families, pride of our beards, that personal pride that inhabits these paintings lends a complicating facet to the later interpretation of this work. In Richter's case, that an unknown artist/known friend is used to represent a figure of history, leading to a smudge as time passes where they become one, an unknown artist becomes an equally unknown face of Volker Bradke. In Bechler's case it becomes a painting through which Robert Jnr tenuously tries to keep alive the memory of his father. The artist has left him with a bit of a mouthful, lets face it, whereas Richter has left his unknown artist friend with a bit of a faceful, lets mouth it.

Warhol had the idea of making unknown people famous but without the intimacy of an unknown artist friend as in the case of Richter. Warhol gave them what they wanted in an act that comes across as the most satanic thing in this exhibition, and would possibly appear mad to even Baudelaire, when one remembers Baudelaire's reaction to Grandville — 'the stenographer of dreams'. Warhol's choice of subjects and his dedication to mechanical reproduction show him to be obsessively personal and bluntly frightening. As the mechanical reproduction becomes just that — clunky and mechanical — so his subjects are left exposed and obsessive, hanging in an upturned car or leaning on elbows, staring out. The mechanical body impulses reanimated and rattling on after death. Jorg Buttgereit had a scene in Necromantik 2 where a few death-cult friends had gathered together to eat pizza in a small garish fassbinderesque German flat and to watch films of seals being clubbed and skinned. On the wall hung Warhol posters. The obsessiveness of Warhol is picked up nicely by Buttgereit and presented in his film almost subliminally to the audience. This is the crux of the power of some of these paintings taken from the disturbing medium of photography, the subliminal effect they have despite (being 'in parenthesis') the required and prevalent quotation. Or, like Celmins denial of the death inherent in the images she chose, Xaiodongs insistence he was there, Richter's lie that gains belief, or Bechter's increasing burden of pride upon the family, the Hayward's bright and breezy subject planning evoking the gloom and obsessivness of a slide library, allows the paintings enough space to function on the level of a smell, not in the space but from the nostril.

© David Mollin 2008