This week is the last chance to visit the Tate Modern exhibition A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance, which explores a partial history of the how artists have reimagined the act of painting in relation to performance and theatricality. The variety of responses to the show has confirmed that this is a vital and complicated relationship that still poses questions for artists and viewers alike.
One contemporary example of this dynamic relationship can be found in the final room of the show – a must-see for World of Interiors readers – where a series of tromp loeil paintings hang by Scottish artist Lucy McKenzie. They depict in exact detail the interior architecture décor of a dilapidated town house in scale with the viewer, but with a dream-like cloud motif taking up most of the wall space/canvas. Each painting is displayed slightly above the floor, some hung on the walls, others on specially constructed posts, so that the paintings become at once a provisional stage set, and objects to be admired for their aesthetic and technical skill.
The titles of the paintings come from the 1963 novel by Muriel Spark, The Girls of Slender Means, about a group of young women living in a shakily hinged house in Kensington just after the end of the Second World War. Sparks succinct and detached prose combined with the description of war-torn London reflect the cool, deconstructed aesthetic of McKenzies paintings as can be ascertained in the opening passage:
Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth- or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art-form, leading up and up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind’s eye.
The post-war setting is a reminder of the effect that the mass destruction and atrocities carried out during the war had on artists and the act of painting. Feeling that there was no way to represent such horror, many turned away from figurative representation and instead attacked the canvas, as was the case with the work of Jackson Pollock, the Viennese Actionists, and Niki de Saint Phalle; all of whom are represented in the show.
But just as McKenzies paintings represent a return to a tradition of painting rooted in representation, they also dramatise the ability of painting to open a window onto another world. McKenzie studied at the Ecole Van Der Kelen-Logelain, a traditional school for nineteenth century decorative painting, which taught her to mimic different material surfaces in fine detail. Drawing on this traditional technique the works become a portal to an alternative reality and new understanding of how painting can function in contemporary art.
The central section of the exhibition focuses on artists who have taken painting out of the canvas and into the world around them, often looking to the applied arts and vernacular uses of the medium. In the installation Jean Cocteau… 2003-12 Marc Camille Chaimowicz applies his decorative painting style to an imagined bedroom scene that dissolves the boundaries between fine and decorative arts and questions the relationship between objects.
In the 1970s women artists turned away from traditional forms of painting to use their body as a canvas and make-up as paint. Artists such as Sanja Iveković, Eva Partum and Cindy Sherman then used photography and film to document these actions and forced painting into a relationship with new forms of media. Even Andy Warhol got in on the act when he dressed up in drag for his Polaroid self-portraits. These new modes of painting occurred at a time when society was questioning identity and the concept that the personal is political. Artists like Leigh Bowery and Jutta Koether began to merge the public and private in their art practice, in a manner far removed from the historical notion of the lone, heroic artist in the studio as personified by Pollock.
Coming out of this context contemporary painters have been able to re-view the multiple roles that painting can inhabit and how it relates to the world at large, something that painter turned filmmaker Derek Jarman highlighted in 1985: People say reality, but what they forget is the streets they walk through come out of people’s imaginations and are not real in that sense.
A Bigger Splash is a chance to explore these multiple conversations across medium and region, while proposing new questions as to what will be the next incarnation for painting.