Ahead of Tate Britain's contemporary painting show, Painting Now, curator Andrew Wilson looks at how each of the five artists on display have developed their own distinctive approach to painting
Hello, I’m Andrew Wilson, Curator of Modern & Contemporary British Art and Archive, and with Lizzie Carey-Thomas and Clarrie Wallis I am co-curator of Painting Now: Five Contemporary Artists, that opens at Tate Britain in just under a week’s time.
In the first post about this exhibition, Clarrie explained how we did not set out to select an exhaustive survey exhibition of current painting nor to identify a new trend or movement. Instead, each of the five artists we have selected occupies distinct and individual positions regarding the character of the painting they pursue. That said, there are a number of subtle affinities and correspondences that we hope can be discerned between them, and in this post I will suggest a few of these.
Each of the paintings in this exhibition embodies different processes of constructing images. For instance, the intuitive yet deliberate process that Tomma Abts follows leads to images that are the result of many twists and turns. These rely on a manipulation of pictorial illusion but each finished painting is also very much a made thing. This exploitation of the qualities of paint as a material is common to all five artists, all of whom push it in different ways to be descriptive of paint itself, represent something else – such as the fake marbling in one of Lucy McKenzie’s paintings – or offer a restrained view of the world as Gillian Carnegie does in her work. Yet, this constructed image is only one half of the work; as Carnegie has explained, ‘I prefer to consider the painting as a thing in the world rather than the painting as a picture of things in the world.’
Simon Ling’s paintings approach this perceptual tension rather differently. They derive from observation – painting both in the open air and in the studio – but not just what something looks like but also how it feels emotionally. He paints the everyday world – around Old Street or London Zoo, for instance – and shows these to be very strange mixes of the natural and artificial – in ways that the writer J.G. Ballard could also make the ordinary concrete cityscape surprising and unfamiliar.
Ling putting up his easel to paint in the open air in the east end streets of London may seem an anachronistic and traditional thing to do, but he is doing what all artists do – to engage with the traditions and traditional process of art, not to just repeat them, but fundamentally instead to extend them often through a form of subversion. Using a process of observational scrutiny he makes paintings that are, as he says, not about celebrating a particular subject but about a situation where ‘I am painting nothing and it becomes everything’. Lucy McKenzie has a similar approach to tradition. She uses the skills gained from her intensive studies in a school for the decorative arts not for aesthetic ends but to communicate particular meanings. Painting for McKenzie is a tool – a means to an end.
It is this purpose given to painting as a tool that provides a clue to one position painting has now. This is a ‘post-medium’ age where painting does not exist apart or separated from life. Similarly, the different media used by artists – and artistic traditions – have no hierarchy but exist as a bunch of tools in a toolbox waiting to be used for particular purposes. Catherine Story, for instance, moves between painting and sculpture using similar motifs but without one medium being a model for another.
Painting may have the oldest artistic tradition of all – back to the cave paintings – and yet an awareness of this long history emphasises the power that painting continues to exert, in which images deliberately constructed and delivered by particular materials take on a direct communicative function.
Work on installing the works in the gallery is progressing as we get closer to the exhibition’s opening next week. We’ll be posting another update soon and look forward to hearing what you think of the show.
Painting Now: Five Contemporary Artists is on display at Tate Britain from 12 November to 9 February 2014