Real Painting at Castlefield Gallery, review: Keeping pace with painting

Sara Jaspan, Exhibitions Editor

What’s the future of painting? Our reviewer puts Castlefield Gallery’s latest exhibition in context.

Painting is not dead. As a medium, however, it is suffering from a death complex. Paradoxically, this is exactly what keeps it alive: all art forms are driven by a need for constant re-invention in order to escape becoming ossified, and to prove their continued relevance. None, though, seem quite as perturbed by this process as painting.

Perhaps this has to do with the medium’s age. Painting has been around for almost as long as people, and has survived countless wars and revolutions. Yet with each development, the reoccurring question of “what next?” seems to reassert itself with renewed urgency, while younger mediums venture into new, unexplored territories with apparent ease.

Castlefield Gallery’s current exhibition Real Painting (12 June-2 Aug 2015) comes as part of a recent cluster of exhibitions that have engaged with this question of “what next” for painting. The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World (MoMA, 2014–2015) serves as a high-profile example, alongside Painting Show (Eastside Project, 2011–2012) and Painting in Time (The Tetley, 2015). Each of these shows present a different account of painting today, as well as carving out possible avenues down which the medium could continue to advance.

Exploring what the bare minimum required to constitute a painting is

At first sight, however, Real Painting is not the most compelling among them. Drawing together work by ten international artists – including 2010 Turner Prize nominee, Angela de la Cruz, and 2004 John Moores Painting Prize winner, Alexis Harding – the focus seems to be on exploring what the bare minimum required to constitute a painting is.

The answers vary: there are works that could also be classed as appropriated or found objects (a yellow t-shirt tied to a piece of yellow cloth, pinned into an irregular shape, a black and white dyed carpet), those that are semi-sculptural (canvases morphed into crumpled, bulging, or box-like shapes) and some where the structure of the canvas itself plays an integral part.

Contemporary painting, judging by the sample provided here, is motionless, abstract, non-representational and – for the most part – still hung on the wall. Links to conceptualism and minimalism offer themselves up as useful reference points; though distinctly new when they first emerged in the 1960s, their reappearance now feels conservative.

By contrast, Painting In Time in Leeds was noisy, messy and non-static. Much of the work in it crossed into other areas, including performance, audience participation, video, and in several cases, no paint at all. Artist Lisa Milroy asked visitors to lift and rearrange the pieces of her composition, ensuring the work continually evolved beyond the studio. The paint in Rob Leech’s Stella, a bubbling in a pot on a plinth, never dried, raising questions about when a work is actually finished. Sarah Kate Wilson’s piece required two gallery attendants to hold up a stretch of sequined fabric, bathe it in strobe lighting and perform a fifteen second ‘dance’, creating an optical illusion as the fabric surface melted into silver liquid.

MoMA, on the other hand, made the case for ‘atemporality’ – the mixing of eras in modern work to the point of coexistence – as the ‘hallmark for our moment in painting’. Here the apparent lack of a coherent, representative style became a defining feature.

Rather than attempting any prescribed narrative or argument, earlier exhibition Painting Show at Eastside Project simply presented an eclectic ‘grouping of exquisite moments in “painting”’, with abstract, figurative, amateur, photo-realistic and faux-naïve styles all positioned side-by-side. Most crucially however, the work was hung within a bespoke, grid like architecture that had been created and installed within the gallery space especially for the exhibition. Writing in Art Review, Oliver Basciano described how this complex arrangement made navigating the exhibition ‘an immersive, concentrated task’ in itself, meaning it became ‘less a collection of discreet practices than an installation to be taken as a whole.’

Castlefield’s exploration is the only one bold enough to take a hard look inwards and address the subject head-on

While each of these varying trajectories for painting are in their own ways compelling, you wonder which offers the most hopeful outlook for the future. Castlefield’s exploration is the only one bold enough to take a hard look inwards and address the subject head-on, and in a self-contained way; as ‘painting qua paint (as noun and verb)’ to lift from the essay by Craig Staff, especially commissioned to coincide with the exhibition.

The show’s curators, Deb Covell and Jo McGonigal (both painters themselves, with work featuring in the show), are described as having set out to create an exhibition that ‘emphasises the essential grammar of painting, considering not necessarily what a painting means but what it “does”’. Through this, their intention was to highlight ‘the expressive capacity of the materials and processes specific to painting to be sites of investigation in their own right.’

Such an objective could certainly be considered ambitious, and the exhibition’s boldly assertive title, Real Painting, shows no attempt at shying away. Unfortunately, while the concepts that underpin Real Painting are rich, the resulting exhibition comes across as somewhat impenetrable, cold and intellectualised. The passing visitor risks feeling shut-out from the work, with only a press release and abstruse, art-philosophical essay by way of explanation or context. In contrast with The Tetley – which, at times, went too far in spelling out readings of the works on show – Castlefield is in danger of its more nuanced arguments becoming lost to all but the artistically well-versed.

Castlefield positions itself as one of the regions ‘most active and successful organisations/agencies for developing emerging contemporary artists and practice’; critically engaged exhibitions such as Real Painting do respond to national and international trends in art, bolster the reputation of the artists represented and contribute to the gallery’s own identity and standing. However, these aims need to continually be kept in balance with mindfulness of Castlefield’s wide network of engaged visitors.

Ultimately, it’s more important now than ever that audiences are given a chance to keep pace with the evolving state and direction of contemporary painting, which, as these four diverse exhibitions all ultimately show, is very much still alive.

This article has been commissioned by the Contemporary Visual Arts Network North West (CVAN NW), as part of a regional critical writing development programme supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England — see more here.

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