I have had the privilege recently to see the current exhibitions of Gerhard Richter at the Tate and Wilhelm Sasnal at the Whitechapel. Two contemporary masters of paint; their ability to use it to create an illusion of an image while being honest about its materiality I find overwhelmingly seductive.
My enthusiasm and emotional reaction to these works has prompted me to dig deeper as to what it is that makes a good painting and why I continued to be enticed and beguiled by this art form. How is it that some works have such presence that they make me want to stop still and look and can even create an emotional reaction. It is almost as if they vibrate at a different pace to the everyday.
These artists have the practiced skill of being able to place paint on the surface in such a manner that it creates an illusion of an image, event or feeling that moves beyond the flat surface. A gesture that communicates so much and moves beyond what is the present. In Sasnal’s ‘Robert Smithson’ the use of black white and grey tone and brush stroke creates such a seductive image that steps beyond the materiality of its existence. The black paint of where the boot merges into the dark background baffles me. The full shape of the boot is not illustrated, it is not visible, but we know it is there. Similarly in another work (which I will locate the title of) the leg of the figure is only made visible through the highlights, the leg is also part of the background but we know its shape through as much as what is not there as well as what is painted. ‘Kackper’ is another of Sasnal’s work that I truly think is beautiful. His subtle ability to create the illusion of light streaming through the canvas is mesmorising.
Recently I have been reading ‘Painting is not a Representational practice’ by Barbara Bolt in ‘Unframed: Practices & Politics of Women’s Contemporary Painting ed. Rosemary Betterton (2004 IB Tauris) in which Barbara Bolt analysis her paintings ‘Reading Fiction’ and ‘Reading Theory’: “…at some indefinable moment, the painting takes on its own life, a life that almost seems to have nothing to do with my own conscious attempts to ‘control’ it. The ‘work’ takes on its own momentum, its own rhythm and intensity…. The painting takes on a life of its own. It breathes, vibrates, pulsates, shimmers and generally runs away with me. The painting no longer represents, nor does it merely illustrate reading. It performs it. The painting transcends itself and becomes a dissembling presence…” (p42)
Bolt raises the question “If a painting comes to perform rather than merely represent some other thing, what is happening?” (p43). Without citing her whole article on this, which is very worth reading, I think she raises some interesting theories on what a painting does. What it performs is beyond that of paint on a surface. A ‘good’ painting, i.e. one that has the power to stop me in my tracks, is one that successfully excels beyond that of its materiality and communicates on a very different level to that of its material substance; it transmits a resonance or vibration beyond its objectness.
I am excited that painting continues to inspire me and will no doubt continue with this investigation into its perfomativity and resonance, although I wonder if language and cognition will ever truly be able to sum up our fascination with the painted image.