The Myth of the Death of Painting
Poor painters. Toiling in an irrelevant medium in this day and age, allegedly surpassed by the technologically superior camera in its ability to represent reality more faithfully. Painters are the art world’s Edsel car makers – or so many writers and thinkers on art would have us believe. The common claim is that painting, as an artistic genre, is no longer a socially or culturally relevant communication device.
Many people have looked to the 2008 Whitney Biennial for evidence of painting’s contemporary status in the art world. Holland Cotter at The New York Times wrote: “devotees of painting will be on a near-starvation diet, with the work of only Joe Bradley, Mary Heilmann, Karen Kilimnik, Oliver Mosset and (maybe) [Cheyney] Thompson to sustain them. Hard line believers in art as visual pleasure will have, poor things, a bitter slog.” Catherine Spaeth and Richard Lacayo also offered missives on the biennial’s curious inclusion (or significant lack) of painting. There are many others around the web as well.
People claim painting is dead, but never question the practitioners of painting. Couldn’t it be that the people who are often celebrated as painters are just plain bad painters? What people seemingly have forgotten is that painting is difficult. It’s hard work that requires dedicated skill and labor. Whenever someone says painting is dead, don’t they really mean that there are a lot of bad painters being celebrated in the art market?
Despite what the Whitney says about the state of painting in 2008, there are a few really good painters in America currently, and I’ve included images of their work throughout this post. Paintings are a visual communication device subject to laws of design and color, there’s just no getting around it. Making a visually boring painting does not communicate that painting is no longer relevant; it just communicates that the painter cannot paint. The painters exhibited in the Whitney’s recent biennial attempted to express painting’s failure as a communication device, and tried to reduce painting to something resembling house painting, rather than art, to express its usefulness in this day and age. Other than Robert Bechtle’s work (who is a fantastic painter), the remaining paintings are failures, not because painting as an art form is a failure, but because those particular artists fail.
Karen Kilimnik’s paintings exhibit a total lack of knowledge of the craft of painting. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as she’s mainly a conceptualist artist who does multi-media setups. For Kilimnik, painting is just a prop in an exhibited space, so her self described “bad paintings” are excused because it’s not really about painting. Or so her theory goes. Ellen Harvey creates empty images in frames and compiles them together on a wall to illustrate painting’s failure and meaninglessness in this day and age. For Ellen, painting has to be meaningless because she can’t paint. It’s one thing to know how to paint well and make a statement about painting’s alleged impotence, and quite another thing for someone to not know how to paint while saying painting is a failure.
The common thread to much of this conceptualism is a belief that crafting something from ones own hands is not relevant in this electronic age. Those who can paint; artists who can create with their own hands know the redemptive value of craft in their own life. For chefs, cooking technique is essential to the taste of food. Likewise, painting technique is essential to communication is painting. Would anyone say that food fails as a nutritional source because the chef doesn’t know how to cook? For painting to fail as a expressive device, an artist’s technique is always to blame, not the genre itself.
The art market and the hucksters that shill this or that theory meant to drive up speculative value of dubious works of art will always be in existence. It seems to me that if a painter works long enough he or she will come to a fork in the road, and decide if they want to dedicate themselves to the craft of painting, or to the inanities of the market and slapdash stylistic preferences therein. For me, I chose to try to understand and know the craft of painting.