FEVER: New Painting in London

Contemporary painting has a sort of fever right now, symptoms of which are a wild delirium, fantastical imaginings that render ordinary life grotesque and absurd, and the melancholy of a modernist hangover. The UK scene in particular is currently enjoying an epidemic of fresh paint; In October The John Moores prize exhibition at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool was dominated by unreal landscape and psychodrama. During the Frieze Art fair in October, an artist-curated show at the Royal Academy of Arts, Expander, showcased over twenty young London artists in a show dominated by painting. And Charles Saatchi, after two years of relentless buying, is preparing a big exhibition of newly acquired new painting under the unambiguous title of ‘The Triumph of Painting’. Painting works. Painting sells, and in the process a particular new language and set of concerns is taking shape, one in which both subjectivity and fantasy are taking on a key role, and where critical reflection on the nature painting takes second place to a post-critical resurgent aesthetics of affirmation.

The artistic precursors for the new generation of painters are hardly obscure, rooting the current mood in the slow, steady reassertion of painting in the mid 90s. The ongoing preoccupation amongst London painters with the landscape genre, mixed with a modernist painterly self-consciousness, for example, would have been harder to establish without such older figures as Peter Doig. The diverse reinvestment of landscape in the work of young painters such as Dee Ferris, Michael Aschroft, Nigel Cooke or Christian Ward indicates that ‘tradition’ is no longer a dirty word; The landscape genre, painterly values, and aesthetic engagement – pleasure even – are all returns to traditional values. And as with Doig, the ‘modernist settlement’ in painting - the recognition of the painting surface - is everywhere present, in Cooke’s open skies that turn into drab walls, in Ward’s psychedelic paint marks that become rock and vegetation, and perhaps most excessively and triumphantly in Ferris’ collapsing and reforming washes of heady, luminous, Turner-like colour, obliterating and revealing the content of her paintings simultaneously. Figuration may have been back in painting for a long time, but not for many years has it been exploited with such unambiguously positive curiosity.

Alongside the lush imaginings of these painters exists a more urban tendency, in which a direct often strongly biographical approach to figure and content is combined with an aggressive, untutored attitude to handling the paint, for which the stylistic guarantee is the uncorrected drip. A proclivity for moving fast and keeping the paint loose and unworked energises the work of painters such as Sophie Von Hellerman, Chantal Joffe, Anna Bjerger, Dawn Mellor or Liz Neal, painters who exploit the apparent instability and informality of their lo-fi approach to emphasise and distance their subjects. Developing the gawky informality of earlier painters such as American Elizabeth Peyton, painters such as Joffe, Mellor and Bjerger use painting as a tool against the impersonal nature of photography, as if by refusing to compete with the photographic image’s sophistication, and mindful of a too-sophisticated alternative painterly route, their functional styles reassert the idiosyncratic, the psychological and the personal. Inner life, represented as a photographic moment given form  in paint, are at the core of the work of Joffe and Bjerger, and a playfully sardonic observation of the contemporary status of femininity erupts in the fantastical eroticism of work by Mellor and Neal. Whilst moving somewhere between them is Von Hellerman’s knowing bohemian romanticism, depicting a world of cool types inhabiting an idealised metropolitan demimonde, full of strange, hedonistic encounters drifting in a dirty, magical unreality.

The informal nature of much of this painting means that subjective attitude often counts for more than the particularities of formal engagement. Informality, ‘bad’ painting, is the supposed stylistic guarantee of spontaneous, autodidactic, expressive authenticity, the vehicle for an equally authentic subcultural subjective content. The trouble is that informal painting can only trade so far on its appearance before attitude becomes the decisive factor in how it is understood. A curious example of this tension can be found in the attentions paid to the bizarre clique of retro-expressionists known as the Stuckists. For some years an embarrassing side-show of the British contemporary art scene, the Stuckists have nevertheless been given a minor retrospective during the Liverpool Biennial. What is interesting is that in their bad-tempered denunciation of the ‘conceptual art mafia’ that supposedly dominates art in the UK, the Stuckists’ celebration of spontaneous, autodidact, expressive authenticity in painting comes out remarkably similar to some of the less interesting informal painting that is so hot in the ‘insider’ art scene. So similar, in fact, that Stella Vine, ex-wife of Stuckism’s eccentric founder Charles Thomson, should find her daftly sentimental Diana-homage Hi Paul, Can You Come Over bought by Saatchi, to hang alongside hipper ‘bad’ painters such as Neal and the German schlock-expressionist Jonathan Meese. If how painters paint ceases to matter, then the expression of subjective attitude cannot help but become the decisive aspect of a painter’s approach, regardless of whether this is staged as knowing posture or earnest commitment.

The dual ascendance of an amateurist, informal directness on one hand and the recourse to art-historical tradition and painterly technique on the other suggests a growing disinterest with painting as self-critical reflection, and a greater investment in painting as a primary site of expressive and aesthetic affirmation. The curious convergence of modernism, romanticism and symbolist intoxication, fired through the prism of contemporary psychedelia and a dilettante fascination with art history, posits painting as the scene onto which an individual’s inner desires and compulsions are played out and fulfilled, rather than put into contradictory self-interrogation.

It’s striking in this light that the winner of the John Moores prize for painting should be Alexis Harding, a painter who came to much earlier attention for his often extraordinary exploration of what in the early-90s was still being called ‘process painting’, the cool, post-modernist hangover associated with Goldsmiths painters such as Ian Davenport and Jason Martin. Harding’s collapsing, rippling grids of acidic gloss and oil paint, given full flight in the prize-winning Slump/Fear Orange/Black, 2004, is beyond the easy ‘process’ label, inasmuch as the physical and visual drama enacted by his particular processes goes beyond secure, contained painterly resolution towards an almost avant-gardist ethics of catastrophe and wilful self-destruction.

Harding’s success is well deserved, but it only serves to illustrate the recent shift from a painting that could still be about painting as a ‘problem’ to painting in which problems dissolve into the affirmative cultural logic of escapism. As Mustafa Hulusi, curator of Expander suggests, the turn to ‘re-enchantment’ and the consequent recolonization of figuration in painting has more than a little to do with a disenchantment with cultural life in general, and with the culturally critical role art was once thought to play. For a recent generation of artists, art is fast becoming a site in which the shortcomings of contemporary life are compensated for, and without a strong conformist culture to fight against, it’s no surprise that art’s value can no longer be tested through acts of transgression, and that tradition, continuity and history should consequently reassert themselves.

This return to the past, and particularly the apparent resurgence of painterly and expressionist values should be treated with care. There are plenty of conservative critics who would wish for this to signal a neat effacement of the difficulties and disruptions of ‘modern’ and ‘post-modern’ art, and there is certainly a tendency amongst artists to exploit the ready public for an art of fantasy, biography and sentiment, hooked into art-historical pedigree and the subjective experience of contemporary reality. If ideas such as the virtuoso painter, expression and emotional content have reappeared as the veracity of their post-modern critiques has waned, it is only because these ideas went some way – not without contradiction - toward recognising what painting is still good for. The question is not the return itself, but whether this process of return is made naïvely or with a degree of exploratory speculation and historical awareness.

Just as many young painters are re-examining the merits of informality and romantic immediacy, others are pursuing a more analytical investigation of painting’s ontology and history while nevertheless eschewing the cool cynicism of late 80s and early 90s. Recent RCA graduate Mathew Weir, for example, pushes the kind of photorealist-painterly game established by Glenn Brown against more troublesome content, using trompe-l’oeil to represent in heightened detail already synthetic, culturally loaded representations. Another Royal college graduate, Argentinean Varda Caivano, make forays back into a tropicalized modernism that make rich use of cubism and lyrical abstraction, with a curiosity that re-examines modernism’s universalising rhetoric.

Throughout these new investigations, a different interest in aesthetic potential is being elaborated, one which is certainly retrospective, sometimes reactionary, but which is continuously engaged in painting’s living potential in a period when the public  demand for it has expanded beyond anything conceivable in recent decades. The rediscovery of historical languages and the reassertion of the individual artist as the site of subjective, expressive authenticity go hand in hand with painting’s assimilation of attitudes that allow it to engage rather than confront a wider public. It makes for strongly positive, readily commercial scene in which antagonism is replaced by affirmation; that might be a sign of contemporary art’s response to a wider culture averse to conflict, and wary the grand claims of avant-garde or critical art. At their best however, those ongoing historical problems of art’s cultural status and role are examined anew through paintings which are conscious both of the proximity of failure and retrospection, and the necessity of pursing and reworking the possible terms of painting’s success.


Published in Flash Art, no. 239 November-December 2004 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated