Painting is the Gemini of Art Astrology

Laura Owens, Untitled, 2016, Oil, screen printing ink, lava rocks and post-it notes on linen, 26 x 30 inches

Laura Owens, Untitled, 2016, Oil, screen printing ink, lava rocks and post-it notes on linen, 26 x 30 inches

On January 9, the iPhone turned ten. As the ubiquitous technology enters its preteens, with over a billion units sold, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that the slick apparatus has more invasively impacted our relationship to images than any other recent technological invention.

Though it is impossible yet to parse the ramifications—on our bodies, our attention, our communities—of this particular screen-saturated moment, we can identify some significant iPhone-borne shifts in visual culture. The device has largely standardized the interface of our engagement with the digital world. It has also reframed our understanding of what an image (and in particular, a ‘moving image’) might be: In the distributed visual environment the smart phone creates, what is subject and what is ground? Where are the lines between stasis and movement as we toggle between browser and Instagram, Snapchat filter and Facetime, GPS and the train window? Many of us put store in the concept of “Picture or it didn’t happen,” constantly composing our lived experience into the dimensions of a screen. And many of us bring all of our images with us, always—the iPhone as mnemonic prosthesis. The combination of these various effects has encouraged a mode of viewing digital content, if not the world at large, that is geared toward capture and capitalization.

It is cliché to say that the iPhone has streamlined our participation in social and consumer networks just as it has forged disjuncture with the bodies that use it, if only by placing emphasis on the optic rather than the physical. We might go so far as to say these devices have, in some cases, rendered the functions of production, distribution, and consumption nearly tautological—collapsing the categories into a screen where a gentle glow meets the familiar tap of an index finger. In so much contemporary labor, the body is engaged to the extent of its stunted syntax of digital choreography.

But swipes, drags, pinches—are not these the gestures of painting? And the atomized stickiness of finger smudges the traces of some unique expression? The conditions of gestural expression morph in relation to the different ways our bodies are expected to move and be used (as dictated by forms of labor, socializing, and the technologies that support them), and likewise do the conditions of painting. Painting historically offers a particularly charged site wherein these complicated equations of material and immaterial, standardization and gesture, capital and network, and duration and stasis might be considered.

Mark Rothko’s Harvard murals, “Panel One,” “Panel Two,” and “Panel Three,” Holyoke Center, 1964

Mark Rothko’s Harvard murals, Panel One, Panel Two, and Panel Three, Holyoke Center, 1964

Painting has always had to contend with new technologies. Scrappy in the face of obsolescence, it has proven time and again to assimilate those advancements in media that threaten its relevance rather than wither away under the brightness of novelty. Two major exhibitions in as many years have reckoned with the impact of information technologies on the medium. “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” (2014–15) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, presented curator Laura Hoptman’s controversial attempt to illustrate the ways in which painters are today refusing to position themselves in time and against the history that so goads painting. These works, she argued—by Richard Aldrich, Joe Bradley, Kerstin Brätsch, Matt Connors, Michaela Eichwald, Nicole Eisenman, Mark Grotjahn, Charline von Heyl, Rashid Johnson, Julie Mehretu, Dianna Molzan, Oscar Murillo, Laura Owens, Amy Sillman, Josh Smith, Mary Weatherford, and Michael Williams—reject any style, content, or medium that might be specific to the current moment, rather privileging an indiscriminately recombinatory approach that recontours such strategies as appropriation and AbEx. But of course, as such critics as David Salle[1] and Roberta Smith[2] argued, simultaneity and appropriation were already defining aspects of postmodernism—here, the difference may be that these works don’t always gesture toward something external of which they are critical.

Several of these artists also appeared (among over a hundred) in the much more ambitious (and better received) “Painting 2.0” at the Museum Brandhorst in Munich (2015–16). Curators Manuela Ammer, Achim Hochdörfer, and David Joselit charted the ways in which painting has been in conversation with developments in mass media and culture since Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle was published in 1967. The show aimed to “demonstrate that since the 1960s the expressive gesture has served as a means of reintegrating the virtual world of the information age into the material domain of the human body indicating the charged border between the human and the technological, as well as the analog and the digital.” In three sections, the exhibition surveyed “the ways in which gestural techniques were mobilized to combat or ‘humanize’ spectacle”; “various aesthetic manifestations of the bodily in painting under the influence of media and spectacle”; and “those ways in which painting represents a ‘network society’, both through the mobilization of images on canvas and by representing the artist’s life-worlds.”[3]

These exhibitions together more or less mirrored the refrains so often pulled out in discussions of painting in the “digital era.” It has been seen—also in such exhibitions as “Flatlands” at the Whitney Museum and “Call and Response” at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise—that painting of the last decade has been dominated by some combination of the following attributes: the appropriation and remixing of commercial imagery drawn ahistorically; a tendency to mimic the tropes, styles, and forms of both hardware and the types of images that easily circulate online, often resulting in a flat, surface quality; a self-reflexivity about painting’s own participation in capitalist and social networks; an insistence on the medium’s relationship to the body as refusal of the encroaching immaterial realm; and a charge to account for the ways in which new technologies shift our relationships to space and time.

Time is a hot critical framework for considering those updates to the medium we might ascribe to the current moment. Whereas Hoptman positioned contemporary painting in the atemporal, a concept borrowed from William Gibson that signifies an independence from time, John Kelsey, in his essay “The Sext Life of Painting” in the catalogue accompanying “Painting 2.0,” sites it in the eternal present—a idealized monolithic now of real time. “Imagine a social networking or financial algorithm feeding back in real time with something like a smart canvas,” he wrote. “Few artists would refuse this.”[4] Though the differences between these takes might be slight, it is significant. The atemporal connotes a space unconcerned with the factors of risk and uncertainty, whereas real time rhetoric, which supports and is supported by surveillance and the market both, is actively engaged with safeguarding against these factors.

The hyper-speed feedback loops that inform both of these temporal positions might be seen to effectively eliminate anything off-market and off-trend, thereby homogenizing the artistic subject. Michael Sanchez argued something like this in his 2013 essay “2011: Art and Transmission.” Citing a mid-2000s diagnosis by Giorgio Agamben that “contemporary capitalism does not produce subjects so much as non-subjects, through what he calls the “desubjectifying” effects of apparatuses,”[5] Sanchez suggests that the subject can only form in the lag of transmissions, in a space that is not yet inscribed or mediated. It is this lag space of risk and uncertainty—external to the atemporal or real time—that is critical to art production.

It’s true, the rein of the retinal has only done favors for painting. The cube in which we now most frequently experience paintings is that of the Instagram cel, rather than the hallowed white one of the modernist gallery. “Once it was Conceptual art that moved the fastest, exploiting the reproducibility of text and photography while miming the efficiency of Madmen–era advertising strategies,” Kelsey wrote, “but with Instagram and other algorithmic tools, painting is actually faster than ideas.”[6] While the medium is still ontologically reliant on its materiality, it has learned to participate in immaterial networks, and trained itself to reward reduction to the TIFF. The painting, comprised as it now is of its many iterations—that is, the physical object, installation views of it, and its social life on media feeds—has become unmoored. And this is where painting has most drastically adapted because of the iPhone: in its distributed presence across rarified and quotidian space.

Painting is proving to be the Gemini of art astrology—perhaps more than any other medium, its digital life and its physical one seem to sneak around on each other, have separate families. Online, painting thrives: It sits well with standardized interfaces as it is positioned frontally, it likewise serves as a nice backdrop for literally anything else, and, as Kelsey points out, it is quickly translated into the eye of the scroller. In its physical manifestation, the painting fades and erodes; it grows bacteria and gathers dust; it travels to other countries and other climates.

Among the best works of the last two years were Anicka Yi’s paintings of mold on agar—the most impactful was Grabbing At Newer Vegetables, 2015, which bred bacteria sampled from the artist’s female friends. These contaminated compositions festered and bloomed, growing rapidly always into something else whose result was rancid and distinctly un-documentable. And one of the most provocative recent contributions to painting wasn’t a painting at all. In 2014, an exhibition at the Harvard Art Museums brought together art historians, scientists, conservators, and a research group from the MIT Media Lab’s Camera Culture, who together developed an innovative preservation method for restoring the faded color of a group of Mark Rothko’s murals, commissioned in 1962 for the naturally lit dining room of Harvard’s Holyoke Center. A computer-generated light system was projected onto the untouched, damaged canvases, in effect recreating the carefully calibrated original color experience. For the final hour of each day the exhibition was open, the projectors would be shut down, revealing the unlit canvases in all their disrepair. This allowed the hand of the artist, unmediated, to be visible, and the hand of time, inevitable, to show its work.

The tension between painting’s two faces, its Castor and Pollux, I might argue, is where some of the most compelling work is being done (and is still to be done) in painting. The dissonant space between these faces is where the artistic subject might carve out the productive lag time required to nurture difference and radicality—as applied to the conditions of painting and to those of our mediated experience in general.

Anicka Yi, Grabbing At Newer Vegetables, 2015. Plexiglas, agar, female bacteria, fungus, 214.6 × 62.2 cm

Anicka Yi, Grabbing At Newer Vegetables, 2015. Plexiglas, agar, female bacteria, fungus, 214.6 × 62.2 cm

[1] David Salle, “Structure Rising,” ArtNews, February 23, 2015.

[2] Roberta Smith, “The Paintbrush in the Digital Era,” The New York Times, December 11, 2014.

[3] Press materials for the exhibition “Painting 2.0.” (accessed January 9, 2017).

[4] John Kelsey, “The Sext Life of Painting” in Painting 2.0: Expression in the Information Age, ed. Manuela Ammer, Achim Hochdörfer, David Joselit (New York: Prestel, 2015), 269.

[5] Michael Sanchez, “2011: Art and Transmission,” Artforum (Summer 2013).

[6] Kelsey, 268.

January 20, 2017
Published in Detour
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