Painting has been declared dead more than once. But instead of its demise, Mark Titmarsh traces the expansion of the genre. In his book Expanded Painting the artist and academic argues that painting is as dynamic and relevant as ever. In the extract from chapter 5 reproduced with permission below, ‘The Painting of Being,’ Titmarsh examines ‘paintings’ made without paint.
The Painting of Being
by Mark Titmarsh
From the outset this book has posed a series of nested questions that ask how painting is and what it might become. This has involved a search for an appropriate angle of enquiry, a way of approaching painting so as to allow it to come forward in its own contemporary manner. In doing so unusual forms of painting have stepped out of the shadows disturbing unquestioned connections between historical painting and its essential possibilities. In this kind of exploration, the goal is to show a new understanding of painting that transcends the interface between painting and its antitheses. The result is a new walk, expanded painting and a new talk, post aesthetics, that makes sense of a growing area of contemporary art practice that falls somewhere between painting and every other studio discipline.
At each stage of this enquiry into contemporary practice there has been a struggle to describe a moving target, to name an object of analysis and at the same time develop an appropriate language for it. In short, the aim is ‘to define both an object and an account of our access to it’.(1) This has involved a journey from the ground of daily practice, showing what artists do at the everyday level of studio production, to mid-level theorizing about the historical drive towards expanded painting, then to the heights of Heideggerean ontological aesthetics and the technical language of philosophy. In each chapter of this book one kind of conceptualization reached its limit and demanded another level of thinking, resulting in a cascading through studio practice, art theory and ontology. Each level of questioning has generated a partial answer and a range of new questions. Once the being of painting and the nature of practice was shown to be historical, then expanded painting stepped forward as a current mode of revealing being through the act of painting.
Re-ascending this particular ladder of enquiry begins by considering the simple presence of paint in its liquid form, as pigment suspended in a medium. Over the vast period of time that is the history of painting, the constitutive link between paint stuff and painting has been suppressed and largely forgotten. This forgetting of the question of ‘the being of painting’ takes place in the glaring presence of so many painted works from Lascaux to Guernica. What has been lost is the tension between paint as the presence of colour, and painting as the drive towards new world views.
In the hands of many artists across several generations the historical presence of paint has gradually shifted from paint in a tube to an array of coloured things in constructed situations. The death of painting as natural pigment suspended in a liquid medium has spawned the rebirth of painting as synthetic pigment suspended in steel, smoke, string, space and time. Additionally, the historical process of painterly reduction away from craft-based applications has pushed painting right up against the phenomenon of colour itself. This results in a practical and conceptual tension between colour as ephemeral quality and colour as spatial quantity. For example Fred Sandback, while never claiming to be a painter, used coloured string as a substitute for paint, so that space could be coloured, and colour could become a sculptural element in occupying an exhibition space. In this way colour escalates away from a support surface into the spatial domain of the gallery. In a similar manner many artists from almost every discipline began to ask, what can carry colour besides paint? The response came in various forms, anything plastic, anything metal, anything mass produced, anything hand made, anything within sight, in short, anything under the sun.
Sandra Selig uses spider webs collected from her garden, or fine spun polyester thread to create environments of coloured lines that hover on the edge of visual perception. From a distance the work appears to be a geometric drawing on the wall, but on closer inspection the constructed threads hover in space with an almost auditory sensation of colour harmony and frequency.
The first territory opened up by a flight away from the support surface of painting is the floor. By re-activating the floor, as in the work of Jim Lambie and Katharina Grosse, a tension develops between the historical verticality of painting and the practicalities of the spatial organization of the gallery. Floors, as opposed to walls, do not withdraw so that a painting can come forward as the sole focus of attention. Activated by expanded painting, the floor shows up as knotted and grainy, or glossy and reflective, no longer out of awareness but alive with worldly accumulations. It is the same floor, the same primary place where Pollock spread out a canvas on the ground to receive paint and to define the edges of the painter’s ritualistic performance. Rather than disappearing underfoot the floor becomes a new horizon of possible action for the trans-substantiation of painting. The floor shapes the impact of paint and generates a turbulence of colour by pushing up from the earth as the ultimate ground we stand on and the elemental source of all pigmentation.
Artists like Ian Burn and Art & Language have used mirrors as another way of escaping the confines of painting but still retaining a critical link to it. Mirrors provide a surface similar to stretched canvas, but generate imagery without any recourse to paint. The surface of the mirror is an analogue of the picture plane and its window-like view of the world. However, what the mirror pictures is the very act of picturing itself. Appearances in the mirror are at times more convincing than what appears in a painting. What interrupts this process are incidental elements on the surface of the glass, a speck of dust, a painted word, or the appearance of random objects in the room of display and most self-consciously the image of the viewer themselves.
Robert Smithson and Heimo Zobernig have used mirrors as a way of troubling painting, to move it away from the symbolic world behind the picture plane into the everyday world that stands before a pigmented surface. Mirrors implicate relations to reality and truth, as Nietzsche puts it ‘when we try to examine the mirror in itself we discover in the end nothing but the things upon it. If we want to grasp the things we finally get hold of nothing but the mirror. This in the most general terms is the history of knowledge’,(2) and the history of painting.
Other artists exiting from painting have used the video screen as a form of electronic mirror that generates reflections on a technological surface. In particular performance artists have used video as the preferred medium for documenting and distributing works that often had something to say about painting. The unexpected gift from video is that it has a temporal dimension capable of revealing the teleology of paint from wet fluid to dry solid. By showing paint as an electronic trace, video reveals what cannot be seen in a completed painting, namely its essential liquidity. In an early performance work by Paul McCarthy, Whipping a Wall and a Window with Paint (1974), paint is captured in its primary wetness, its sauciness, showing how it performs in its dynamic fluidity as opposed to the static desiccated paint found in most paintings (3).
The temporal dimension of video is uniquely empowered to expose paint in the unusual physical state where it is best described as alive. It has a muscular presence, toned and round, as well as being highly reflective, catching light on its wet and glassy surface. Wet paint is also full of potential, anything can happen, it can be continually reworked until it is allowed to dry when it will change tone and physicality in a partially unpredictable manner rendering it continually vulnerable to chance and error.
Another temporal aspect of painting was shown by Dale Frank in a painting exhibited in his retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney in 2000. The work featured sagging sacks of slowly drying tinted resin that dripped onto the floor of the gallery during the entire period of the exhibition. By the time the painting had come to rest it had been produced by its own kinesis, without the intervention of the artist’s hand. Paint was invited to move under the force of its own weight, displaying its own ‘plastic intelligence’, revealing a natural desire to get beyond the edge of the painting and claim the floor and beyond. Once the exhibition finished and the gallery was cleaned up, the work only existed as a kind of legend, or at most a photographic trace.
Both video and photography capture those ephemeral moments when the disappearance of painting as paint is at its most intense. In Olaf Breuning’s photographs of his Smoke Bomb series made between 2008 and 2013 we see the peak moment when coloured flares arranged in a grid on a temporary wooden structure explode into a cloud of wind driven abstraction. The work, as seen on the cover of this book, is shot front on, as we would normally view a painting, and defined by the shape of a wooden quadrilateral structure, as in a canvas stretcher. It is a type of un-painting that exists only in a time that photography can remember and comes to us filtered through the historical overtones of Robert Morris’ Steam Cloud(1969) and Judy Chicago’s pyrotechnic Atmospheres (1968–1974).
Similarly in Andrew Liversidge’s performance video, ‘ALL THAT FALL (red, yellow, blue)’ 2013, the camera documents the demolition of three primary coloured brick walls specially installed in the gallery. The exhibition space displays the results of the destruction together with a video showing the artist at work, swinging a sledgehammer to bring down each wall in chromatic succession, from red, through yellow to blue. When the last wall is penetrated, and a clear view is permitted from the entrance of the gallery to the back wall, it is as if the visual scales of painting have been played in chromatic order, with the sledgehammer becoming a brush that undoes painting, falling as a shadow on the compelling absence of painting.
Expanded Painting: Ontological Aesthetics and the Essence of Colour is available online from Bloomsbury.
Individuals can enter the offer code EXPAND for a 50% discount until 31 Dec 2017.
1. Stephen Melville, ‘The Temptation of New Perspectives’, October, Vol. 52, Spring 1990, 5.
2. Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1982, 141.
3. Even if paint is black motor oil, as it is in the Paul McCarthy work.