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FEATURE: THE COLLAPSE IN PAINTING. Sally O’Reilly explores the embarrassing potential of the medium.

On a recent visit to the BALTIC in Gateshead, someone pointed out that there was a ‘shed aesthetic’ going on. Phyllida Barlow’s precarious constructions, Veli Granö and Tuovi Hippelainen’s rickety railway and corrugated iron cinema and Bob and Roberta Smith’s forest of signs with a central outhouse-like structure certainly seemed perilously home-made. It was as though, throughout the tall building perched on the banks of the Tyne, gravity threatened like a hanging sword.

There is a lot of sculpture that, rather than striving for a stable manufactured aesthetic, takes up a position on the verge of collapse. You might say that this state of potential failure emphasises a universal antagonism between our urge to control matter and gravity’s pulling power; it is emblematic of the pitching of human wits against the vicissitudes of nature. You might also say that this tendency in sculpture is painterly, that it represents an expressionistic materiality, an impulse to introduce ambiguity into physical presence or symbolic systems.

The winner of this year’s John Moores Painting Prize was, uncommonly for a painting, also affected by gravity. Alexis Harding’s Slump/Fear (orange/black) (2004) was a coagulation of paint that oozed gradually downwards, threatening to eventually abandon the canvas altogether for the floor. The surface has been painted with a grid which, when distorted by the migrating paint, lends the painting a sculptural presence, like a modelled landscape.

Slump/Fear (orange/black) signals a very twentieth-century connection between painting and the event. It is the moment at which the canvas itself becomes the register of reality to be considered, rather than the illusory space depicted upon it; when the represented is usurped by the actual. Ever since Pollock, the process of painting has been acknowledged as performative and the painting itself as residual, although in most cases this is rarely born out – the painting, rather than the process, nearly always emerges as the site of the art eventually. But in theory, the object might be secondary or a documentary artefact of an action; the painting is flagged up as painted, as past tense, as evidence.

Harding’s moving paint, then, could be a literal extrapolation of this phenomenon. The prolonged event extends beyond the performative actions of the artist into the collapsing of the pigment. Harding’s paint is an update of Bas Jan Ader tumbling off the roof of his house. Ader was forever falling off things – dramatizing the point at which the human subject becomes an object under the influence of natural forces, the point at which the artist switches from conscious person to passive object or, in short, the transition from artist to artwork. The main difference is, however, that Ader presented the captured moment through photography or film, whereas Harding’s gravitating painting is a live moment, seeping ever downwards.

Ader’s practice was often mechanically repetitive – something which Harding’s organic movement can never be. A piece by Ader – I’m too sad to tell you (1971), for instance, when the artist cried to camera – might appear as a film, a postcard and a series of photographs. This strategy could only reaffirm the transformation of the artist from subject with interiority to object with exteriority, or from the individual to a typification of the artist. In Pitfall on the Way to a New Neo-Plasticism, Westkapelle, Holland (1971), a series of four photographs, we see Ader lying prone on an empty roadway; then he is lying on a blue blanket, then clutching a yellow petrol tank, then with a red plank, of sorts, tucked under his knee. The final image is an approximation of a classic Mondrian geometric painting, with Ader’s limbs and torso standing in for the structural black lines. This is a performance of a bricollage of a painting – a temporary convergence of painterly sculpture, performative painting and photographic evidence.

Through their ironic submission to gravity, both Ader and Harding replace a moment of true collapse with a fictional or manufactured one, pre-empting nature, as it were. Baudelaire writes, in The Essence of Laughter (1855): ‘It is not the victim of the fall who laughs at his own misfortune, unless, that is, he happens to be a philosopher, in other words, a being who, as the result of a long habit, has acquired the power rapidly to become two persons at one and the same time, and can bring to bear on what happens to himself the disinterested curiosity of a spectator.’ In his essay ‘The Rhetoric of Temporality’ (1969) Paul de Man extends Baudelaire’s notions of self-watching: ‘The Fall, in the literal as well as the theological sense, reminds him [the artistic or philosophical man] of the purely instrumental, reified character of his relationship to nature …’

For those of us to whom the instantaneous bifurcation of the self into our authentic selves and a cool spectator does not come easy, a fall is more usually followed by embarrassment – the knee-jerk reaction to being overcome by gravity or the call of nature. Psychology textbooks outline how, in social situations, we attempt to control images of self before real or imagined audiences. Social anxiety occurs either because we doubt that we will be able to convey the image we would wish, or because an event occurs which prevents us from so doing. This sounds very similar to Baudelaire’s replication of the self into the self-watching and the oblivious selves, the real and the fictional, the victorious and the victim. The literature distinguishing shame from embarrassment also outlines a discrepancy between two perceived states. Sociologist Andre Modigliani describes how: ‘In common usage one is primarily ashamed of oneself, while one is primarily embarrassed about one’s presented self. This may mean that shame is the more personal extension of embarrassment, or it may mean that it is a quite distinct psychological state.’ So embarrassment, while involving the discrepant self-image present in shame, involves in addition the exposure of this discrepancy to the scrutiny of others – a fundamental characteristic of much performance art.

In a conference on risk and performativity at the ICA, London, in 1994, Tim Etchells, of Forced Entertainment, delivered (albeit by video) a personal provocation, ‘On Risk and Investment’:

‘… Investment links to passion, politics and rage. It slips out in laughter, numbness, silence. Investment happens when we’re hitting new ground, when we don’t quite know, where we can’t quite say, where we feel compromised, complicit, bound up, without recourse to an easy position. This is not the place for respectable or soap-box certainties – only live issues will do. Investment wants us naked, with slips and weaknesses, with the not-yet and never-to-be certain, and all that’s in the process, in flux, with all that isn’t finished, with all that’s unclear and therefore needs to be worked out. Don’t give me anything less than this. Don’t give me a truth that’s more fixed, i.e., more of a stupid lie [...] Investment comes when we’re beaten so complex and so personal that we move beyond rhetorics into events …’
Etchells’s ‘live issues’ generally implies the presence of the human body; his use of the word ‘naked’, too, can be applied literally to much performance art; ‘the not-yet and never-to-be certain’ suggests a temporal unfolding, an unscripted narrative. The body as a site for an examination of risk and the discrepancy between self-image and self-projection is a strong tendency in performance work, but it is much more difficult to understand how this vulnerability might be achieved in painting. It may seem spurious to draw a parallel between Gina Pane’s self-mutilating performances and Fontana’s pierced and slashed canvases, yet the bloodied skin and violated paint nonetheless indicate an appraisal of mortality. Fontana’s black infinity beyond the canvas and Pane’s bloody indication of human finiteness seem like the diametrically opposed a priori of nature: the apparent endlessness of time and the certainty of death.

So, if we follow this performative path, we find a nice linguistic loop: we say we are mortified when we are embarrassed. How, though, can contemporary painting reflect this vulnerability? Can there be so much at stake? Beyond the literal collapse of Harding’s paint, the bricollage of Ader’s Mondrian pastiche and the three-dimensional peril of rickety sculpture, can there be a parallel peril in illusory imagery? Etchells’s call for the artist to be ‘… compromised, complicit, bound up, without recourse to an easy position’ can surely be answered in the realm of representation, but perhaps the mediated nature of painting cannot provide the immediacy required of embarrassment. Perhaps painting’s conflation of the imaginary and the real roots it firmly in rhetorics and not in events. Perhaps its status as evidence of action means that it is always too late.

This text was contributed to ARTLURKER by Sally O’Reilly. For more information please visit our Guest Writers Page.


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FEATURE: THE COLLAPSE IN PAINTING. Sally O’Reilly explores the embarrassing potential of the medium.