If you go down to the woods today, you'd better go in disguise.
The Painting Show, Eastside Projects, Birmingham.
Review by Sally A. Bailey
"The giant beast of painting raises its head in a panicked wild scream. It resumes, shaking off
the desperate and the terrifed, and gnaws at its own flesh out of an insatiable hunger....Now,
though, there is no more fighting. Something else takes its place. As the hungry eyes of the
beast sweep the room it recognises that for all that has been said about the end, the final, the
last,and the knowingly bad, at least everyone is trying their BEST."
(ESP Press Release)
When you want something to be so right, it seldom is.
It is right to approach a show about painting in Digbeth with a very real sense of trepidation. As the Press Release duly warns, this is a 'beast' of a show, and one whose natural habitat is not this slowly regenerating, post-industrial landscape. Digbeth has become the home of the artist-led space, of contemporary installation, of cutting-edge enquiry. Painting arguably has no place here. Go home Painters, there is nothing left to see.
For the 'Painting Show' is the most recent offering in a series of group productions at Eastside Projects in Birmingham, aiming to challenge accepted modes of display, and in this instance question the very function and validity of painting today. Featuring the work of over thirty artists, the show is curated by Eastside Director Gavin Wade, in a second collaboration with artist Sophie von Hellerman.
On entering the gallery space, it is immediately obvious that this is no ordinary exhibition. Paintings are hung over other paintings, layer upon layer of colour collide, and the whole confusion is presented upon a bespoke system of moveable wall panels designed by atchitect Adolf Krischanitz and on loan to Wade for the duration of this stand-off. The gallery space mimics a kaleidoscopic maze drawing you, possibly unwillingly, into the very centre of it. It is messy and complicated; the antithesis of the expected.
The wall panels, acting as a backdrop to the main works, have been painted by Hellerman; wispy, thin and incomplete washes of paint depict an imagined historical journey through time. These panels are juxtaposed by the enormous and overwhelmingly intrusive wall paintings by Tamuna Sirbiladze and Nicholas Party on two of the main supporting walls of the gallery space. It is a short while before we can even register the presence of the other artworks. Gavin Wade describes this event as 'an exhibition as an act of painting', and as these words resonate, the ambition of the show comes into sharp focus.
The painting elements of the show are curiously presented. Layered on top of the backdrop paintings, and with the panels placed at sharp angles, it becomes impossible to view the works in isolation. The homogeny of paint is not easily decipherable, and this is obviously very calculated and deliberate. What looks chaotic is in fact supremely orchestrated, and nothing is left to chance. The selection and placement of works is playful in the extreme, and leads us to confront the question of what constitutes a 'painting' anyway? By hanging one painting on top of another, does that original painting cease to be a painting, or does it now become a unified new work? Are we unwittingly attending a Requiem for Painting; has this ceased to be painting and become installation?
One of the stand-out works is by Ashley Bickerton, a key figure in the emerging 80's New York East Village scene, who continues to influence today. 'TITNW4', is an attention-seeking Neo-Geo plastic laminate painting, which verges on the sculptural. There is still a sense here that something genuinely new is being offered, that this is not the end of the narrative, that sophisticated image possibilities are being presented. This piece resembles a giant factory-formed electronic games console, and is over-laid in a frenzy of neon colour and kitsch Japanese reality TV inspired images. But the doubt is still there at this stage; what here counts as Painting?
'Comme Ci, Comme Ca', by Rob Pruit, presents the possibility of a strangely contorted smiley-face icon on an enamel and acrylic background. Against this back wall of the gallery, it is the only piece to really hold its own over the gigantic work created by Party. A torturous frenzy of zig-zagged colour blocks, it shouts out with a voice louder than its dressings, apart from this one. Pruitt's painting smiles a flat Mona Lisa smile back at the audience, encapsulating gesturally the humorous undertone of the exhibition that slowly begins to emerge. It seems that Wade and Hellerman are not taking themselves too seriously after all, and may even let us all in on the private joke.
The inclusion of Paul Thek's 'bad painting' is genius in its irony. 'Untitled ( Ribbon)' is a small scruffily-executed painting, yet a strangely mesmerising piece. It gives an important historical reference point for the entire show to build from (given Thek's undoubted contribution to the opening out of the language of painting in the 60's and 70's) and again leads us to question the valididty of all of the works selected - who is to give judgment on what makes a "good" painting anyway? As if to underline this enquiry, we then encounter 'The Bear', a wonderfully naive work from the late great George Best. Better known for his legendary football antics, here we view a painting that alleges to be from a rehabilitation therapy project. We can only hazard a guess that there may be many more of these paintings yet to be discovered. Whether the work is genuine or not is irrelevant here; the importance of its being is to illustrate a need to abandon preconceptions about what is "good" or "bad" in terms of painting. To understand this exhibition, "painting" must be recognised as an inclusive activity and cannot become a word used purely in terms of the result of that action.
Of course there are very serious artworks here also. Yet, all hang here anoymously and equal. No greater importance is placed on 'Monochromatic Portrait' by George Condo, than on the whimsical work by Best. There is nothing on the walls or panels to indicate the names of the artists or the titles of their works; the available handout is similarly obtuse and unhelpful. The only possible option is to digest this offering whole, without chewing.
This was never going to be easy. We are being forced to look past the weighted, heavy history of painting, and to consider painting in terms of an expanded field, extending beyond the accepted framing device. We grudgingly acknowledge a fundamental shift in the way we view the world we live in today - all the answers are only ever a 'google' away, and the mystery of unobtainable information is long gone. Painting has become less fahionable of late perhaps, because it does not readily fit into this new way of looking - painting is an activity of inherant slowness, it requires that the maker and the viewer invest precious time in that image. And yet, Post-Photograpy, Post-Modernism, painting continues - painting is still important. And herein lies the crux of the matter - for all assumptions about the curator's intentions, the resounding feeling is that painting is still relevant, and moreover that it can find a home in Digbeth.
The show is unashamedly optimistic. An accompanying panel discussion takes place, "Why is Painting Still Important?". Here Wade, cornered by a group of thirsty art-students, was asked if indeed there was a future for "Painting". Wade smiled enigmatically glancing around at his Magnum Opus, before giving his considered response;
"Painting STILL has legs".
Indeed it does.