What is Painting, What Can Painting Be?

What is Painting, What Can Painting Be?


In some sense, any painter is asking these questions whenever they make a painting.  As Kosuth suggested: every artwork is a definition of art. There is a parallel between this reflexivity of art – and its inherent historicity – and that of philosophy.


Jean Hyppolite makes the case that philosophy comes to question itself by interrogating the very basis of metaphysical thinking (á la Wittgenstein). This is not to say that it loses touch with questions of being and meaning, but that it thinks its way through to the good stuff in an indirect fashion. It never stares straight at the sun but becomes faintly aware of light at the edges of its vision.


Artists must also interrogate their artwork’s roots in non-artistic factors (its existential conditions) at the same time as they explore its content. If we take Badiou seriously and consider art to be an autonomous domain of truth-production (as I think someone like Richter does), then we must question the nature of its truths, and the relationship between its objects and its means.


What is confusing is the plurality of these domains’ truths. Rauschenberg suggested that any aesthetic will always challenge someone else’s, implying that we might consider any painting – in the light of Kosuth – as a prescriptive assertion of what painting should be. This might be a confusion arising from the cross-pollination of art and philosophy; their ‘suturing’, as Badiou would put it. When we conceive of philosophy as an a-historical discipline (pace Hyppolite) then we might import the apparent linearity of its thinking into art and assume that paintings are incompatible rival doctrines.


According to Hyppolite, metaphysical questions are as indeterminate as artistic ones, and opposing accounts of being are as sustainable as opposing accounts of beauty. The question is: are there artistic ‘truths’ that sustain but reappear among different truth conditions (capturing the slide between eternity and temporality that Badiou recognises), or does art function differently? We can safely say it isn’t like mathematics, whose truths collapse into a given present, but is it akin to Hyppolite’s philosophy; weighed upon by its history to the point that it is always in a process of becoming – its thinking through of its history being an integral part of its function?


If so, then both the story of art history and the story of philosophy are ones of becoming, of complex dialectics without resolution, and of infinitudes made temporarily finite – not ones of linear progression, superseded theories and transient forms.


Each new painting becomes, then, not a novel definition of what painting is (or what painting can be) but an attempt to gesture at something eternal by giving it a temporary glance.

Its newness is not total, but relative.


Pop Michael Stubbs Pop

Pop Michael Stubbs Pop


Michael Stubbs (michaelstubbs.org) is fantastic, and I feel a strong affinity to his interest in clashing the Greenbergian tradition of flatness and purity in painting with other modes of constructing painterly space. In particular, I acknowledge the way he wants to replicate our experience of digital screens; they create illusions of depth on a flat surface – sure, so did Renaissance paintings – but it is a recognisably shallow depth that is paradoxically infinite (think of layering windows).


I think he could go further in exploring the screen’s glossiness, radiance and addictive allure: we can’t help but look at them when they’re there, and I think it may be because they offer the promise of unbounded mutability and interactivity through scrolling, zooming or panning. What could painting do here?


He also imports some slightly outmoded preoccupations into his paintings: the ‘Pop’ imagery of billboards and consumerism, as well as a fascination with household paint colours and their distinctively calming register. This is perhaps a product of his generation (Stubbs was born in 1961), since this relationship between the sensationalist billboard and the idealised modern home was once the most contemporary of concerns.


I don’t really share this interest in commercial imagery, and maybe it’s because I’m more of an estranged and insular Modernist than Stubbs is, but I think it has more to do with its relevance. Since the dawn of Modernism, painters have interpreted dominant, contemporary aesthetics – the Futurists gawped at advanced industrial machinery and Pop artists fed on adverts and disposable goods. These things stand in for (represent, symbolise?) defining technological and socio-economic realities, but they are of a time. They don’t go away – we still use machinery, we are still deeply entrenched in a consumerist society – but they fail to encapsulate that which distinguishes our contemporary experience from whatever has gone before. A major goal of abstract painting (I believe) is to identify and shape these novel facets of reality.


The Pop imagery that Stubbs utilises is an art historical relic (he knows this), but perhaps we don’t have enough distance from it to use it in this way. Instead, the paintings of his that prominently feature commercial text strike me as strangely transitional – neither here, nor there.
We know about commercial imagery – abstract painting should touch a little more upon the Unknown. This is why we intuit that art should always ‘move on’; it’s not simply about banal originality, which is often the accusation levelled at contemporary art (and a real problem with sensationalism), but a reflection of the real need for an avant-garde to present the incomprehensible.