The following essay was commissioned by First Site Gallery as part of their CRITICAL emerging writers mentor program.
Painting. More Painting… More Painting: Hard In The Paint
Arts Management Masters student Brigid Hansen ponders resolution, learning, tension and trends in contemporary abstract painting after speaking with five artists who collectively produced Traces of an Activity on the Eyes: Annabelle Aronica, Panayiota Petrakis, Lish Barraud, Georgia Biggs and Fairy Turner.
It’s cloudy and slightly spitting. I’m sitting in a jagged circle with the five artists of Traces on the exposed concrete landing adjacent to their RMIT painting studio. We are discussing the act of painting as a form of learning when Georgia Biggs nonchalantly admits: “If I make a painting that I know too much about, it’s not a good painting”. This sentiment contradicts the idea pervasive within and perpetuated by the art community that non-figurative works, particularly in a contemporary sphere, are loaded with complex and esoteric meaning, yet it is a sentiment which panders to an idealised figure of an artist who can transform material to form regardless of intention or mode. It sparked my curiosity.
I considered this idea in relation to Lish Barraud’s works in Traces given that her practice spans both figurative and abstract but uses similar painterly gestures across these respective genres. Barraud’s depiction of the tired window to a window motif through highlighting square spaces in her colour-clash-wide-brush gestural works signal a personal reflection on art contexts, physical versus metaphorical frames and conceptual histories. Incongruous hues tear at each other at a central point, their dialectical tones interacting to carve out internal spaces. It is immediate and it is complex. Think Die Brücke  meets Rothko. Making the conscious decision to leave the three of her works as Untitled give me the distinct feeling that the artist acknowledges that a painting with these dual aesthetic-intellectual connotations can say both everything and nothing simultaneously. Perhaps, irresolution is a kind of resolution itself.
There seems to be a widespread alignment of contemporary painters and artists working with paint to over-intellectualise their work, an even lesser number of these artists acknowledging abstraction’s oftentimes replicable tendencies and resemblance to textile and print. Perhaps the widespread prevalence of painterly rather than geometric aesthetics in contemporary abstract practice attack this replicability through their intuitive chaotic, look-at-me style. Take any catalogue or essay for a contemporary painting show and I guarantee there will be a sweeping statement about an artist-saviour. It’s exhausting to read. Those who manage to attain elusive art$money$ produce crisp posters and Facebook banners suggesting that This Is The Painting Exhibition To See And If You Don’t See It You’re Missing Out. Or, My Work Talks Better About The ‘Trouble’ With Contemporary Painting Than Any Other. Here’s looking at you, Archibald Prize; ACCA. This kind of climate, regardless of artist’s intentions to do so, breeds an ironic rebirth of the so-often-denounced myth (by artists) of The-Artist-as-Genius. The hilarious artist and critic Natalie Thomas a.k.a. nattysolo sums up that, “If you don’t believe in God, it’s difficult to believe in painting”. Further, awareness of the attached presumptions of painting by the public is crucial for early-career artists. The five artists exhibiting in Traces identify painterly gesture and encounters with the physicality of paint as key themes spanning across their practices; dancing around these ideas, not necessarily to resolve, but to be – as the group agree: “a part of the discussion of what material practice means”. Encounters with the work itself was at times heavily metaphysical, particularly notable in the conscious framing of the spectator within Turner’s multi-part mixed-media sculptural installation Various attempts to succeed & fail (1) and Aronica’s nouveau-Pollock: in which the artist poured various reflective and non-reflective house and acrylic paints onto board creating a thick, glossy and part-reflective composition.
The content of my discussion with the artists seems to contradict the postcard they handed me advertising their show, which purported to offer “potential solutions” to the location of painting within broader contemporary practice. A sweeping declaration! The postcard, which I later found out was printed six months before the exhibition (and before many of the artists had produced their works for the exhibition) is indicative of the artists’ initial intentions for the show. The artists seem earnest, distancing themselves from this kind of rhetoric, and yet without having talked to them, I’d probably have categorised them within the same kind of heroic-saviour-of-contemporary-painting canon that is so often projected to attendees of contemporary painting exhibitions.
If, then, there is a notion of Dionysian tensions between resolution and chaos in the work in the exhibition, experiencing and observing form will become a key point of my analysis. Painting as “nowness” is agreed upon as a key theme of the works in Traces. This led to an extended discussion -and ultimate resolution- that if painting is to be understood in its “nowness”, it needs to be understood in a phenomenological manner rather than in a digitally replicated form as on a screen, in a catalogue or a re-blog. Painting as “nowness” is, as Biggs suggests, “not about creating illusions and utopias” of representation or figuration. The group suggest that this comes about through a complex and conscious “experimentation with painterly logics”. Biggs’ works A Painting for Miranda and Kitchen conform to this style, a deeply layered composition of geometric and fluid shapes, lines and patches of solid and mixed colour applied in a playful manner. With reference to the concept to the reductive-yet-gestural in contemporary painting, yet-gestural in contemporary painting, Walter Robinson coined the term ‘zombie formalism’. The U.S. painter and critic Walter Robinson coined the term ‘zombie formalism’. Robinson discussed the popularity of zombie formalism and “process-fetish approaches” to painting in a 2014 Panel Discussion on contemporary non-objective and abstract art. But who is to blame for this rife fetishization? Do we blame institutions or trends in the broader art public? It’s a chicken and egg situation. Is this process-oriented work born out of an art-school system that encourages experimentation with process (as opposed to concentration on resolving a work) and which is exists in a highly conceptual, postmodern landscape? Are the artists to blame, or the bureaucratic structures and continually moving cultural climate in which these artists push themselves through? While the overall aesthetic of some work in Traces is comparable to other artists whom Robinson identifies as key players in the zombie formalism trend (notably Lucien Smith and Jacob Kassay), I believe the majority of works in Traces are far more calculated than unconscious.
On a lighter note, I recently encountered a mature-age student at an undergraduate painting auction who, upon seeing work of one of the artists in Traces, felt that its gestural style and layering suggested anger and so he liked it. The same guy dismissed a kind of post-Malevich work and was hating on the lack of emotion it depicted. So I guess at the end of the day people will project their own worlds onto a work regardless of the artist’s intentions and any mix of intellectualism or ‘zombie-ism’ to which they subscribe.
P.S: Painters go hard in the paint in every sense of the word/s, so shoutouts to Waka Flocka Flame for allowing me to steal appropriate his lyrics for my own gratification. I wanted to include a painting of Waka Flocka Flame, but couldn’t find any on the first page of Google. I didn’t try very hard.
 Die Brücke (‘The Bridge’ in German) was a group of German Expressionist painters whose modernist, abstracted and often-dark painterly style was controversial in subject matter and experimental style.
 Natalie Thomas. (2016). ‘Painting. More Painting: Creators versus producers. Silence kills culture’. https://nattysolo.com/2016/09/26/painting-more-painting-creators-versus-producers-silence-kills-culture/
 Dionysian refers to the Greek mythological figure Dionysus, one of two sons of Zeus who is often understood in pop culture as a figure of chaos. Works in a Dionysian vein appeal to senses rather than logic or mathematics.
 The Panel, titled ‘Zombie Formalism and Other Recent Speculations in Abstraction’ was held at the School of Visual Arts Theatre (SVA) in Chelsea, New York City.
 Read Howard Hurst’s summary of Robinson’s points at http://hyperallergic.com/169198/who-has-the-cure-for-zombie-formalism/