British painter Henny Acloque (b. 1979) is drawn to painting due to its ability to transport the viewer to a version of reality that deviates, ever so slightly, from reality. Her small-scale paintings typically feature scenes of a natural idyll, with Classical art-historical references, and references that cull from a personal collection of books, postcards, and catalogues. With a glossy surface texture and often lacquered in resin, Acloque’s work departs from its influences while retaining a firm nod to the works of the Dutch Masters or traditions of Renaissance landscape painting. One of her primary inspirations quotes from the tradition of Victorian Fairy painting, a genre that departs from Romanticism and depicts meticulously detailed scenes in which fairies perform typically benevolent acts, but in Acloque’s retelling these mystical, imaginary creatures (also presented with an assumption of veracity,) are replaced by amorphous painted abstractions that reinterpret and obscure any central figure. By removing or subverting an expectation of ‘the subject’, Acloque heightens our excitement of the work: perhaps it is a perverse act of retention, but as viewers, we seem compelled to the mystery present in the painting’s restraint through her processes, asking us to reconsider the norms of representation. This notion of obscurity is also of critical significance, providing a type of gateway for considering (and re-considering) the Self in relation to the Other as described, or, in this case, obscured).
American artist Leslie Baum (b. 1971) uses her artwork as a type of diorama or stage in which she invites the viewer to navigate a series of complex yet playfully presented ideas that most often take the form of irregularly shaped canvases adored with painterly abstractions, often perched upright and placed arbitrarily about the exhibition space. For Baum, these multicolored, irregularly shaped and colorful pieces function like contemporary artifacts, in which any multitude of variables “bump against each other in the same context” to generate meaning. By allowing the painting to transcend the confines of its two-dimensional support, the works engage in a negotiation with the viewer through an stage-like tableaux: often, pieces are placed in associative groups about the gallery floor, more telling, she often places smaller objects atop a table, as though to be readily engaged by the viewer. Accentuated by what she refers to as ‘imperfection of her hand’, Baum’s on-going series Particular Histories is likened to the children’s game, Telephone, where “distortion and misquotation yields fresh imagery”. Such an analogy seems appropriate for work that urges us engage with an almost childlike sense of discovery, where painted elements serve as both complete objects and building blocks for a larger narrative. In fact, through her own creative process of discovery, Baum’s installations ask the viewer to consider how we experience our surrounding environments on a larger context. Taken as a whole, the works challenge the modern canon as much as they pay it homage. “A good painting can collapse time, evoking the past, present, and future. For me the act of painting is the act of wondering and wandering.”
The Utopian idealism and pop sensibility of the 1960’s are a major influence in the dynamic paintings of American artist Nina Bovasso (b. 1965). Drawing inspiration from retro textile designs, she re-contextualizes patterns and shapes and in lieu of hard-edged geometry or crisp patterning, she prefers to embraces a handcrafted aesthetic, almost artisanal or childlike in appearance, where each shape is dependent on the last until her paintings seem to heave with organic masses, tentacles, rays and repeated intuitive patterning. Allowing such wild and gestural marks to exist with such presence emphasizes the humanity behind them; in some instances, pieces larger than the artist herself ask us to make a connection to the bodily, the psychology of the artist and work, and the sheer exuberance that seems to burst from the canvas. More recent works see Bovasso pursuing her interest in the surface materiality of the paintings, almost as a reactionary measure to the increasing presence of digital mediums in the art world, where scarce a hand gesture or organic technique is found. For Bovasso, even her works featuring pixellation or geometry warmly embrace their human origins and wonky execution with a gleeful presentation. It is unsurprising that Bovasso is fascinated by our sense of interaction with her paintings, asking a contemporary audience to re-evaluate our relationship to communicative symbols and patterns that transcend the coldly distance of the computer screen and engage with their full physical presence, sense of imagination and fantasy.
Through a playful, multi-layered, and intuitive approach to media, Dan Brault (b. 1979) attempts to provide his viewers with an experience of painting as discovery. A Quebecois artist and 2006 Masters graduate of Laval University, Brault considers painting the ultimate form of virtual reality. His spirited creations utilize image fragments and elements of design to entice and intrigue the viewer. Drawing inspiration from nature, personal experiences of joy and grief, and an arbitrary relationship to colour, shape, and freedom of form, Brault believes that “nature is ultimately the best computer: our minds and our hands will always be the richest tools to use when it comes to image making.” His loyalty to the medium of painting is evident, and he sees it as a critical means of constructing new visions and realities. For Brault this vision prioritizes colour, optimism, and positivity over any such conceptual approach. His laissez-faire attitude seems to penetrate through the works, and his laidback approach is evident in any one of his compositions that prioritizes shape, form, and colour. Not unlike Kandinsky, whose work was meant to inspire with the joy of music, Brault’s intention is to make interaction with his works an exciting and memorable experience. The artist quotes Matisse, Basquiat, Hockney, Stella, and contemporary artist Tal R as major influences. His relationship to painting is one of joy and identity, and the visceral materiality of paint informs his working method. For Brault, it is more than a medium—it is an extension of self and a means of articulating urgent thoughts and feelings.
In a painting titled Floorswamp, 2013 Royal College of Art (MFA) graduate Benjamin Brett (b. 1982) has liberally applied a vibrant blue wash to the surface of a pre-existing painting. One can still see the traces of a figure underneath, floating hesitantly near the surface of the canvas. Other marks (or what the artist refers to as “stains”) also exist under a so-called ‘swamp’ of colour, as though the artist turned the canvas 90 degrees and continued painting. A similar treatment has occurred in Untitled (Dancer), where a rhombus motif has covered a penultimate painting that appears to exist underneath the final treatment. In American-Type Painting theorist Clement Greenberg considers the latter-year apple paintings of Cezanne (b. 1839-1906) as an attempt to conveying the sheer essence of the subject matter, and not as a painted recreation of the object itself. “To transcribe something looks for a direct likeness whereas to translate something seeks a different perspective,” the artist states, “In older works I would choose specific objects or photographs to paint from, the key factor in the selection of these subjects was that their visual appearance was ambiguous or could be interpreted in numerous ways. Through the manipulation of these images in paint, I would use these subjects to inform or explore conventional aspects of abstraction.” Brett’s works inhabit a similar pursuit, where the act of suggesting rather than revealing objects seems to prevail. In this way the paintings transform into subtle traces of reality. While Brett’s works enunciate quite little in terms of concrete subject matter, the artist always retains an underlying desire to convey a narrative. It is through a kind of semiological connect-the-dots that these undercurrents of narrative inevitably emerge. “In other words this is to say something isn’t entirely abstract, it comes from something…their starting place is still in representation, so yes, they are about the essence and to use the article/object in order to translate it into something else.
“I’ve never thought of painting in relation to or in opposition to our digital age,” claims Brooklyn artist Andrew Brischler (b. 1987). “Painting, the primal urge to record an idea visually, is an inescapably universal phenomenon.” Brischler pinpoints the moment of interest as something more contextual, operating beyond a penchant for hard-edged geometry, angular ‘doodles’, or brightly colored gradients. However, despite loud, assertive tendencies, he finds himself most interested in the moment when an expertly crafted painting begins to fall apart. These moments of revelation for Brischler are abundant, canonical and inevitable: “You see it in the puckered corners of Warhol’s massive diamond dust paintings; in the black stains of Al Held’s colour fields; and in the tremulous lines of Frank Stella’s early shaped works. Tiny failures that make even the most monumental and heroic paintings seem flimsy, vulnerable, even sad.” As such, Brischler’s works have less to do with pure geometric abstraction and have more to do with locating ones’ place in time and space. “I am unavoidably, shamelessly, a ‘millenial’ ” he states, but Brischler’s paintings both embrace and depart from notions of superficiality in order to speak to his own feelings of self-consciousness and mortality, a process that weaves his own anxiety into otherwise bold and paintings that seem a conceptual hybrid between the techniques of Op Art and the suggestion of the memento mori. At one point, it is possible to imagine these pieces as time capsules from the Pop Art Movement, their frayed corners and sandy backgrounds almost serving as a nostalgic reminder of some long forgotten, much cherished Golden Age.
One speaks of the death of art, the death of painting, the death of modernism. Modern art has become obsolete, corpses, a story long forgotten, archeological ruins of an incomprehensible past for a new art. If modern art is dead, one must show it dead in order to vindicate it as art, and value its formal possibilities, showing it terrible and eliminating its decorative connotations.” In the paintings of Mexican artist Jorge Castellanos (b. 1982), vividly rendered flesh tones, mangled bodies, and graphically disfigured forms combine to evoke the presence of death, reminiscent of death masks, or even death ritual, but always to an intensely unnerving result. Castellanos’s vision of Mexico pertains to a greater societal and cultural whole; appropriating from a long history of Mexican painting that has a preoccupation with death, beginning with the religious Retrato, which features visitations of saints to the recently deceased, to the macabre tendencies of Orozco, Kahlo, and Siquieros. The work also serves as a greater commentary on the alleged “death” of painting, exploring the function of the medium within the contemporary world. “My work emerges from the vestiges of modern art in a new context, within the present reality of contemporary Mexico, the violence of form: the remains of human carnage mingled with the remains of modern art”. Appropriate, then, to allow form to equate content: with titles like Head Trophy and Modern Dorian Gray, Castellanos pays tribute to the cultural and artistic tradition from which he derives but also allows his multifaceted inquiry to generate a new entry point and critique on the status of contemporary art.
CHOKRA TOMORY DODGE
For an artist, there is often great visual potential to be found in accidents and mistakes. Los Angeles based painter Tomory Dodge (b. 1974) approaches her canvases with an open mind and is captivated by the landscapes of the Californian desert and the American West. Her work, which she considers is positioned somewhere between the abstract and the representational, attempts to derail the traditional trajectory of representation. In Washington State, for instance, the presence of an impasto wash in the vein of Gerhard Richter atop a forest green underpainting seems to suggest a nature painting of pine trees under a crisp morning sky, its title further emphasizing this dichotomy between representation and abstraction. Aside from conceptual considerations, her paintings evoke a fascination with the materiality of paint, and what she calls a “central mystery” inherent in the medium. The experience of painting itself is a primary concern for Dodge; she considers it to be a basic human instinct, yet recognizes that it is currently obsolete for many purposes other than artistic creation. Although Dodge continues to push the boundaries of her artwork primarily through painting, she finds herself most interest in the notion of a creation for its own sake, where her attempt lies in the pursuit of translating experience into other forms of visual communication.
Freya Douglas-Morris (b. 1980) uses her paintings to expound on her fascination with place and experience. With loosely conjoined landscape elements forming an imagined reality, her paintings offer a unique opportunity for engagement with the viewer. Their ambiguous and often imprecise components elicit curiosity, along with a strange sense of familiarity. Although they reference both landscape and narrative, the scenarios she constructs are not specific to a real environment. Douglas-Morris is driven to occupy the threshold between reality and fiction, familiarity and foreignness. She approaches her paintings with a desire for dislocation from narrative space, and the excitement of a journey through time. These are paintings that depict the experience of being somewhere, rather than a literal translation of any one particular place. For Douglas-Morris, painting is the ideal medium for such an excursion. It allows her to experiment with temporality and metamorphosis, imbuing each of her works with a rich history and lineage, however subjective this journey might be, it is her desire to present us with its strange, dreamlike details.
Tim Ellis’ (b. 1981) series entitled United in Different Guises features a number of paintings, vaguely reminiscent of militaristic banners or flags, that have been folded, scuffed, gradually aged, and hung by bulldog clips, as though textiles recovered from ancient or forgotten republics. The source imagery used is a mixture of signage and design that has been reconstructed to form gendered symbols, gleaning in equal amounts from Japanese symbolism such as the Ensō, and Art Nouveau. With nods to contemporary artists like Gert & Uwe Tobias, and even finding suggestions to (perhaps less visceral) origins in Viennese Actionist performances by artists such as Hermann Nitsch, these works are loaded with cultural and historic significance. What remains is a series of symbols and messages that question notions of symbolism and authenticity. In fact, Ellis’ syntax is sourced from daily life, art history, and his surroundings in contemporary London, creating what amounts to a subversion of historical referencing or a codified language system that appears to defy chronological or cultural classification.
The evocative portraiture of Finnish painter Matilda Enegren (b. 1989) is an inquiry into the nature of human communication. Working from a photographic base, Enegren uses painting to lend longevity to the otherwise fleeting moments encountered in everyday life, commenting on the gaze, ideas of recognition, and our recognition with the depicted subject. She is inspired by a love of the subtleties of illumination, and carefully renders her subjects in varying nuanced lighting scenarios. The act of partially or completely obscuring the faces of her subjects is a means through which Enegren questions the complexity of human relationships. It also alludes to another critical interest of the artist: the reality of vision and perception. Through a body of work entitled Gaze, Energen references Lacanian psychoanalytical theories such as one’s relationship to the Other, symbolism, and even desire, which, according to Lacan, “is not a question of recognizing something…In naming it, the subject creates, brings forth, a new presence in the world.” So it seems Energren is concerned with this very scopophilia, or politics of looking, where the overriding cultural implications of looking at art, which, in a sense, looks right back at you. Enegren asks the viewer to consider his or her own role as an onlooker, where the use of paint reminds us that it is a fallacy, a construction, that is both outside of and connected to reality.
Reflexivity is a challenging concept to successfully achieve within contemporary painting. All too often it seems like an afterthought, superficially imposed upon the art after its creation, or too forcibly entwined in the fabric of its make-up that the painting itself seems to suffer from this conceptual baggage. The paintings of Austrian artist Michael Fanta (b. 1989) articulate a certain autobiographical detachedness that seems to fall back upon itself, rather incidentally. “Working in painting, one thing seems to be very present: how the actual paint and the way surrounding objects present themselves in ones own personal view, can meet at certain points.” One series of works features a recurrent skull that the artist has placed to look back at the viewer, perhaps as a tongue-in-cheek variation on the memento mori. “Painting has become some kind of arena for the subconscious…” His paintings, typically titled after the dates they were completed, commonly utilize a mise-en-abyme effect in which paintings appear within paintings, the skull moving comically, eerily throughout the various compositions. Learning from his teacher Daniel Richter, Fanta’s work is intuitive and causal: “I am not very analytical, but if a painting is good, it should be able to explain itself.” So one is left perplexed as to whether a series of works entitled The Drunk Paintings, ostensibly featuring drunk or drinking men in various stages of inebriation, are titled as such simply due to their subject matter, or whether Fanta is playing with semantics and performance, painting the works while he himself is drunk. He asserts that within his practice “every object can be used as a tool to tell a story.”
In his painting entitled Man with Vesalius Skeleton, British artist Robert Fry (b. 1980) pays homage to Dutch anatomist Andreas Vesalius, a 15th century author of one of the most revered anatomical books ever written. The painting is executed in what has become Fry’s trademark style: a flattened perspective in which a human figure is reduced to its bare elements, with scarce an outline to denote a male figure facing an almost indiscernible skeletal entity. Fry is only concerned with mapping the body in a referential sense, where figures are stripped of any sense of naturalism or anatomical concern. His paintings engage a series of codes and systems that have become trademark to his telling style: figures stand as though lifted from Egyptian hieroglyphs are bathed in any number of mixed media approaches, including resin, oil-pastel, marker and paint. His compositions are typically framed within the painting by a thin contour line that traces the outline of the canvas itself, and the paintings themselves are generally bathed in deep magentas, purples, and violets, colors that, while typically ungendered, are linked to piety and royalty, and have appeared predominately throughout Fry’s practice since 2010. In this way, Fry references the act of obscuring information and identities to give way to psychological insinuations, where figures are obscured by Rorschaech-style inkblots or even three-dimensional Rubix cubes, allowing Fry to build tension in his work through the application of layers and textural qualities to the surface of the canvas. These elements serve to a greater conceptual mythology in that these altered the physical identities suggest a complexity of meaning beyond what is immediately evident. His preoccupation to find a new language of representation through metaphysical concepts of representation, using a the language of abstraction and expressionism. “I create a relationship between the physicality of materials and psychological terms,” he states “and I am interested in conveying a slightly brutal picture of the human condition.”
Drawing from a pool of found photographs and images from her own family albums, South African painter Kate Gottgens (b. 1965) removes the familiar photographic representation from nostalgia and translates it into an unstable context, where figures and details remain purposefully ambiguous. Undulating between withholding and revealing, her paintings offer only momentary glimpses of clarity, where interiors and figures seem to drift in through a haze of memory. Typified by a certain distrust of reality, and filtered through the subjectivity of painter as omniscient storyteller, the paintings omit and avoid many descriptive features to allow her to focus on the implications of the image, manipulating the fine line that exists between reality and fiction. We assume that she incorporates her own social history and personal narrative into her work, but equally telling is her attention to skewing the colour palette to evoke certain emotions, a certain vernacular imbued by faded photographs, the saccharine feeling of a Technicolor film, or a vintage advert. Suburban scenes, empty interiors, and everyday landscapes ask us to reconsider elements of nostalgia with a slightly ominous atmosphere, as though these nostalgic recollections are tinged with elements of pain, regret, and even dread when reconsidering the past.
Born in 1983 and working from Tehran, artist Shahryan Hatami approaches painting with the curiosity and intellection of one who is enthralled by thoughts, fantasy, literature, art history, and even dream. We are able to project images of Arabian Nights as we are the Tower of Babel, or even cues from the NeoClassicist period. A particular painting seems to feature a floating world, ostensibly lifted from the musings of Borges. In another untitled image, Hatami transforms the plane of the painting into a desolated marshland, littered with the debris of a lost civilization. An owl looms overhead while a pair of infants clutch each other, Pieta-like, amidst the remnants of the past. In another, a figure in a leopard costume mounts a lion, a cobalt-hued peacock barely visible in the corner, yet the setting seems totally familiar, even uncanny. It recalls Antoine-Jean Gros’ Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Stricken in Jaffa (1804), or even the sepia color scheme and macabre Romanticism of the work of Gericault. However these are undoubtedly informed by Hatami’s Tehranian background, for there is a tendency toward history painting, however magic realist. Here, a theme of self-inflicted destruction is central to the paintings, and Hatami demonstrates a consistent desire to visually explore a hypothetical demolition of humankind, perhaps commenting on the historical and fantastical realms from which they are drawn. The paintings transcend mere representation, adopting a visual language through which we may discuss deep-seated psychological fears. Furthermore, these works evoke the mystique of painting itself: the artist’s passion for the materiality of paint is evident, yet balanced with a belief that the true function of art lies in its emotional journey. For Hatami, the process of creation is one which is intricately tied to an internal journey of self-examination, critique, and, ultimately, fulfillment.
For Hannah Hewiston (b. 1977), painting is about the tangible, evident reactions that occur upon the canvas in and of itself. She avoids concept, subject matter, and theme, in favour of the purely technical aspects: the tactility of paint, the visual message, and the responsive qualities of her own subjective process while working. “I navigate a painting through the heat of the artist’s hand,” she states, working through each painting as though it were a series of problems seeking resolution as they present themselves. Often, she paints over existing paintings to create new layers of meaning. In paintings like Constructor or Platform, these ghostly traces suggest paintings that existed in previous incarnations before Hewiston resolves them. The insinuation of this approach where painting acts as palimpsest dislodges the work from mere design or composition, to suggest a further, deeper reading, or even a bit of their own process-driven creation, wherein Hewiston articulates and rearticulates an intuitive vision. With little planning, Hewiston’s process owes its playful, organic spontaneity to causality and chance, in which each gesture informs the next, and each painting leads to its successor. “Painting embraces failure,” she states, “It is an investigation into the relevance and possibility of the painted mark through both an engagement with it and detachment from it. I am interested in how the painted gesture has the power to ignite imagination.”
“What stories do we tell ourselves? How do we perceive reality?” Alon Kedem (b. 1982) believes these inquiries to be critical to the act of painting. A graduate of Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Art, Kedem’s paintings are intended as platforms open to interpretation. To use his terminology, they are neither “open nor closed,” “inside nor outside.” For Kedem, the works are defined by explication as much as they are by suggestion, allowing the viewer to read reality through their own so-called “veil of unconscious subjectivity”. Through a system of signs articulated in paint, Kedem is concerned with how we perceive and understand language via the visual, semi logical systems that typically surround us in daily life. The paintings are active, suggesting movement and featuring scenes in transition, where at times the difference between subject matter and sheer mistake becomes indecipherable. In one instance, a painterly mass appears to be a depiction of a rubbish heap; in another, this same pile appears more corporeal, almost like a pyre of detached limbs. The artist credits Philip Guston as a primary influence, and a linkage is made where Kedem quotes Guston’s penchant for codifying personal symbols and indecipherable objects. Despite their cartoonish renderings, we sense a deeper subjective complexity and point of view. One particular painting aptly articulates Kedem’s wry, almost macabre perspective. In it, a box sits atop a conveyor belt, but upon further inspection one may notice a human limb, all tempered by his preferred palette of pastels: A painterly scene navigating through horror, humour, nostalgia, and play.
The human body represents a vast world of unseen interactions. Jenny Kemp (b. 1979), a New York based artist, is intrigued by that which is hidden and unseen. Biologically inspired, her paintings act as meditations on a human relationship with the organic world. Patterns made through delicately crafted lines flow through the surface of the paintings, suggesting a constant state of physical and emotional development, growth, and movement. She draws from a keen interest in scientific interactions, but tempers these fact-based sources with an artistic perspective. The passing of time also influences Kemp’s practice, and she views painting as an inherently temporal medium, with each brushstroke serving as a record of a specific moment in history. In this regard, the idea of ‘painting as a record’ informs her perspective and her process, and Kemp always bears in mind the materiality of her work, drawing attention to this through freely abstract compositions. Titles like Decodelia and Conchodial reference both personal memory and imagination, as well as naturally occurring systems, respectfully. In some ways, the materiality of paint serves as a metaphor for the cycle of our physical and organic relationships through the course of our lives as humans, and Kemp’s process appears to reference this.
The work of German artist Tamara K.E. (b. 1976) may first appear to be whimsical, even simple, colorful sketches with various references to both early 20th century illustrations executed with the gestural quality of a scribble. However, further consideration reveals each painting to be anarchic, unfolding, and dynamic. Perhaps their scale is telling; with most pieces measuring approximately 2.5 meters in height and two-meters wide, they belie their own coquettish nature. K.E. herself negates any conceptual meaning, stating that the works are bereft of the political, social, or linguistic, but rather, a desirous exploration of consciousness. In both treatment and scale they recall the work of Twombly, or perhaps reduced re-imaginings of Kandinsky, or Sonia and Robert Delauney, even reminding us of the same graphic quality inherent in Andy Warhol’s early illustrative drawings. K.E. describes it as a process of turning colours, events, or signifiers into a “substance of seduction”, where she, as artist, is a nomad wandering through these dreamlike terrains.
Perhaps it seems that abstraction and realism are opposing genres that cannot be reconciled—but the paintings of German artist Frank Maier (b. 1966) beg to differ. Maier considers abstraction to be merely an extension of reality. His paintings are reflections on real life experiences, and in some regards he views painting itself as a manifestation of authenticity. This may seem like a paradox given the stark, design-like paintings that Maier produces, but for him the works speak to a narrative, almost like a constellation that traces memory and emotion. Through each work he establishes a set of modes that seek to alter the way we as viewers consider and understand symbols. The elements of line and geometry on Maier’s canvases provoke a discourse on the significance that these symbols hold in our lives, both in a literal and metaphoric manner. For Maier, painting is the only way to explore such profound concepts, where the physicality and materiality of paint becomes an allegory for human existence.
The dichotomies inherent in painting can sometimes present a visual or conceptual challenge for artists upon which an entire practice can find its purpose. For Tonje Moe Pettersen of Norway (b. 1978), such duality forms the basis of her artistic pursuit. She considers it her mission to strike balance between mess and the order, harshness and the harmony, truth and fabrication. Further accentuating this, her paintings have a hallucinatory quality that causes the viewer to oscillate between foreground and background, reality and dream, architecture and nature. Geometric forms are placed within an indefinable space and thus isolated from a sense of representational authenticity. Inspired by the transcendent power of the natural world, Pettersen incorporates abstracted organic imagery into her work, often confined within the borders of a geometric object. Her simultaneous appreciation for architectural geometry and organic fluidity manifests itself clearly in the finished paintings. It is by juxtaposing seemingly opposite visual identities that her work takes on a complex and multi-layered meaning. She states: “I do organic paint-scapes with references to vegetation, earth, sky and fjords. I paint fast, spontaneously, and I am endlessly thrilled by colours. Painterly mess pleases me, yet I appreciate structure and patterns. When I paint, I find myself constantly balancing the messy and the orderly, the harsh and the harmonious. I love to make a painting breathe, to create bits that move in and out, surfaces where something is growing one second and shrinking the next, areas oscillating between foreground and background. The painting comes alive, not unlike a hallucination.”
Born in Spain and a graduate of London’s Goldsmith’s College, Gorka Mohammad (b. 1978) seems to pick quite arbitrarily from a canon of art history. His sources include the Spanish Baroque, the Surrealists, as well as animation and surprisingly, even a tradition of austere historic portrait painting. Mohammad’s paintings exhibit a noticeable tension between tradition and deviation. Their colour palettes, although piqued with vibrant pinks, remain relatively calm and understated given the characters that parade within them. At one moment, the pieces are characteristically grotesque and overtly humorous. Balanced Spanish Civil Guard speaks as much to the conventions of compositional correctness as it refers to the leveling tool perched atop what seems to be a guard in military dress with a phallus-like nose. They are at once political commentaries and art historical mockeries. Mohammad’s paintings feature a recurring cast of militia-types, foolish dandies, and perverted aristocrats, all playing the part of the theatrical outsider. His handling is equal parts Velasquez and Ren & Stimpy. According to Mohammad, they are criticisms of our contemporary social reality, and an attempt to reflect the cultural toxins found in humanity. I’m a Painter sees the artist turning the lens inward: perhaps upon himself, or perhaps as a criticism of a set of canonical expectations from which he hails. It might be Mohammad, but it might also be Picasso; it might be a homage, or it might be a mockery. One cannot be entirely certain, and therein lies his ultimate social commentary. “I like the idea that I am able to select a certain painting made during a distant period and compare it side-by-side with a contemporary painting. Painting, with all of its history, has the uncanny ability to condense time and space. These two individual paintings, seemingly disparate, can have a dialogue together…these moments of self-revelation or self-mockery present themselves to me by chance or accident, and I am challenged to reconcile this idea of what I was attempting in the first place.”
Canadian artist Caroline Mousseau (b. 1989) views painting as a negotiation: a malleable understanding of how we receive images and convey ideas. For Mousseau, painting is something that bears the marks of its predecessors. With slippery meanings and buried histories, it is a medium that spreads itself across material and thought. Malleable, marked, slippery, buried: the adjectives she uses aptly reference her practice, which she describes as steeped within “a land of mud, with matte, sullied colours and imperfect repetitions wherein systematic structures or unrecognizable landscapes not only bear the properties of mud, but take liberty with this as allegory for ideas of transition, hybridity, movement, and finally, a confrontation of structural power.” Seep Sow, for instance, creates an impasto latticework motif, which seems to reference the minimalist (and meaningless) patternmaking present in the work of fellow Canadian Agnes Martin. And Mousseau’s Half-Set seems to suggest a similar repeating motif as much as it might mimic an aerial photograph of a farmer’s field, in a vein similar to Dirk Skreber’s Flood paintings. It is perhaps a slightly more didactic but equally anti-characteristic approach to the conventional landscape. Certainly, as ‘abstract paintings’ these are situated paradoxically without any sense of form whatsoever, as though Mousseau is eager to do away with the hierarchy of imagery in favor of producing familiarity. Her paintings imply an unrecognizable landscape and the emotive suggestion insinuated through one’s relationship to the image and a lack of meaning.
The paintings of British born artist Mark Nader (b. 1986) seem like a visual assault on the sense: with a mixture of patterning typically executed in loud, almost garish palette predominated by rich pinks and blood reds, the work questions the means by which we piece together facts about our society and ourselves like a mythological tapestry. Nader’s mixed nationality (half British, half Mexican) prompted his interest in personal identity and cultural displacement: a mixture of references and seemingly cultural icons are executed with a naïve primitivism where crudge brush marks and jarring, candid perspectival shifts cause an overwhelming sense of magic realism. He incorporates the aesthetics of Mexican folk art into his paintings, here we see marked references to the styles and themes taken from dreams and of the Lacanian Self and Other, combined with the presence of alebrijes, imaginary beings with mystical and anthropomorphic properties, to offer a nightmarish collapse of realism. Though delving into concepts of virtual reality and digital information, Nader chooses to ground his work in a wonky re-envisioning of 18th Century domestic genre painting. Nader’s paintings thereby suggest a tension between what we expect to perceive through such conventional painting styles, hereby accentuated by a 21st century infiltration with a naïve sense of fictional narrative, cultural anonymity, and the fantastical.
Despite the technical, almost systematic appearance of his paintings, Estonian painter Kaido Ole (b. 1963) harbors an appreciation for the unknown aspects encountered along the creative process. “Painting makes a good basis for a well balanced mix of understandings and creative mistakes,” he states, choosing to root his own artistic practice in the knowledge that while a painting can never be perfected, it might come close to offering an augmented reality of that which lies within the mind, despite its reliance on the human hand. This paradox and limitation is a major source of interest for Ole, where his often large-scale works seek to emphasize those flaws that remain despite the mathematical, perfected ‘visions’ presented within his works. Quoting the Dutch Masters, where Ole believes such small errors serve to counter belief in the existence of the artistic genius, also undermining the guise of perfection within his paintings. For Ole, painting is simply one of many normal human activities, and his work suggests an attempt to understand the impact of art upon its human viewers and creators. Influenced by the happenings of daily life, he removes objects from their original contexts and reappraises them within the flattened space of the painting. His artistic output thereby acts as a translation of his personal existence, and his relationship to the medium and his placement within an art-historical canon.
The palely painted installations of British artist Yelena Popova (b. 1978) are heavily informed by the principles of Russian Constructivism. She draws from the movement in her fascination with mechanical happenings and technological relationships. However, these paintings make an intentional and marked deviation from the aggressive aesthetic of their Constructivist forbearers. As Popova’s translucent markings seem to slip away from their substrates, the work suggests instability and transience, two characteristics that Popova attributes to painting itself. Moreover, she chooses not to imbue individual paintings with complete sets of meaning. Rather, it is the final installation of the paintings and the ways in which they interact with one another, that denotes their significance. This notion of the parts joining to form a whole is also reminiscent of her Constructivist inspirations. Yet even as she pays homage to previous stylistic movements, Popova carefully amends her works for consumption by a modern audience. Her paintings are at once contemporary and timeless, considering the role of the painting in the act of building or deconstructing an image.
For self-taught Mexican artist Heriberto Quesnel, the principles of artistic practice are grounded by the notion of a universal history. Oscillating between rigid formalism and the playful fragmentation of the comic strips from his childhood, Quesnel’s practice includes but also transcends conventional oil-on-canvas painting, to incorporate found-object collage and a series that has him altering vintage magazines and books. With origins as a response to the gang and drug related violence in Mexico, Quesnel’s imagery frequently depicts mutilated torsos and decapitated heads in criticism of the aftermath of this horror. A series of paintings of oversized LIFE magazine covers, measuring nearly two-meters in length, features political leaders whose eyes have been augmented to make them appear deceased, with stark blackened backgrounds and decontextualized text to offer critical sociopolitical commentary on contemporary Mexico. While the works at first inhabit an unnerving distance from real-life issues through an apparently historic presentation, one quickly realizes Quesnel’s critiques are relevant topical warnings of culture in peril and duress, or of recent histories that we, as a society, seem to forget all too quickly.
When one considers the role of painting within the culture and history of civilization, it is all too tempting to categorize it as simply another medium of artist expression. But for Mexican artist Omar Rodriguez-Graham (b. 1978), painting is about much more than tools and techniques. He considers it to be a pure experience intimately connected to human nature itself. As long as civilization survives, he predicts that painting will continue to evolve and hold purpose. Rodriguez-Graham uses still lives to explore the act of creation and the role of the painter in constructing reality. “Beginning with the construction of sculptures, marks are constructed as representations of elements borrowed from the language of painting”, he states. Enamored with the subtle brushstrokes of the painting, he considers these marks to be evidence of the artist’s humanity. “For all intensive purposes these objects are seen as presentation of the language of painting.” As seen in his carefully composed works, this evidence transforms itself into the foundation of our visual culture and defines painting as an act that is both timeless and intrinsically human.
The large-scale gestural paintings of Canadian born, London–based Andrew Salgado (b. 1982) explore concepts relating to the destruction and reconstruction of identity – a process of re-considering the convention of figurative painting through a continued pursuit toward abstraction. He shies from the term portraitist, feeling it pejorative and one-dimensional, preferring to situate his work within a context of abstraction. “I want to create paintings that engage beyond what is immediately visible,” he states “consciously and reflexively questioning the nature of painting itself and where my own practice is situated within this crux.” A graduate of London’s Chelsea College of Art & Design, Salgado pulls from a wide array of painterly inspirations: he lists Veronese, Chavannes, Caravaggio, and Gauguin as influences as readily as Daniel Richter, Bjarne Melgaard, or Francis Bacon. “I am drawn to the rule breakers,” he states, “and I am interested in how my paintings might operate independently from their literal figurative foundation, how they might engage abstractly, pulling the viewer from the sutures of the subject to invite understandings beyond the confines of the painted picture.” Certainly, Salgado’s recent works askew any sort of classification as purely figurative, sidestepping a practice that was previously more conceptually rooted in notions of masculinity, identity, and sexuality in favor of a practice that allows for a growing sense of technical exploration and conceptual experimentation. “For me, painting is not an act or a medium, it is the only thing fundamental to who I am as a person, in the sense that, without art, I don’t think I have much of an identity. I am a painter first and foremost, and that defines every other aspect of my life.”
In the mid 19th century, the invention of photography sparked a series of debates in regards to how the new medium was to function in relation to painting. Working out of Brooklyn, New York, and with a BFA degree from the Pratt Institute, Andrew Sendor (b. 1977) is driven to further this discussion. His hyper-realistic oil paintings examine a recent development in the contentious relationship between painting and photography: the advent of the digital age. Most often created in a strict monochromatic color palette, (typically black and white), Sendor’s works depict installation views of nonexistent or imagined gallery exhibitions. In this way, he utilizes the painting as a photograph, and yet the falsity of the content belies the perceived truthfulness of the photographic medium. Incorporated into the paintings are elements of digital pixelation, a new image phenomenon that is entirely unique to a photographic, even 21st century idiom of culture, digitalization, pastiche, and both the ubiquity and meaninglessness of the image. Sendor thereby raises questions that are of urgent interest to art enthusiasts of all backgrounds. What can a painting do that a photograph cannot? How has the digitalization of photography altered its relationship to painting (a medium that has, in essence, remained technologically unchanged for centuries)? For Sendor, the answers come closer to revealing themselves with each new work.
In Cup, a circular wall object expands into the third dimension, curving upon itself like the tip of a spiral. For German artist Nicola Staglich (b. 1970), this relationship delineates the complex physical method of experiencing the associative power of colour. A graduate of London’s Chelsea College of Art, Staglich’s sculptural works seem to exemplify the restrained power of colour. In many of her wall based works, (which often extend to include sculptural objects that stand, curve, obstruct, and lean about the exhibition space), color plays a predominant, albeit restrained role. In the majority, wooden plates covered by effused paint are cut into pieces, layered, and arranged into organic, geometric solid figures. Certainly, this negotiation incorporates and considers the comprehension of the viewer. Staglich states that her interest includes the moments between the wall and the space in front. And in this process, Staglich confounds a simplified reading: what delineates the confines of a work of art? Where does a work end and the exhibition space begin? Does this matter?
“For several years, I’ve been looking at stages, platforms, and landscape as a means to question notions of display and presentation.” For Canadian Shaan Syed (b. 1975), an experience at a rock concert as a teenager became a metaphor for his artistic practice. “At first, I was horribly disappointed that my vision was cancelled out by my vantage point, but I quickly realized that it didn’t matter; I was at the center of “it”; somewhere between seeing and experiencing. I find this experience has a lot of parallels to how we look at and make paintings.” A 2006 graduate from Goldsmiths College of Art in London, UK, where the artist currently lives and works, his practice is informed as much by cartoon imagery as it is by a Foucaultian relationship to space, vision, and absence, challenging established systems of looking through a playful engagement with the viewer. In place of intense theoretical jargon, Syed finds his locus in humor, simplicity, and a syntax that has been reduced to its most rudimentary level. “My work is about locating a place for absence,” he states, “…the empty stage, the curtain, the platform, the barricade, the invisible landscape, the missing portrait and the cartoonist’s flat black hole drawn as a last resort for escape…It is about the idea of finding something where I want to find it.”
In light of the modern communication age, the intersection of Eastern and Western traditions has resulted in a fusion of cultural practices. Thai artist Jirapat Tatsanasomboon (b. 1971) has made it his artistic mission to deconstruct this cultural synthesis. His paintings refer to Eastern mythical figures from the Ramanyana epic, but these are contrasted by his further inclusion of Western superheroes and pop culture objects, Warhol, Indiana, Lichtenstein, and Haring are only a few of those whose work and titles he has appropriated. Even as Tatsanasomboon draws aesthetic parallels to the elegance of traditional Thai mural painting, he deviates from tradition with a bold commentary, interjecting this tradition of historic and religious iconography with a politics of consumerism, modern technology, or simple pastiche. His painting Superman, for instance, bears a subtitle of Hanuman being the Superman of the East, in which the archetypal Clark Kent chest exposure bears not only the ‘S’ emblem but is lain with a trace of Hanuman: as hero from a different cultural tradition. The viewer is left to question the omnipresence of such cultural symbols and the cultural cross-contamination on display. In Guardian of Siam (Weeping from Political Disturbances by Reds, Yellows and Multicoloureds), Tatsanasomboon calls attention to the ongoing military upheaval in Thailand by opposing ruralist and nationalist parties known respectively as the Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts, here (depicted as Haring’s namesake silhouettes) are also the source of Siam’s pain and anguish. As viewers, we question the influence of the political, the historical, and the personal interplay on offer. By juxtaposing the tradition and history of the East with the commercial advancements of the West, Tatsanasomboon introduces a discourse on the cultural significance of painting, adding a critical weight to widely represented and culturally dependent iconography, reminding us that our knowledge base and the method by which we read and understand imagery is greatly due to our own personal and cultural heritage.
Language. Symbols. Choreography. Performance. These are the words that Argentinean artist Leila Tschopp (b. 1978) uses to describe her artwork and the experience it delivers. To refer to these installations as ‘paintings’ does seem incredibly shortsighted, for Tschopp is concerned with the presence and navigation one experiences through her work. She pulls from art history, urban architecture, the natural landscape, and even theatrical stage design to configure spatial arrangements that compel the viewer to reconsider the nature and the illusion of space, and our relationship to the image within the three-dimensional realm. Lifting the image from the confines of the two-dimensional support, Tschopp’s approach to painting is like a dance or narrative through a painted, pictorial language. “The work is about performance, idea, experience, and language in constant change.” She says, “It requires movement: two ears, two eyes, two hands and two feet that explore, apprehend and interpret the context. Painting is a question and a critical socio-political power. It has been declared dead, it’s hybridized, expanded.” Her inspirations are diverse, and include the Concrete movement in Argentina and South America, Bauhaus, the Russian avant-garde, and minimalism. Tschopp’s paintings call to mind the works of Sol Lewitt, Richard Serra, and sculpture in general. “With painting, we still have to ‘be there, be present’. We have to spend time to experience it: this is both its shortfall and its incredible gain.”