Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Reframing the Question

The capacity to take an object and use it in a way that it wasn’t intended is what marks creativity today. When I say this I mean that somehow the mere alteration of the picture plane can’t be enough in the present day. Nor is it enough to merely alter an everyday object so it becomes unexpected – a bottle rack, a urinal, a snow shovel.

Perhaps the problem is that the capacity to rupture our expectations as viewers has become so challenging that simply making a cathartic image isn’t enough.

Many years ago, in an essay on the New Zealand painter Max Gimblett, I suggested, “Consider the shaped canvas.” My assertion was that the very existence of the structure – the quatrefoil, in Gimblett’s case – was enough to “rupture the rigidity of the modernist grid.” What I didn’t realize at the time was that the picture plane of a canvas, or even of a photograph, was all to often the grid itself, its own restraint, suffering under the delusion that what happened wthin its limits was somehow sacrosanct.

Historically, artists have struggled with this very dilemma. They attach objects to the canvas surfaces, making portions of the image emerge in relief. Yet this has the danger of becoming a doll’s house, a simple interpreation of what’s happening beneath. Some artists, like Eva Hesse, create works in which the work itself becomes its own base, its flatness always already ruptured by a non-pictorial element that it contains. Still others, like New Zealand artist Julian Dashper, deconstruct the image into its constituent elements.

So where could this possibly leave painting?

Perhaps the issue is that at its limits of allegory and illusion painting is a medium marked simply by a set of values that judge quality over content. We speak of someone who “can paint”, by which we mean that someone has the ability to render in its utmost detail. We don’t speak of someone who can “move” or “emote”, but simply of someone who might have the capacity to make it more real than real.

I’m not sure this is an effective framework for understanding the contemporary arts in the present day. By saying this I am not implying the endless endgame of painting, but simply asking a question: “When the frame sets the limits, who really cares what happens inside the frame?”