Essay

PAINTING’s Slow Read


by Dr Peter Hill

The great Philippine painter Manuel Ocampo made a compelling statement 
about painting and its relationship to other visual art forms when he said in an interview with Russell Storer in the recent APT7 catalogue, “I don’t want to be an apologist for painting, but I think painting is still more intelligent and complex than, 
let’s say, cinema. Who was it who said that ‘movies are a dumb man’s painting’? 
Painting is intimate and requires a slow read…”

This exhibition at Danks Street is a “slow read” of the highest order. It showcases the works of Bernadette Smith, Marika Osmotherly, Annemarie Murland, Mark Elliott-Ranken, A.J. Byrnes, and Caelli Jo Brooker. It is concerned with the “physicality” of paint and is predominantly abstract. However, it could be argued that all painting is essentially abstract, just as all art is by its very nature “conceptual”. There is, of course, the work of one very talented sculptor, Marika Osmotherly, within this group, which I highly recommend, and the concept of the “slow read” is as fitting for sculpture as it is for painting. Indeed, a number of these painters regularly expand the physicality of paint into three dimensions in their work. On the international scene Jessica Stockholder has been merging paint with sculpture and installation with astonishing results.

I have come to know the work of some of these artists very well indeed through my duties as PhD examiner for the University of Newcastle. No, “duties” is not the right word at all. It has been a real joy and a pleasure to get to know their very different methodologies, influences, and obsessions; to read their well-crafted exegeses, but most of all to sit alone in the school of art’s fine gallery space and look, and look, and look – often keeping words and thoughts out of my head for as long as possible and sinking into an almost trance-like state. And while I do, personally, enjoy cinema and video works, my real craving – my addiction – is for the stillness that paintings bring. It’s like sitting on a rock in the bush, or by the ocean, all on your own. You fall into a reverie, until a cockatoo flies into the blue and you are distracted. Cinema is a never-ending series of such distractions, even when slowed down dramatically as in Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho. Movement, however slow, stops you slipping into that reverie, as does the film’s soundtrack, no matter how seductive it is.

A couple of years before reading Russell Storer’s interview with Manuel Ocampo, I was standing in front of Matisse’s great painting Dance at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. It is a shockingly beautiful and sensual work, large in scale and ambition. Have we caught up with it yet, I wondered? Like any late Picasso painting I felt this work, painted in 1910, was still way ahead, not just of its time, but of our times too. I’m willing to bet that by the year 2050 it will still seem that way – enticing us into the future, as will the works of these six artists here at Danks Street.

Aware that our guide was eager to move us on to other delights within the world’s largest museum, I underwent a sort of eureka moment as I lingered as long as I could in front of it. Half of my mind, and my emotions, were trying to drink it in as long as I could. The other half was already brooding about the speed with which new technology looks so dated and so clumsy, so quickly. By contrast, great art becomes distilled within our collective consciousness over – not decades – but centuries.

I thought of the iPhone’s fourth incarnation which had just been released. In today’s possessive culture it is the coolest object on the planet. But how will it, and its capabilities – its ‘apps’ – appear by 2050? How will it then stack up against  Dance, one hundred and forty years after Matisse painted it, in a world (then) just getting used to Henry Ford’s beetle black automobile and early radio transmissions?

When trying to explain to students the differences between modernism and postmodernism I often ask them to visualise an early telephone from the 19th century – an upright affair, invariably black, with a detachable mouthpiece that looks like a giant thimble. Today, it is literally a museum piece. It hasn’t changed. It is physically 
the same as the day it was made. But our perceptions of it have altered dramatically. It once was an object that hinted at the future, the way today’s iPhone does. At the time, Alexander Graham Bell’s invention seemed like an object of telepathy, as magical to the ordinary person as the ability today to hold one iPhone against another and wirelessly swap photographs through a gentle kissing of screens. How quaint this will all seem in forty years’ time. Yet we will still be trying to understand Matisse’s Dance – and its own internal dance between figuration and abstraction. We will still be drawn back to it through curiosity. It will still be ‘giving’, while today’s technologies will have become objects of nostalgia. And this is one of many reasons why universities must value their artists and their art schools as much as they, correctly, are proud of their technological achievements. We are all part of the one academy and should celebrate that fact and swap ideas more.
Creativity is the visual arts’ equivalent of the ‘disciplined methodology’ that drives science. But even as I type these words I know that is not strictly correct, for the 
greatest of scientific discoveries, as Einstein often said, require a creative leap into 
the void of the unknowing.

By now I was rushing to keep up with our guide, my wife Sally pulling at my sleeve. 
We hurried past rooms filled with Gauguin paintings and Impressionist landscapes, 
down marble staircases and through crowds of Chinese tourists pressing towards a Rembrandt self-portrait here, then a few seconds later an El Greco Annunciation 
(and few painters have been quite as ahead of their time as he was – the original Expressionist nomad).

If all these great works shared a commonality, I thought, it was that hard-to-describe quality of ‘timelessness’. How do you measure that, especially when you operate within a university framework that is obsessed with measurement but is often deaf to reason? Well, there are naïve ways of measuring things, such as putting a tape measure against a block of wood. And there are sophisticated forms of measurement that require contemplation, informed discussion, and deep insight. It is this latter form of measurement we need to bring to our interminable university rankings and our measurement of research outcomes, I mused, as I glimpsed the sun hanging high above the Nevsky Prospekt from one of the Hermitage’s thousands of windows.

But is anybody listening?

In my head, as we raced around the Hermitage, I was already trying to build a story told with pictures rather than words. I saw Andy Warhol’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe, and next to it a cassette recorder the size of a big city phone book. One fresh as a cowpat, the other dated as your grand-dad’s flares. An early mobile phone, larger than a brick, quickly paired with a sumptuous Sean Scully abstraction. A Francis Bacon portrait fared well next to a first generation black and white television set which I imagined in a veneered cabinet.
I flashed back to an image of an early camera from the nineteenth century, and beside it Monet’s Sunrise, an Impression. And they said painting was dead then. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Photography freed painting to become the wonderfully transformative medium that Matisse championed and others today – Brice Marden, Marlene Dumas, Peter Doig, Aboriginal desert painters – still advance – as do all the artists in this inspiring Danks Street exhibition.
In my imagination Van Gogh’s Starry Night fared pretty well next to an early gramophone player with its shell-like horn. And strangely, a David Hockney Polaroid collage looked more contemporary than the camera with which it was taken.

My head was buzzing. But isn’t that exactly what higher education – what life itself – should be about?

All six of these artists have spent many years within the education system. And despite the way the visual arts, and especially painting, is often marginalised within the “academy” (and how I dislike that word) their gift – which like Matisse’s Dance is one that keeps on giving – is one I urge you to return to at least one more time during the run of this exhibition. The paintings will not have changed one iota – but you, on your second or third visit, will have. That is the magic of painting.

Dr Peter Hill

Associate Professor Fine Art
RMIT University
Melbourne, Australia

Download a copy of the essay (PDF)

Dr Peter Hill is an artist, writer, and independent curator. He is an Associate Professor of Fine Art at RMIT University, Melbourne. In 2002 he exhibited his Superfictions at the Biennale of Sydney (MCA), and in 2004 his book Stargazing: memoirs of a young lighthouse keeper (Canongate) won a Saltire Award at the National Library of Scotland. He is the Australian correspondent for ARTnews (New York), Artpress (Paris), and Times Higher Education (London).

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