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The Death and Life of Painting

The Death and Life of Painting

At the Emily Carr studios, on the frontier of Vancouver’s Granville Island, where the fourth-year undergraduate painting class is garrisoned, students returning for the fall semester have just begun to prop up canvases, staking out their territory amid paint-spattered stools and easels. On a wall near a series of tacked-up Rorschach ink blots and a large blank canvas are scribbled the words “AM I ready…” and “Expose Your Fear?” Next to these comments, the word “CONSTRAINT” has been written and crossed out, and “CONSTRUCT” pencilled below it.

A cynic might observe that since painting has, over the past few decades, been a marginalized medium, the studio’s location is fitting: it’s a good five-to-ten-minute hike from the main building of what is, as of September 1, 2008, officially the Emily Carr University of Art and Design (though Emily Carr, which was founded in 1925 as the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts, later becoming an art college and then an institute, has been granting B.F.A.s since 1995 and master’s degrees for two years). A good place, as well, to launch an assault.

The studios are empty, the students gathered in the adjoining classroom, where the head of painting, Ben Reeves, is having them present their past work (in most cases, given their ages, those pasts span a few short years). The atmosphere of unabashed passion for what Reeves euphemistically calls “coloured mud” contrasts sharply with his own undergraduate experience at the University of British Columbia in the early 1990s. For artists who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s, painting had not only been knocked from its centuries old pedestal but had become a very nearly leprous form, replaced by conceptual and—particularly in Vancouver—photo-based art.

To be a young painter in a university program at the time was to be bludgeoned with critical texts such as Douglas Crimp’s famous 1981 essay “The End of Painting,” a definitive attack on the medium that today might be considered as influential—and as wrong-headed—as Francis Fukuyama’s essay “The End of History?” was for political-science students of the same era. Those artists using paint on rectangular surfaces found themselves in a shame-based universe. Paintings were commodities, the kind of bourgeois objects people put above their sofas—in effect, an embarrassment. No matter that it was conceptual art that became the hot commodity, infiltrating and virtually taking over the very museums and galleries that were being derided, along with painting, as out of touch; or that the photoconceptualists were establishing highly lucrative careers by selling their work. Painting was over. Done. Dead. Might as well cut off your hand as paint with it.

“It’s like Painters Anonymous,” Reeves says, recalling the zeitgeist of his undergrad years. “It’s been five days since I last painted.” At UBC—where as a student Reeves worked for Jeff Wall and Ken Lum, both key figures in what is sometimes referred to as the Vancouver School of photoconceptualism—and at universities all across North America, language and theory were privileged over non-verbal mediums; painting was a pariah’s pursuit. The UBC program even changed its name several years ago from the Department of Fine Arts to the Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory.

“I was reluctant to call myself a painter until recently,” Reeves admits. “Every time you picked up a brush you had to question it, so a lot of work in showing a painting went into defending it. It’s only recently, outside Vancouver and now inside Vancouver, that you don’t have to address it as a primary question.” Which is exactly the environment into which his students are emerging, and may explain why Emily Carr had to create a specialized fourth-year painting class last year. “The younger students didn’t go through the critical theory of the 1980s that made it hard to paint,” says Reeves. “There’s a weight lifted off them that people who came before laboured under.”

Given the local influence of photoconceptualism, the turning of the tide arrived more quickly in the rest of the world than in Vancouver, where it was finally acknowledged in the 2006 show “PAINT,” held at the Vancouver Art Gallery. A response to renewed interest in painting, “PAINT” was the gallery’s first major exhibition to focus on emerging painters from British Columbia since “The Young Romantics” in 1985 (and like the Young Romantics, most of the included artists came through Emily Carr, not university programs).

“PAINT” was curated by Neil Campbell, a sessional instructor at Emily Carr whose abstract geometric paintings opened the fall 2008 season at Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York. In his aircraft hangar of a studio in East Vancouver, which allows him to see his work as it will appear when exhibited, Campbell reflects on the debate over painting and the photoconceptual legacy. “The conceptual practice was very good for Vancouver in that it established an example of success—that local artists can be respected internationally and have significant careers,” he says. The unfortunate side effect was that other possibilities were all but foreclosed.

“Painting was incorrect and the correct thinkers scorned it,” he continues. “Under conceptualism, human empathy was replaced with correct thought and intellection and self-pride in intellection. Spirit was taken off the agenda. Rhythm was taken off the agenda. Soul was taken off the agenda. The only thing left was the narrow spectrum of the intellectual.”

That this bred resentment, even anger, is apparent from certain comments in the “PAINT” catalogue from the painter Peter Schuyff, who grew up in Vancouver and studied at Emily Carr when it was known as the Vancouver School of Art. As he writes from Amsterdam, in lowercase volley: “i’m told we are to talk about painting blah blah blah. i’d hoped that with this move to europe painting might start to speak for itself. fucking vancouver. i mean really. talking about painting, it’s a bit like an awkward conversation after sex where one person asks if it was as good for them as it was for the other.”

Referring to himself as “just a stupid painter”—a riff on Marcel Duchamp’s “dumb as a painter” comment—he states that in the critical (in all senses) environment of Vancouver “i truly feel guilty until proven innocent.” He continues: “and it really gets me that they don’t understand painting over there, i mean, it’s simple. just like those words of theirs feel so good rolling off their tongue these marks of mine feel so good coming off the end of my brush.”

Since “PAINT” broke the silence on the maligned medium, Campbell has seen further signs of revitalization. “Even the most able students don’t see the excitement in the photoconceptual agenda right now,” he says. “It’s a very conservative gesture for a young person to latch on to that train at this point.”

He offers up a list of emerging painters—names like Eli Bornowsky, Jeremy Hof, Sarah Hoemberg, Collin Johanson, Nayeob Kim and Charlie Roberts (“he’s the flava—very few people can make a good painting and maintain recklessness”). It’s the “temper of the time,” he explains, “the appetite youth has for the visceral. Not privileging the left brain, privileging the right.”

It’s a temper Liz Magor, whose sculptures and installations have been exhibited at Documenta 8, the Venice Biennale and the Biennale of Sydney, has had occasion to observe. She shares a spacious studio in a warehouse on the east side of Vancouver with Damian Moppett, one of a celebrated group (including Steven Shearer, Brian Jungen, Geoffrey Farmer and Ron Terada) who emerged from Emily Carr in the early 1990s. Moppett’s paintings sit across the studio from where Magor is completing a cast of a deer head. In addition to maintaining her practice she has been teaching since 1980, most recently at Emily Carr, where she is an associate professor in visual arts. “When I started teaching, students made things,” she says. “Then they stopped. Now they’re making things again.”

The reasons for this are multiple. In the 1980s, a Marxist hegemony spread through university art programs. “Schools became kind of righteous in a way, anti-market,” she says. Ironically, today’s students are returning to painting in part for financial reasons: it demands little capital or equipment compared to advanced digital forms, and doesn’t require an office, or even a home. Ready access to online media also means today’s students are exposed to a more diverse spectrum of influences, such that, as Magor puts it, “You can as easily see what Simon Starling or Thomas Hirschhorn is doing as Jeff Wall.”

And while many students pursuing arts careers already have degrees, what they haven’t mastered is the tactile arts. “They want to cast bronze. They want to make a mould. They want to hot weld.” The resurgent interest, says Magor, caught the school by surprise, since it had been closing down those areas.

Which makes one think. Could it be that a lopsided emphasis on intellect—methodical, analytic, scholarly, bloodless—is losing traction? It may be that the failure of intellect, of technology, to contend with the troubles confronting the planet—troubles too often brought about by technological innovation and its Edward Burtynsky-esque consequences—has engendered a backlash. Or that, at a time when it’s often said that anyone can make a movie on a laptop, we want to see something anyone can’t do—like make really interesting stuff with their hands. Or maybe people have just gotten bored.

“When artists fi rst wanted to be digital and conceptual it looked like the future,” Magor says. “Now it looks like the past.”

A few years ago, when Reeves was teaching a painting course at a university, he asked those students who intended to pursue a career in the medium to raise their hands. Only three did. Today, at Emily Carr, all but two of his 18 students raise theirs.

They are serious, and invested, and when asked how painting is viewed in a city internationally known for photo-based art, they respond as if a dam has burst. “With photoconceptualism, I think it’s been done,” says one, his forceful response echoed by a fi eld of nodding heads. “It’s had its peak. I know Vancouver is still considered a photoconceptual city in those older schools, but I see painting as getting its head out of the water.” He pauses, unable to constrain himself. “And maybe dominating.”

His bravado is greeted with laughter, but it’s clear the issue has touched a nerve. Later, he vents his frustration at seeing “the same photograph—a pristine image of an abandoned building shot with a large-format camera” repeated at countless exhibitions over the years. “And I’m bored with it. It’s too easy.”

“People like to talk about the death of painting because they don’t want to paint,” says the student beside him. “To me, the death of painting represents the death of its popularity more than the death of its quality. Just because it seems that all possibilities are exhausted doesn’t mean they are.”

If painting—perhaps benefi ting from its years on the sidelines— is poised to attack the centre once again, the shift offers a fundamental challenge to students working in any medium. “Since the shame veil has been lifted, you’re not ashamed to choose painting or sculpture,” says Magor of those aspiring to make their mark in the fi eld. “I hope you’re not ashamed to choose photoconceptualism either. But no matter what medium you choose, you’ve got to be prepared to contribute something.”


This is an article from the Winter 2008 issue of Canadian Art.

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