New Painting: what does it mean to be a “painter” in the contemporary age?
“Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.”
This line from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment somehow captures what it feels like to be an artist in a time when if feels like everything has been done. It captures how difficult it can sometimes be to push yourself; how difficult if can be to break through personal and cultural barriers alike.
What is it about change that scares us so much? People always say that change is healthy, but in order for that to happen, someone has to incite it. Someone has to take notice of the need and then take that new step. Unapologetically utter that new word. Artists are notorious for being bold enough to challenge norms, from Rococo’s Fragonard and before, to the contemporary William Kentridge and beyond, there has always been and always will be artists and creatives who seemingly don’t hear the negative Nancys of the world. They’ll paint those excessively lush and slightly erotic garden scenes despite relentless criticism, knowing that they’re doing the art world (and the world in general) a great service.
Being bold and revolutionary seemed a lot easier in the 17th century. There was, of course, significantly more lines to cross back in the era of such strong moral fiber. In a time when artist block is abundant, it’s hard to not wonder, “is there anything left to paint?”.
Don’t worry. There is. Like a lot of things in the contemporary world, concept painting is being broadened and redefined. No longer is painting restricted to the surface of a canvas. And we will not stand for traditional oil portraiture with a classy damar varnish! No, artists everywhere are taking a stand. They’re keeping an open mind and realizing that a painting is a painting no matter what material or object it’s on. To be fair, artists like Frank Stella have been doing this for a little while now, but it’s somehow still slightly taboo. Art like this blurs the lines a bit between sculpture and painting. 2D and 3D. Sometimes, it’s hard to answer the question, “what kind of art do you make?”. Especially now more than ever, moving further into the contemporary age, it’s becoming more common (and alright) for the answer to be more along the lines of “what don’t I make?”.
New Painting artists Susan Klein, Adam Eddy, Karen Paavola, Natalie Escobar, Colin Quashie, Shanequa Gay, and Sophie Treppendahl are prime examples of contemporaries who don’t fear change, and we commend them for their stellar results. Klein and Eddy take a more three dimensional approach to their work by constructing and sculpting their painting surface. Though Gay and Quashie stick the 2D, there’s nothing traditional about their technique and message of race in the contemporary age. Escobar is a multi media artist (one of those line-blurrers discussed earlier), and Treppendahl uses textures and palettes that will blow you away. Last but certainly not least, Paavola paints on top of original silkscreen prints, which she considers a form of painting in and of itself.
Beyond these six incredible artists, there are a few others that you should know. If you’re stuck in one those cynical “there’s nothing left to paint” artist blocks, take a look at the following list of risk takers as well as the aforementioned talents. You may know some of them, and others are a little more off the beaten path, but I’m sure you’ll find something to inspire you.
YOUR “NEW PAINTING” SUPPLEMENTAL VIEWING LIST
I personally love Ida for quite a few reasons. I’m game for nearly anything that sports earth tones and good line work. I’m also a huge fan of negative space on the canvas. She essentially has it all, but just to be sure she won me over, she went ahead and made her canvases and panels act as free standing sculptural elements throughout the exhibit. Talk about activating a space, am I right?
If someone with a background in architecture picks up a paintbrush, you better believe that the results will be, under the right circumstances, superb. The clean, precise lines of the steel and aluminum supports perfectly compliment the subtle textures in his ethereal paintings. Other elements such as mirrored panels printed with enlarged hand-drawn grids play so well with the monochrome canvases. Each work comes across as a meticulously calculated micro structure.
Detroit based artist Hernan Bas doesn’t only paint his large, fantastical and vaguely melancholic scenes on canvas, he also paints on free-standing partitions that play into larger installations. Bas was born in Miami and studied at the New World School of the Arts, and his Southern roots certainly make themselves known in his works (the show that I saw had very lifelike reproductions of dead flamingos wearing a ball and chain around their little ankles…). But let’s be honest. With lines, strokes, and color like that, he could paint on anything and I would probably hang it in my living room.
It’s a bold statement, but I’m fairly certain that South African artist William Kentridge may be in my current top 3 favorites. All of his works start out as drawings, but could then be transformed into countless mediums. This man does it all from animations, installations, stop motion videos, and murals, his work is the epitome of a multimedia artist. He even designed the entire set for an opera, Lulu.
If you don’t like something, change it. That’s exactly what Tom Burckhardt did about his painting surface. It’s not necessarily that canvas wasn’t good enough for him, but he was too interested in the connectedness that he needed to feel to the object that he was painting on. Rather than starting with a pre-made surface, Burckhardt creates molded plastic forms as a base for his pieces. From the very beginning to the very end, Burckhardt is involved and invested in every step of the process. For some pieces, there may be dozens and dozens of revisions of a painting, just waiting until it finally feels like it has matured to completion. The time and care can definitely be felt.