Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millenium - Whitechapel Gallery
As a painter, I was very excited by the idea of seeing this shown and I was hoping that, based on its title, the exhibition would bring together a crop of new talents and inspire me with a variety of fresh approaches to the depiction of the human body.
From the start, I was rather puzzled that the exhibition marketing literature had chosen to focus on the rather tired concept that painting is a a largely forgotten and unloved medium in this digital age. Not quite dead yet, but at the very least relying on a life support machine as the cool kids choose photography, video and installations for their art rather than the long and messy tedium of pushing oil around a canvas.
Is painting really obsolete? nothing could be further from the truth as far as I am concerned. Go on Instagram and you will quickly come across many inspired and inspiring artists who have chosen to paint and who fit in seamlessly within a world obsessed with social media, selfies and instant gratification. In fact they thrive on it, sharing their work on Instagram with other painters, getting critical feedback on what they produce, building networks and talking directly to curators and collectors.
I was looking for fresh, new blood from this show (a painterly Dracula hunting for ideas that would feed my own practice) but walking around the gallery I mainly got recycled plasma.
Many of the artists on display, including Daniel Richter, Cecily Brown and Dana Schutz, are well established and most of us will be all too familar with their work already.
Their style is also far from radical. In fact when I saw what turned out to be a Richter painting my first thought was that I was looking at a Peter Doig canvas. I had the same impression when I saw Michael Hermitage's paintings: beautiful as they are there is too much of a sense of deja vu to these works.
Cecily Brown gives us confused and confusing compositions that simply don't work as abstract, figurative or any kind of paintings. They are instantly forgetable although I seem to remember that one particular piece claimed to represent the mess left behind by a sloppy maid or maybe what a room looked like before a diligent maid had a chance to attend to it. As radical a topic as you can get...
Nicole Eisenman’'s garish and frankly hideous offerings look amateur to the point of being embarrassing.
I hope to never see them again.
Tschabalala Self at least brought a sense of fun, colour and experiment to the proceedings with her mixed-media works that mix fabrics with paint and go beyond the confine of the canvas.
There is also no denying that Dana Schutz's works are powerful and disturbing yet humourous.
Painting is a tricky but incredibly rewarding and rich medium to work with. It can create wonders but it also leaves us painters incredibly exposed. Having an idea that we want to commit to the canvas, or whatever surface we choose to use, is not enough to end up with a credible and unique painting. Skills and draughmanship have a big part to play. There has to be something to anchor our thoughts and turn them into visual magic. Too many of the painters in this exhibition seemed to me to lack the basic skills to excute their work and it showed.
There are so many more interesting painters out there who truly bring something new to painting. Painters with a feel for coulours, lines and structures and who have also managed to develop unique voices. It bothered me as well that all the paintings on show were on canvas and executed in large scale which felt very formulaic and gave a narrow interpretation of what a painting can be.
In the end, this is not a radical exhibition and it certainly is not a showcase of what is really going on in painting at the moment. Still, I would say I enjoyed part of it and I always have a lot of time for the Whitechapel Gallery as a venue, and its pleasant and knowledgeable exhibition staff (who allowed me to claim the 'starving artist' concession rate to get into the show...), but it just for me felt a liitle bit tired and all too obvious. After I left the gallery I walked around the streets of Whitechapel and as I watched the fascinating pieces of street art that pop up at every corner, I could not help but think that somehow, these artists are the true radicals of the age when it comes to figurative work. Whitechapel curators, next time you want to give figurative painting and body representation a shot in the arm, talke a walk outside of your white cube walls and don't forget to glance at your Instagram feed now and then. You might just find what you were looking for.
This show is on at the Whitechapel Gallery, London until 10 March 2020.