Gastschrijver 3; Alexander Mayhew – Painting Beside a Tree

[Vandaag publiceer ik een artikel in de reeks van het gastschrijversproject iemand die op heel veel vlakken actief is. Hij is onder andere verbonden als criticus aan Tubelight en is […]

[Vandaag publiceer ik een artikel in de reeks van het gastschrijversproject iemand die op heel veel vlakken actief is. Hij is onder andere verbonden als criticus aan Tubelight en is boardmember bij AICA Nederland (AICA is het Internationale verbond van Kunstcritici). Zodoende is Mayhew iemand die dus zeker wel iets te melden heeft wat hij hier dan ook doet.]

Painting Beside a Tree

The idyllic title of this article may suggest otherwise, but I do not intend to talk about the joy of ‘en plein air’ painting as experienced by the artists of the Barbizon School in the 19th century. Nor will I dwell on the technicalities of the introduction of paint in tubes that facilitated outdoor painting or the representational qualities of the ensuing works of art. I shall turn my eyes instead to a painting that I recently encountered. The painting in question hung on the white wall of a gallery and appeared to be colourful and non-figurative; nothing out of the ordinary. However, I was not able to get the whole picture, as a tree had been pushed in front of it. Although it is uncommon to encounter trees obscuring paintings, this might have seemed less odd, if I had walked in during the installation of the exhibition. As this was not the case, I had to take it that the tree was placed there purposefully.

Torben Ribe - Composition with tree - 180x90x50cm Acrylic and coffee with milk on canvas, artificial tree - 2011

Torben Ribe – Composition with tree – 180x90x50cm Acrylic and coffee with milk on canvas, artificial tree – 2011

It felt as though the painting had just been temporarily hidden from view, as if to obscure it from the piercing eyes of innocent children or moralistic adults who may have happened to pass by and for whom it might have held some form of obscenity. On the other hand it gave the impression that the painting itself was furtively shying away from any critical gaze, deeming itself too insignificant or unimportant to deserve even the slightest glance or consideration. It seemed to convey the notion that nature, here in the form of a tree, might be a far more interesting sight to behold than just another painting, just another image stuck on a wall.1

As early as 1972, long before the current visual impact of digitized images on the internet, John Berger already stressed the frequency with which we are confronted with publicity images in his book Ways of Seeing: ‘In no other form of society in history has there been such a concentration of images, such a density of visual messages’.2 For Berger the modern means of reproduction destroyed the authority of art and removed it from any preserve: ‘for the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free.’3It is striking that in his own book the images of the artworks take on the same guise; they no longer come across as artworks, but just as images to illustrate a text. They have indeed turned into harmless accessories that are subsidiary to the text. In the early twenty-first century divisions between commercial and fine-art images have even become more difficult to draw.

In an interview with La Sept in 1988 Jean Baudrillard observed that the first goal of art, before even bearing any referential content, is to communicate. It is of little consequence that the contents are completely real or unreal; the most important thing is that the medium continues to thrive. He speaks of an imperialism of communication and of the screen, that only communicates images, not a particular time and space: ‘in the end it makes everything circulate in one space, without depth, where all the objects must be able to follow one after the other without slowing down or stopping the circuit. But the work of art is made for stopping, in the end it is made to interrupt something, to arrest the gaze, to arrest contemplation.’4

For Baudrillard it is hard to still talk of a ‘work’ of art. For him it is passing into the condition of a sign, which must be able to circulate like any other. Therefore its own time and place, its uniqueness is effectively removed. There is still a place for creative individuals on a path that continues the history of art, but to Baudrillard this is no longer exactly contemporary. The contemporary artist should not try to revalorize or resacralize traditional art or aesthetics, but go further into the commodity or the medium of her or his time. The contemporary artist owes it to himself to give the commodity or medium a heroic status: Art is perhaps in the process of playing out its own disappearance- in my opinion this is what it has been doing for the last century. The problem posed today is perhaps that we have reached the end of this process and that we are entering a period where art no longer does anything else than stimulate its own disappearance because it has already disappeared in reality, because the media have already carried it off, because the system has.’5

The painting behind the tree set off the impression of leaving, of no longer having the need or urge to be physically present. It no longer entered into a classical relationship with the viewer, but instead robbed us of the pleasure of its presence. At the same time however it seemed to defy and resist the media system running away with its image and thereby managed to retain a certain sense of mystique and uniqueness. The tree literally saved the painting from becoming just another image. It nimbly seemed to visualise and reference artist Bethan Huws’ acerbic statement: ‘What’s the point of giving you any more artworks when you don’t understand the ones you’ve got’.

Bethan Huws - Untitled - 100x75x5cm  Word vitrine, aluminium, glass, rubber and plastic letters - 2006

Bethan Huws – Untitled – 100x75x5cm Word vitrine, aluminium, glass, rubber and plastic letters – 2006

Torben Ribe, the Danish artist who made the piece, remarked that most viewers considered the painting as the real piece and the tree as just obstructing it, not even as being an integral part of the work. In a gallery space one is used to read the pieces on the wall and for most people a painting still is the holiest of holy when it comes to art. Therefore it should ideally not mingle with everyday objects. But Ribe was not showing a painting; he was showing the worst possible conditions for showing a painting. By doing so he questioned and challenged any straightforward reading of a painting and the spaces in which this tends to take place.

In his essay Painting Beside Itself David Joselit mentions that painting since the 1990s has folded into itself so-called “institutional critique” without falling into the modernist trap of negation, where works on canvas are repeatedly reduced to degree zero while remaining unique objects of contemplation and market speculation. He speaks of transitive painting, which he defines as painting that has a capacity to hold in suspension the passages internal to a canvas, and those external to it.6 In that sense the artwork indeed seems to have passed into the condition of a sign as noted by Baudrillard.

Transitivity for Joselit is a form of translation: when it enters into networks, the body of painting is submitted to infinite dislocations, fragmentations and degradations.7 In this case the painting behind the tree refused to become a stable object or a willing part of the media system. It entered into an interplay between artifice and nature, between abstraction and figuration, between 2D and 3D, whereby the tree might even be said to debase the painting by inhibiting and fragmenting our view of it. The tree, in its embodiment of both guardian angel and aggressor, made the painting virtually inaccessible. Nevertheless, what the painting ultimately and tragically did not seem able to accomplish was to escape or free itself from remaining the focal point of attention. It could not help but fall victim to, while simultaneously demonstrating, the ubiquity, circulation and conventions of all its predecessors.

1 The work was part of the group exhibition ‘I FEEL LIKE I’M DISAPPEARING, GETTING SMALLER EVERY DAY / BUT WHEN I LOOK IN THE MIRROR, I’M BIGGER IN EVERY WAY’ at Galerie West, The Hague, The Netherlands in 2011.

2 Berger, John. 1972. Ways of Seeing, Penguin Books Ltd, p. 123.

3 Berger, 1972. p. 25.

4 Baudrillard, Jean. 1988. The work of art in the electronic age, Interview with La Sept, in Baudrillard Live. Selected Interviews, ed. M. Gane, Routledge 1993, p. 147.

5 Baudrillard, 1988. p. 149.

6 Joselit, David. 2009. Painting Beside Itself, in October 130 (Fall 2009), MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, p. 129.

7 Joselit, 2009. p. 134.