On the Relevance of Painting

Painting grows from painting. Since there seems to be less painting, there is less to react to. It’s hard to find pure painting today. A while ago everyone was saying that “painting is dead” but that’s clearly not true – there’s lots of good painting going on, but when you go to large shows you see a lot of other media, media that is being used by artists to do what painting once did exclusively.  It’s almost as if the so-called ‘death of painting’ was a self-fulfilling prophecy. More believed it than wanted to, and college instructors influenced young artists also. After 500 years painting is still viable.

The best painting has always been about what is current in the world. And now in a post-modern environment this is especially so. Painting for its own sake was the goal of the 20th century modernists; now painting is a means to an end and certainly not the only means since so many other media: photography, video and digital media, mixed media installation, have entered painting’s domain. A lot of people were talking about Matisse because of the recent show at the Denver Art Museum, and there is no question that he was a magnificent painter, but it’s amazing how any artist could be so unaffected by the two world wars, both of which ravaged his country, and continue with his formal experiments in color and line. (At least Picasso tried to warn us about fascism with “Guernica” in 1936.)  Our post-modern milieu allows artists to look back and analyze or ‘deconstruct’ the past, so a historical method such as oil painting is still right for the times. Painting becomes ironic. Photography will never supplant painting, nor will video. The problem is painting begins to feel the weight of history, to feel ‘historical’, rather than of the moment. The question I am constantly asking when I paint is – how can it represent ‘the moment’?  As I said before, painting comes from painting so if there is less painting then painters will react to other visual stimuli. Of course, lots of painters paint from things inside them, but, if anything, that is an old-fashioned, late-modern, way of working. I think all artists react to the world around them, consciously or unconsciously, so your brain gets filled up with images.  Once, say, in the abstract-expressionist manner, artists made paintings that were abstractions of the images in their heads – that and the process of painting made “meaning.”  Now meaning is more a matter of cultural signage.

There is art that represents a singular self. One of the hallmarks of artists such as Pollock, Rothko, or Kline was their consistency – a consistency that seemed to be evidence of their sincerity and singular ego.  I think art can also reveal a non-singular, fragmented self. I would fit into this category. The feeling that modernist reduction was purer and better still lingers in our minds, but the truth is we are a fragmented culture and we are as individuals, internally fragmented.  We are made up of juxtapositions so it seems right to me (I almost said ‘natural’ but nature has nothing to do with it) to use juxtapositions in my paintings. The paintings I make are complex, not reductive, but full of crisis. If you surf the web on a T1 line or switch cable TV channels with your remote, you will see images related to what my paintings portray. What, or should I say, how, do they mean?

If I can now turn to speaking about my work specifically, it is very difficult to make work and know what it’s really about. I begin with an idea but it always becomes something else. I am interested in a lot of things: American culture, art history, film, relations between men and women, sexuality, Europe, low vs. high culture, literature, psychology, — so it is normal for my work, instead of showing some sort of unified synthesis of all these, to be  fragmented, as if they are glimpses into my head and the jumble of things found there. It’s complicated.  First we have the fact that all of the images found in my paintings originated somewhere else: film, photography, video, art history, or cyberspace. Then the fact that they are all translated into oil paint — this could be said to be the only unifying element there is. Once, dragging mass-media images into “high art” was shocking. Now there is more reciprocity with mainstream culture.  Images in my paintings are equivalencies for feelings and ideas; how they are positioned creates certain odd associations. It has to do with sequencing; not exactly how a movie is edited, though there is certainly that unavoidable influence, but in how one’s eye moves around the canvas. The viewer is asked to figure out, or make, relationships between all the things. There are all these obvious, recognizable things (a nude, a road, a cubist painting), and then there are all the invisible threads, if you will, between them. They are realistic only to give a viewer easy access at the beginning of their looking.

So the paintings are really “about” uncertainty and the edges of things.  People ask me if I plan out the paintings. I begin with a few images that I choose intuitively — not really knowing what it will look like.  As I paint, meanings are revealed to me and I begin to understand how my unconscious was working on the problems and how it guided me toward certain choices. Also, my skill with paint helps me to make some visual sense of it all. I like oil paint — it is an undeniably sensual material. I don’t care much for purely conceptual art — it seems dry and puritanical. I like the physical and its attendant senses. I have chosen to work with the traditions and structure of oil painting. But ideally I would like the work to be understood as a blending of tradition and the self — the personal. I think of every object in the world as carrying a meaning, but really the images in the paintings are very concrete. Whenever I read some theoretical statement, whether in a text on art history or criticism, or a feminist art text, I immediately think of images that could make that theory actually shown, represented. The paintings encourage the freedom to make associations in a way that feels right but not literal. They should initiate a dialogue, but still they are completely personal. Painting will always be freer than other media.  Ultimately, I’m not sure paintings can compete with the media and cyberspace but as long as a personal space exists inside an artist’s head, painting will continue, if only as an alternative to popular cultural media.

Peter Illig


About Peter Illig

Artist peterillig.com
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