Vitamin P: New Perspectives in Painting has an outstanding cover. Tiny bits of paintings are encapsulated in the shape of pills, floating across the width of the book. I see lips, eyes, a nipple, a belly button, and a butterfly among the colorful and more abstract "pills". The cover is a perfect representation of what is inside the book; a smorgasbord of contemporary painting that includes both the abstract and the representational. As Barry Schwabsky says in the introduction,
It may seems strange to speak of a specific content
for contemporary painting in general when, on one
hand, anything goes, and on the other, every artist
is called upon to invent a unique stance or position
that differentiates him or her from other practitioners.
As I browsed this book, I began to think about that "unique stance" of which Mr. Schwabsky speaks. At first thought, it seemed to me that this stance could be interpreted as "rules". What rules does the artist make for herself, and why?
It was when I was reading about Djamel Tatah that I really began to think about "rules". Next to his paintings it reads " In 1986, when he was twenty-five, Djamel Tatah.made an important decision from which he has not faltered since; he would paint only figures on neutral, quasi-monochromatic background, at full scale.(318)" This statement really got me thinking. On one hand, I thought it was the craziest thing I ever heard. I would never want to box myself in with rules like that, and especially not for twenty plus years! I really could not wrap my head around it.
So, I started looking at other artist in Vitamin P and tried to figure out, what are their rules? Yen Pie-Ming uses mostly black and white, white Katharina Grosse seems to revel in an abundance of color. Many painters (still) limit their work to traditional square canvases, while others paint on floors, doors, chairs etc. Under this umbrella of painting there is such a variety of techniques and subject matter that the only way one can be successful is to make some rules for oneself.
But maybe rules in not the right word.
I was struggling with finding the right word when someone dropped it in my lap. That person is Frank Hyder, my mentor this semester. As he looked over my work he said to me , "You need to find something and stick with it. You need an investigation." This is the word I was looking for. It does not have the negative connotation that rules has. Rules are strict, unbending. Rules lock you in a cage. But an investigation, that sounds exciting. Investigations are open. Frank gave me the example of Vermeer, who worked for years investigating the light coming through his studio window. Even though his scope was relatively narrow (interior, young women) he found a universe of interest in it.
Investigation entails more than what materials are used, or what palette is preferred. It means setting out with a purpose to thoroughly understand that which you are investigating so you can make it clear to your viewer. Coming to this conclusion made me look at the artist in Vitamin P in a new light. There are many to discuss, but I am going to pick two and discuss their investigations and what I glean from them in my own work.
Cecilia Edefalk's paintings interested me at first because it is figurative work. If I were just to see a reproduction of one of her paintings, it would be a pretty straightforward painting; a man and a woman interacting in front of a blue background. However, as one looks and reads deeper it becomes evident that her work is basically about repetition. She is not investigating figures or portraits or Laurel and Hardy. As she said, "In the Laurel and Hardy series I wanted to work with recollections, with what is familiar. Incidentally, recollecting something is akin to repeating it." (102) By repeating the same piece over and over again, by reproducing and re-reproducing her paintings Edefalk says she is able to "express totally different things(102)"
I chose to discuss Edefalk because my mentor has been encouraging me to make multiple versions of the same painting using the same source material. This has been an eye opening process for me because it has made me focus on not only the technical aspects of painting (the effects of grounds, color choices, etc) but also the knowledge gained thought the repetition process. I have been using photographs for reference, but I also reference the previous paintings. And while it is in my nature to start a piece and finish it up before the next one, I have been encouraged to work on several similar pieces, to open up my investigation.
While on the subject of repetition, I want to discuss the work of Francis Alys. He says of his work,
The style of my painting is borrowed from hand-painted
advertisements encountered in my neighborhood.In 1993
I commissioned various sign painters to produce enlarged
copies of my smaller original images. Once they had completed
several versions I produced a new 'model' compiled from the
most significant elements of each sign painter's interpretation.
This second 'original' was in turn used as a model for a new
generation of copies by sign painters.(035)
Truthfully, I find the story, the investigation, more interesting than the paintings themselves. His methods bring up many questions about authorship, about high art verses low art, and about the art market itself.
By having sign painters reproduce his originals he is really questioning "who is the artist?" He creates a kind of communal creation process where the finished product contains only a small portion of his original. His original sketches are changed in the same way words become transformed in the childhood game of "whisper down the lane."
I find Alys's investigation interesting and worth of discussion, but what he is investigating is not a path that I wish to follow. My work in the past has been very much about the technique that I use. I could not see myself "farming" that out to other artists. However, recently I have been focusing on figures in a space and how they interact. I am playing with the effect of the ground showing through in pastels. I see all of these issues as being tied in to my continuing investigation.
If there is one thing Vitamin P has done for me, as a reader and artist, it is to show me that contemporary painting has as many investigations as there are colors in the rainbow. The challenge is to find where I stand as a contemporary painter. Throughout the history of art, painters have investigated everything from light on haystacks to color fields to feminist issues. I am not sure where my investigation will lead me, but I am ready to take in the view.
Reference and Reading Material
Schwabsky, Barry Vitamin P: New Perspectives in Painting New York: Phaidon Press Inc, 2002.