Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Incompatible Perhaps

New Painting Digital Age
Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts, Pakuranga, Manukau City
17 November 2007 -10 February 2008

This ‘new painting’ exhibition is toured by Porirua’s Pataka gallery, and curated by Pataka’s Senior Contemporary Art Curator Helen Kedgley. She has picked Darryn George, Sara Hughes, Andrew McLeod, Kelcy Taratoa and Tim Thatcher so with such disparate styles it is quite idiosyncratic. Plus much of it is traditional oil painting. No Andre Hemer (repeatable pseudo gestures), Simon Ingram (robot painting) or Leigh Martin (digital painting machine) here. But there are some nice surprises.

In New Zealand the pioneering work mixing painting with digital technology was done by Richard Killeen in his investigations of the properties of language, especially the paintings made in 1986-7. Over twenty years later such digital methods have become commonplace, and Killeen’s influence very apparent.

With Kedgley’s selection, the obvious choices are McLeod and Hughes.

I’m not sure about the significance of the others though. In some, digital technology is not absolutely essential to their image making process, as say the methods of Andre Hemer or Julia Morison might be. And from looking at the catalogue, the reduced touring version here does not seem as successful as the original Pataka hang. While Sara Hughes only has one painting, Tim Thatcher has five, yet a lot of wall space in the outer corridor is unused. Because there is no even distribution of work for all five artists, the show seems slightly ad hoc.

Kedgley doesn’t fully show how painting can be more flexible or more adventuresome with digital technology. Even though her selection is limited, her quirky tastes can provide pleasant surprises. For example, I’d never seen Tim Thatcher’s work before, but I enjoyed his paintings of tree parts. They are sumptuous oil renditions of Andy Goldsworthy-style sculptures, but scrawnier and weedier – perhaps as envisaged by a comic artist like Chester Brown. They have an appealing stoned nuttiness about them, and seem to be a sort of tongue-in–cheek meditation on a woman (‘The Log lady’) in David Lynch’s TV series ‘Twin Peaks” who is always cradling a log: a satire on ‘tree-hugging.’

Despite my enthusiasm for Thatcher’s oils, I’m not convinced he should be here. Simply because he uses Google to download tree images is hardly a valid reason to put him in a ‘digital‘ show, and in fact his (and McLeod’s) traditional painterly sensibility show Kedgley’s thematic premise to be a bizarre oxymoron. Why the hang up on paint? A print or photography show would have enabled a far more focussed examination of digital technology. Yet Kedgley stays true to her passion for old style painting: she prefers Andrew McLeod’s sensual painting over his more innovative (Guillermo Kuitca influenced) prints. Really she is using artists’ digital interests as an excuse for a painting show. That is her priority, not the other way round.

For example Kedgley’s choice of Darryn George’s work includes roughly made, less pristine examples. His ‘The Equaliser’ - five alternating red/black pairs of repeated size and motif - looks terrific on one wall by itself, but this Māori synthesis of Walters/McLaughlin formalism with Lasker tactility has a surprising casual rawness close up. George is uncharacteristically sloppy.

Yet to be fair, Kedgley hasn’t deliberately ignored painting with a fastidious industrial finish – it is just that in Te Tuhi it happens to be downplayed. Sara Hughes’ dazzling synthesis of Stella, Anuszkiewicz and Held is hard to ignore, and the suite of Walholesque Kelcy Taratoa paintings fits into Kedgley’s theme well. His work though, despite its appropriate method, is tiresomely similar to a lot of Pop art in this country – like Rudolf Boulee for example – and is not distinctive. His fixation on war comics, action heroes and media manipulation is too heavy handed and didactic to be significant.

This show tries to be both painting and digital but doesn’t embrace either satisfactorily. Maybe the entire original exhibition has to be seen for the argument to work; perhaps it could have gained from a more detailed examination of the technology particular to each artist; but I think Kedgley’s choice of artists is the problem. Too few of the artists really tackle the implications of the theme full on – they are too busy being painters. The grouping doesn’t convince.


David Cauchi said...

John, you seem to have quite seriously missed the point when you say that the alleged 'traditional painterly sensibility show[s] Kedgley’s thematic premise to be a bizarre oxymoron. Why the hang up on paint? A print or photography show would have enabled a far more focussed examination of digital technology.'

As the catalogue says quite clearly, the show is about a 'new relationship between the painted and the digital image ... [The artists] all use computers in diverse ways to generate their artworks, yet they all continue to use traditional painting methods.' The show is about how digital tools (the computer, scanner, and digital camera) have become part of the painter's repertoire. Prints and photography are simply not relevant.

The Pataka show resonated for me because it matched my own experience. For example, I'll scan in a drawing, cut and paste bits from digital photos and the results of online image searches, and manipulate the results in Photoshop. I usually then redraw it, sometimes several times. The degree of fidelity to the original image depends on what's appropriate for that particular painting. Although the end result is an oil painting with no obvious digital influences, digital tools are an integral part of the painting's production.

The show is responding to a crude and simplistic equation of digital technology with new media artworks. In this review, you're propagating that equation. You've misunderstood the show because of this mistaken assumption.

Also, oil on canvas might be a traditional painting method, but that doesn't make it a traditional painting. Saying that every oil painting is a traditional painting is like saying that every printed page is traditional writing, which is obviously absurd. Are you saying you see no difference between a painting by Andrew McLeod and an Academy of Fine Arts-style landscape painting of Milford Sound!?

John Hurrell said...

Thanks for your contribution, David. Great to hear from you.
I guess the issue is how far do you want to push the use of digital technology? If a painter uses Google to find material, and then Photoshop to enlarge and blend it, only to make an oil painting in the end, it seems to me to be 3 steps forward and 2 steps backward: ultimately not much of an improvement over researching in their local library and blowing up found images with a photocopier and sticking them together with sellotape. OK it is an improvement, but only just.
It would be more logical to abandon painting altogether, print out big images, and shake off the guild mentality - the fetishization of the brush mark - which I'll admit I myself am sometimes a sucker for.
Using oil painting with digital technology in this show seems to be only scratching the surface of the digital method, and not exploring its full potential at all.

David Cauchi said...

To be honest, I couldn't give a rat's arse about pushing the use of digital technology. I don't see why I or anyone else should be obliged to do so. If that's all you're interested in, that's fine, but it's not for me. As the saying goes, it takes all sorts to make a world.

I'm interested in painting. There's a bit more to painting than the fetishisation of the brush mark. There's also a difference between paintings and digital prints.

I don't see what the problem is in using digital tools for the purposes of painting. What exactly is backward about it? You seem to think there is an inherent virtue in exploring digital technology but not in exploring painting. That sounds awfully like fetishisation to me.

Incidentally, you could make the same comment about the digital manipulation of photos as you made about sticking photocopies together. Manipulated photos appeared very soon after the invention of photography. All that's changed are the methods.

John Hurrell said...

I happen to be interested in painting too (they're nothing to do with digital technology), but my own practice is not the point. My review is about the logic of the Pataka exhibition and whether the curatorial premise is interesting in light of the vast range of artists using software etc. In Kedgley's show, the painterliness of many of the artists is their main feature, not their digital use which is very ordinary. I think Sara Hughes is the best example of a happy synthesis because she really pushes
the expansion of drawing so it takes over the wall. Likewise some of Julia Morison's recent laarge projects. In both cases, the digital sortware is essential for the making of the work. They couldn't do it with collage/photocopy etc.

David Cauchi said...

As its title states, the show is about painting in a digital age. It's not about artists using software. It's about painters integrating digital technology (both hard- and software) into their practice. The painterliness is the whole point. The digital aspect is not obvious to the casual viewer. I think a show pointing it out is an interesting premise.

I also think you're too quick to dismiss the digital aspect of a lot of this work as 'ordinary'. The kinds of transformations and scaling up that Sara Hughes does could be done manually. Techniques for doing so have been around for hundreds of years (the skull in Holbein's Ambassadors is just one example). That's not the point, though.

Painters could piss around with collaging photocopies, though that wouldn't allow them to change the colour or distort the perspective very easily (among other things).

Being able to do compositional studies and templates on a computer is a new thing. You don't have to go to the library and the photocopy shop, and then spend hours mucking around with scissors and tape. The computer with scanner and digital camera plugged in is a powerful new tool. It's all there in a corner of your studio.

Saying 'Oh this is no big deal - it's just like collaging photocopies' is like saying 500 years ago 'Oh this new printing press thing is no big deal - it just does what scribes do'. Yes, both produce books, but one does it a lot faster and easier (and more accurately) than the other. It's the same with the computer. And just as the printing press enabled other benefits, such as allowing pages to be numbered (which meant you could now have contents pages and indexes), so too does the computer have unexpected side benefits.

Given that most people don't realise how integral this new tool has become to painting practice, having a show about it is perfectly valid and, I would hope, interesting to a range of people. In fact, given the commonly held misconception that digital technology equals new media artworks, I'd argue that it is overdue.

Okay, I've gone on far too long. Time to enjoy the evening sun. Cheers.