Saturday, November 14, 2009
Must painting require a painted surface?
11 November – 5 December 2009
With this current Judy Millar exhibition we get the chance to look closely not at the actual works of her Venice installation (it comes down in a week) but at some ‘unshaped’ rectangular works made at the same time, using the same scanning technology.
There has been a certain amount of controversy around Millar’s methodology here. Some feel she has abandoned the surface qualities of painting, and that she is somehow cheating by scanning a small painted image that is then considerably enlarged to suit the spatial and architectural circumstances of each venue. That by using digital and photographic techniques the claim to be painting is forfeited. That she should have used very big brushes like brooms, or assistants for muscle-power if needed, to make the whopper subtractive ‘paint-marks’ she displayed. That small paintings on paper used for scanning cannot possibly provide anything like the fine grained texture of directly applied viscous paint when enlarged.
The counter-argument I think would go like this. The above comments are fair enough if Millar was trying to work in the same tradition as say Bernard Frize, where the boundaries of the notion of manual control in mark-making are being extended – but she is not participating in that discussion. Her work’s methodology is really akin on one hand to Roy Lichtenstein’s pretend comic-book brushstrokes which are enlarged drawings of brush marks, and on the other, the digital scanning technology that somebody like Christopher Wool often uses. The notion of the wiping hand or sweeping arm correlating to 1:1 ratio sized marks is not so relevant now – though it was of course earlier on.
Millar’s priorities have changed because she is concentrating now more heavily on architectural intervention – an interest she first proclaimed with her Robert Leonard curated show at the New Gallery in 2005. This the Gow Langsford presentation clearly and brilliantly demonstrates. The planes of the two very large stretchers and the marks their ‘fake’ surfaces bear calculatedly thwart the palpable real space of the room – to the extent of one even being jammed between a white column and wall so that a section is hidden, and the other being suspended out towards the centre of the room away from the wall surface. The canvas is an object to be played with as a movable barrier as well as a depth-laden illusionistic ‘window’.
Apart from methodology, a second issue is surface, the lack in the enlarged images of the different matt and gloss sheens detectable in her older ‘proper’ painting. I imagine Millar could have faked these qualities if she had wished, by screening strategic lines of glossy varnish over parts of the digital images – particularly mark ‘edges’ - but she decided not to bother. She let them stay consistently matt.
Let us consider the fact that some painters varnish their image surfaces (the whole picture plane), not for reasons of physical protection but to integrate the surface qualities of different media – to provide a less optically disruptive uniformity, especially with dark tones. The scanned works have those qualities as given, and Millar could have varnished her smaller works to match them
The problem she has with her Auckland show is that she is mixing up her painting-surface types and that jeopardises her aesthetic rhetoric – it undermines her argument. She should be consistent, take a definite position and stick to it. The small conventional, non-scanned works could be matt varnished over their entire surfaces to correlate with the large stretchers, or the whoppers could have fake glossy streaks or edges superimposed to mimic the smaller ‘authentic’ paintings. Or else have all works placed under glass - as one work on paper is.
Millar is hesitating when I think she should be more theatrical, treating surface with the same lack of preciousness that she treats architectural space. She needs to tease her audience even more than what she is doing already. What if she scanned all her works and rejected surface qualities altogether, making the two sorts indistinguishable. By abandoning any interest in tactile surface she could focus entirely on site, forget the historically entrenched mores of painting and concentrate totally on it as an idea without a past, concentrating on ‘pure’ installation as architectural intervention instead.