Title : Lucy McKenzie, May of Teck, 2010, Collection Charles Asprey © Lucy McKenzie
Website : www.tate.org.uk
‘A Bigger Splash: Painting After Performance’
By Simon Bayliss
Setting the tone for this alternative and challenging take on the history of painting since the climax of modernism, is Jackson Pollock’s ‘Summertime: Number 9A’ (1948), laid flat and encased in a glass vitrine aboard a wide knee-high platform, like a stage. The presentation of this piece discourages gawping at the mesmerising field of drips and squiggles, but instead prompts one to regard the action-painting more as a relic and keystone in history, at a point where painting could withdraw from assigning all its alchemy to the picture plane. Insight could from then on, be sought in the processes and the bodies who made them.
On the opposite wall, posing as Pollock’s counterpart, hangs David Hockney’s iconic swimming pool painting from which the show’s title is derived. However the diving-board splash took the artist two weeks to paint painstakingly and therefore functions as staunch opposition to the spontaneity of abstract expressionism. At the poolside the lone director’s chair emphasises the artist’s creative role – of conjuring a theatrical environment devoid of figures but full of tension and potential narrative. Highlighted in the two videos accompanying the opposing works, are the artists’ differing performative outlooks. Pollock gracefully side-steps along the length of the canvas, rhythmically flicking and dribbling paint, his physical presence at the core of his output. In contrast, it is Hockney’s hedonistic Californian lifestyle which is sensationalised into part-performance and a source for his paintings. The artist is seen musing in his studio, whilst naked young men dive into a shimmering swimming pool.
The extensive thirteen-roomed exhibition loosely continues this theme portraying a new wave of painters more as performers, directors, or set-designers. A crucial yet provocative piece is Yves Klein’s ‘Anthropometry of the Blue Era’ (1960). The film records a performance in which naked women smear themselves with blue paint then roll, loll, drag and imprint their feminine features onto canvas, directed by Klein dressed in a suit, all to the sound of an ensemble of cellos and violins. This quaintly bourgeois and chauvinistic piece is then amusingly outstripped by a profusion of reactionary works following it, which dwell on this notion of the body as a paint-brush, but become increasingly transgressive, psychological and politically charged. In Stuart Brisley’s confrontational piece ‘Artist as Whore’(1972, printed 2012) for example, the artist spent seven days in a gallery floundering in painterly filth, as if reverting to the stage of Freud’s psychosexual development in which messy young children play with their faeces. In direct contrast to Klein’s use of women as artist’s utensils, Brisley’s own painted body becomes one with his environment, eliminating the distance between artist and artwork. And whereas Klein attempts to woo the audience with pomp and affected grace, Brisley demands unflinching voyeurism, in deliberately antagonistic and uncivilised opposition.
The concept of body painting is then steered to its most literal juncture in an extensive examination of practices which have embraced make-up and cross-dressing. Drawing on more photographs and documentation, works include a self-portrait Polaroid of Andy Warhol as a sallow-cheeked transvestite in a blond wig, and snapshots of Andrew Logan’s Second Alternative Miss World contest, in which Lee Bowery is pictured wearing a giant red tutu with deranged minstrel face-paint. But whether or not these, as well as Cindy Sherman’s investigations in alter-personas – photographs of herself in a constantly shifting array of costumes and heavily applied slap – can be considered a form of painting, the thread here seems a little thin. The exhibition does not support the notion that make-up, like its parallel, is a physical medium. Throughout the show there is a noticeable absence of pigments, not to mention performers, in their tangible forms.
The rest of the show examines contemporary artists who have transported painting far beyond its traditional boundaries. In an installation by Edward Krasinski, a horizontal line of blue tape uninterruptedly traverses the white walls of the gallery until it enters his ‘Intervention’ paintings, changing direction according to their fictive spatial arrangements. Mark Camille Chaimowicz on the other hand, has constructed a camp pastel-coloured fantasy bedroom interior for the pioneering French multi-disciplinary artist, poet, writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau. In a dreamlike melding of aesthetics he has sourced, commissioned and self-fashioned an array of gently surreal quasi-domestic props - impractical sculptural staircases, patterned rugs, a rocking-horse, as well as artworks including a painting by Édouard Vuillard and a 2005 piece by Wolfgang Tillmans. Thus this complex multi-dimensional environment locates itself outside Cocteau’s contextual time and space. Dotted with romantic, sexually charged signs, yet also imbued with the sensibility of painterly abstraction, it draws on Cocteau’s wandering artistic spirit; it’s just a shame the audience are prevented from entering.
In Ei Arakawa’s installation, televisions on wheelie-stands loop extracts of performances which absurdly re-evaluate the grand traditions of painting. In ‘See Weeds’ (2011) a choreographed Abstract Expressionist ballet employs pieces from a Gutai collection; large canvases, again on rolling supports, are wheeled around a stage. The flurried pictures are made to dance and interact. At one point the paintings are lined up to face the audience whilst their human handlers roll around on the floor in front of them performing peculiar wormy breakdances. Further highly animated quirky events reveal Arakawa’s attempts to agitate the rigidity from painting’s heritage - comparable perhaps to dragging one’s ageing relatives to a burlesque club.
The show concludes with Lucy McKenzie’s ethereal environment comprised of immaculately painted fragments of a once tastefully decorated townhouse interior, complete with trompe l'oeil marble, damp stains and Georgian radiators. Although fabricated on canvases as opposed to directly on the gallery wall, these impenetrable images made using accomplished commercial techniques, pose the question of whether one is required to regard them as paintings in the traditional manner or alternatively allow them to disappear, as an actor would with backdrops of a film set. In an exhibition brimming with demanding archival documentation and cordoned installations, this closing invitation to take part in an experience of painting after performance is welcomed.