Over the past year or so there has been considerable activity devoted to painting: the Gerhard Richter exhibition at Tate Modern (Reviews AM352), Terry Myers's volume Painting for the Documents of Contemporary Art series, Vitamin P2 published by Phaidon, and Daniel Sturgis's touring exhibition 'The Indiscipline of Painting' (Reviews AM353), not to mention the development of an art school devoted to painting by the editors of Turps Banana. While each of these might look in very different directions - from personal curatorial choice, surveying the critical landscape and fixing a pedagogy gone awry, to examining what the art market and its peripheral machinery has thrown at us recently as painting - this urge to examine painting once again in its separateness is perhaps characteristic of its unstable purchase within the present contemporary art scene. This instability is not so much because of a crisis in painting necessarily (for once), but rather in the light of broader deliberations and predicaments around the present legitimising structures of the art world and their relation to, and appropriation of, the everyday and the political. Any discussion of painting is certainly no 'answer' or aesthetic corrective to the current situation, as it does not reside in some privileged vantage point outside these current problematics. However, examining painting as a discipline once again, and in terms of questions around its medium, is, at the very least, to refocus possibilities within the concentrated fields of intentionality and reception that painting might still hold.
Eight years ago, in reviewing Jonathan Harris's Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Painting (Reviews AM279), I asked how painting might be thought through as a critical practice and what tools might be used to discuss it now. This was in response to Harris's very useful but inherently cultural studies-orientated overview. Indeed, no sooner is there any attempt to address a painting than a network, an institution, a whole culture even, is necessarily invoked. All too often this generalised discursive framework replaces the specifics that a particular painting might demand. On the other hand, while a philosophy of painting might degenerate into simply decorative verbiage at its worst, central to serious painting practice is a philosophical core lying somewhere between the phenomenological and the hermeneutical, and any attempt to get to the heart of the matter would seem to revisit these, even if to find a way to think out of them. Painting, visually, is implicitly connected to such discourses, just as the visual endlessly imbricates language. Myers accepts this, and maps a multiple positioning of thinking and talking around painting.
Tracing a starting point from 1980, with the incompatible frenzy of new wave painting on the one hand and Douglas Crimp's brilliantly cool autopsy The End of Painting on the other, it weaves together various attempts to grab hold and make sense of painting in its contemporary moment. For Myers, and others, the various trajectories of painting are marked by an eschatological shadow, certainly since the 1980s, but also, famously, stretching as far back as the invention of the daguerreotype. Obsolescence has continually been predicted and projected since that time. I remember, only recently, raising the question of painting with a curator, who simply said, 'please, this is the 21st century ...'. Such a response underlines, more literally, Myers's starting point of its institutional death. But more to the point, we might ask what is this hypothetical painting that raises hackles? Painting, after all, as the past 20 or so years have shown, cannot be determined solely by a set of abstracted constraints or even necessarily by a reductive logic of its medium. That is not to say, as we shall see, that the question of medium is not important. Rather, it points firstly to the fact that the medium's permeable nature refuses any idealised, determined picture of what 'painting' actually is, and secondly how it can position itself within a differentiated landscape of media. …