This text is drawn from many hours of conversation over the last 18 months between Painting at the End of the World and playpaint, a project by Michael Gittings.
Michael was an art school graduate of the early 1990’s and was active in London’s art scene for several years, but gave up working as an artist to focus on other creative pursuits. The playpaint collaboration with artist Damian Nelson had seen Michael out of an art making practice for almost a decade. Beginning in 2008 the initial collaboration emerged from a desire by two ex-painters to make paintings again. Over the course of 2008 and 2009, the two artists tried a range of ways in which they could work collaboratively and quickly on the production of painting including; setting each other instructions, remixing works and exchanging half-finished works for the other to complete. This turned out to be something of a false start. The coalescing of the collaboration occurred when they both decided to share a studio, painting together at the same time
One of the first successes of the early version of playpaint, in terms of making a painting as quickly as possible, was Painting 2010. There was a deliberate methodology involved in the production that avoided a dialogue of action and response in painting. playpaint had already decided that a painting should be made independently and not part of a series or sequence. It was also decided that each painting would be process led, in that a decision would be made on the application of paint, often via spray can, paint-dispenser, found object or hand-made tool. Quite often, a series of small samples of an application technique or combination of techniques would be carried out in advance. Another strategy would be to apply simple geometric rules, that would determine application procedure and materialise a painting. Painting 2010 is an example of this process that equates to choice of ground, choice of spray-paint for line and choice of water based oil for circles defined by a rotating tool. Then, the following procedural rule is applied; Within the painting, start with a line of any length. From the center of the line, at a 90˚ angle, measure the distance to nearest edge of the painting. Make a circle at this position, using the measurement as the diameter for the circle. Taking a point from either end of the first line repeat these steps to make a 2nd line and circle. Then from the open end of the 2nd line repeat the steps to make a 3rd line and circle. Continue repeating until the painting is finished.
The collaboration ended in 2015 with the departure of Damian. Michael has continued the work of playpaint as a solo practitioner since then, developing the methodology established through the collaboration.
I first became aware of the work of playpaint in 2015, through connection via Facebook and Instagram. One of the first things I remember about the playpaint London Facebook account, was the regular posting of a range of images of some of the most fantastic and iconic works of art. Not being familiar with the back catalogue of playpaint at the time, sometimes I would be unaware scrolling through the images, which belonged to playpaint and which did not.
In the Politics of Aesthetics 2000, Jacques Rancière outlines what he describes as mute signs, when discussing the flat modernist paintings from the 2nd and 3rd quarters of the 20th century. Mute, in that the flat paintings of modernism, revoked the living speech of the representative and illusionistic spaces that defined the behaviours and sensibilities of the communities producing them in previous painting genres. Ways of making, that represent paradigmatic shifts in the production of art in a time and place, are politicised by their aesthetic difference to their environment. The dematerialisation of representation, in favour of medium specificity, into an environment filled with readable signs that have a certain use value, initiates a specific aesthetic gap between the two.
Casually slipped in amongst this eclectic range of photographs of paradigm shifts were the painted works by playpaint. Of course, playpaint has an Instagram account where all the images of work reside in isolation. But the Facebook juxtapositions perhaps reveal something of the way this artist thinks and feels about art and in-turn, what might be at stake in the output. Many of these accompanying images presented in the feed, propose a sensible distribution of art into daily life. Although there is a tension in many between art and economics, there is also a thread of the universality that art should enjoy, in our homes and public spaces, on our streets and in our lives. Weaving in and out of this, playpaint supplant their very recent painting, consciously or not, imbuing them with the same narrative. At the very least, allowing juxtaposition to blend temporal distinctions between art or painting genre and dominant paradigm.
In terms of aesthetics, and in this case by that I mean, the way that something looks, according to the way it was made, the work of playpaint at face value, appears as though a kind of painting Tech Noir. Not to be mistaken with the fictional bar in LA where Sarah Connor first meets the Terminator, but definitely residing in the neon lit shadows of neoliberal culture, replete with a bureaucratized existence, furnished with procedurally mimetic visual pleasures. I say that in part because of the choice of palette in many of the works, but also because of their resemblance to elements of our many digital interface. playpaint tends not to invite interpretation or analysis of the output. Instead, the procedural approach to making a painting is enough that any subsequent dialogue, is entirely extrinsic to the work.
A second example from 2010 is Prototype. This large square canvas consists of two visual components; a white paint trail and a black paint trail. Breaking that down further into signs that we might recognize could include tubes, conduits and their connecting elbow joints. The procedure involved includes the taping together of two paint cans, that are pushed, pulled and swiveled face down around the canvas on a pre-determined course via a jig. The symmetry is regular and there appears as though a concern for accurate paralleling of the two twisting forms. There was a time lag between each move to re-adjust the jig.
It is telling, that because of the lack of brushed marks, replaced instead by tools and other application procedure, including more or less accurate repetition, playpaints output is slippery, in terms of interpretation. The playpaint work that I have hanging in my flat, click 2016, has a slippery and amorphous indexicality because I simply don’t know, or don’t fully understand the technical process involved in the application of paint. Boris Groys talks about the difference between the new and the different in Art Power 2008. In simple terms he set out the premise that the new, the thing never before experienced, would be invisible to most eyes, due to the lack of a constant or frame of reference. The different he proposes, is much more in line with what is commonly labeled as new, especially in the advertising world of cars and technology. In the same way that our current touch screen technology isn’t new, but rather is only different from the proposed technology of a touch screen control panel in 1986’s Star Trek: The Next Generation, or that a new Fiat car is only different from the last version via the addition of an airbag and so on.
So what is definitely different in the work of playpaint, is the range of application techniques of paint to canvas, that omit the brush. What also is different then, is that the notion of handwriting, often attributed to brush work, in turn generating multiple indexical signs of the author/artists activity on that picture plane, has to be appraised differently. Isabelle Graw in Thinking Through Painting: Reflexivity and Agency Beyond the Canvas 2012 attributes the indexical signs of impact of paint and brush on the canvas to the evolution of the work as quasi person of the artist, now out of view. The resonance and index associated with a Pollock for example, the rhythmic distribution of airborne streaks of paint, all contingent in making a painting by the placing of canvas on the floor in the right place.
A problem with thinking about author/artist in context of playpaint is of course, who made it? Who did that bit, whose idea was that and so on. It could have been Michael solo or could have been Damian when in collaboration. There is a problem there with the attribution of a specific quasi person. Going back to our different Fiat car as an example, that was likely made by many workers in a factory over a period of time. Somebody bolted the tires on, another fit the cigarette lighter after somebody else sprayed the whole thing iridescent gold. Workforce and labor are perhaps the quasi people hovering around all the cars on our street, representing a mass, producing an idea that wasn’t theirs, using materials that weren’t theirs either, building and producing for profit and consumption. Perhaps a quasi indexed in the output of playpaint is the notion of factory, because a collaborative labor is present, albeit non-hierarchical.
Now as mentioned playpaint isn’t generating painting to strike at any extrinsic subject matter, other than that of the behavior of the medium in certain defined procedure. Because the premise of the project was collaborative, focused on the basic problem of making paintings and negotiating decisions, the methodology focused on processes that eschewed drawing as a foundation for painting in favor of edition. playpaint is interested in engineering the paintings rather than authoring them. Examples of edition could be cut and paste, technical glitches, repetition, sampling, spatial compression and ambiguity from layering and partition.
…there’s no systematisation in order to remove the author, only systematisation in order to end up with a painting. playpaint 2019
Going back to Jacques Rancière, and the aesthetic environment, in terms of the difference between what is commonplace in our place and time and what is not, we should consider the output of playpaint in context of recent changes in our society and culture. I have previously discussed playpaint, amongst other painters, in context of what I perceive as a deluge of bureaucratisation into daily life, brought about by the proliferation of social media and the downwards pressure of the current economic system. By bureaucratisation I mean, that the notions of ordering one’s personal reality and common experiences (or ones painting practice) according to boxes, layering, windows and sometimes special effects, is a form of spare-time, self-regulating bureaucracy, not normally experienced outside of the universal credit, life insurance or council office. The procedure involved in a playpaint painting i.e. pre-planned application technique by tool, auto-repetition, mathematics and so on, are perhaps the locus for examination of the day to day of bureaucracy as an alternate visual system and a codec (compression) driven aesthetic. I’m calling this a bureaucratisation of procedure. I say codec, because I’m making a parallel between the technical knowledge of the artist, the knowing involved of a range of complex procedure that result in a specific outcome, pre-planned – and the ways in which digital imagery, composed of a rules based system of alpha-numerical code, is materialised on our handsets, plasma screens and laptops after compression and transit. I say bureaucracy, not with any particular Kafkaesque connotation, but rather, that mimesis of the ways of organizing human activity with rational and systematic process, is a particularly reactive and responsive way of driving the making and doing specific to painting.
This then, this materialisation of a painting by playpaint, resulting from forms of activity that may resemble the function of picture making code, but now residing within the production of painting, may point, to a turn in the ways of making and doing specific to the medium. Commonplace Painting, or painting with both brush and a will to engage on an intrinsic action/responsive basis are not found here. What we are presented with then, according to Rancière, is a paradigmatic shift. This shift, highlights a gap between the commonplace and the newly different. The different, in terms of a procedure that materialises a painting, asserts itself politically in the work of playpaint. The extrinsic or environment of social structures, in which the painting resides, emphasises the flat or mute surface of the medium not in a representational mode. However, an intrinsic mimesis of the logos of the social structure, quilts the output of playpaint in a re-staging of our particular now.
©Ian Goncharov, Edinburgh 2019
Published in Turps Magazine issue 21, 2019
Graw, I. Birnbaum, D. (2012) Thinking Through Painting: Reflexivity and Agency Beyond the Canvas. Sternberg Press.
Graw, I. Lajer-Burcharth, E. (2016) Painting beyond Itself: The Medium in the Post-medium Condition. Berlin: Sternberg Press.
Groys, B. (2008) Art Power. Cambridge: MIT Press
Rancèire, J. (2004) The Politics of Aesthetics. London New York: Continuum