Painting at the End of the World is an organisation dedicated to showing the best in emerging contemporary painting and art practice. Currently based in Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, this free-floating curatorial project is engaging with painters from across the world via solo,
duo and group shows in a variety of locations. The organisation does not represent individual artists, but seeks to act as a critical platform.
Painting at the End of the World aims to focus on the wider
indexical syntax currently embedded within certain trends in contemporary painting, in particular post-analogue painting and mac-straction.
This launch show sets out some of the concerns of the organisation, primarily in terms of the dichotomy between abstraction and representation, analogue and its post. This text acts as a way to highlight the specific turn, in what is broadly described as abstract painting, towards a new engagement with forms of representation and mimesis. This first exhibition also attempts to locate the potential cultural drivers of this recent shift in contemporary paintings’ trajectory by examining notions of the real and reality inside neoliberal capitalism. The selection of work aims to represent the broad approach to painting out and thinking through the current ideological systems of control and hopefully sounds out a clear ontological position for contemporary painting that the organisation will take forward in discussion and future exhibitions.
Nothing is as it seems in the emerging world of fake news and right-wing hysteria. Lazy ways of looking and thinking about painting have existed for some time now, especially with work described as abstract. It might be worthwhile saying here at the start that ‘abstraction’ is a fuzzy outdated term, particularly now, in the age of the digital. There of course is always something taken away or something added to information when in storage or transit.
So, to expand on the occurrence of this exhibition and this first selection of work, I won’t start at the beginning to explore the modes of representation or otherwise as notions. That is, I won’t laboriously go back to the genesis of either mode in order to explain a trajectory. I can do a little of that later with the help of Georges Seurat. What I will do, to start with, is explain the title of this text.
The title – Painting inside the Matrix: Code and its Others – does of course have a nod to the 1999 Sci-Fi blockbuster film directed by the Wachowskis. The title auto suggests that somehow perhaps, painters are asleep in a pod in a dystopian future, whilst their minds are at large elsewhere in a reality matrix, not of their own making. You might say that apart from the pod bit, largely that is a statement we can identify with elements of, but first, we might have to discuss notions of the dystopic, the real and reality.
It is certain that our current day to day, our existence in fact, is largely out of our hands. A system of reality has evolved over the last millennia, that locks us firmly in place, as labour providers, as batteries, for an economically driven ideological machine that strives for endless amounts of consumption and profit. The film titled The Matrix, was already a mediation on the work of Jean Baudrillard and his thoughts on the real, simulacra and simulation. The title of this exhibition seeks to place the paintings being produced today, as the crucible for a discourse on the nature of the varying contemporary realities of its makers, within the bigger system reality. The control matrix set out both here and in the movie, is of course one of our own making, ours, being the collective that is the current human race.
We could start to unpick the mechanics of this apparent control system, by trying to unpick contemporary painting from the perspective of the individuals making it. The five painters chosen for this show, have been known to me for several years. Helen Baker was my undergrad tutor in 1996, so that is a long relationship indeed. Fortuitously the proliferation of the internet and its various interfaces, have made it possible for me to discover, keep in touch with, and connect to painters from many other locations. That was not strictly possible with such ease 20 years ago when I first met Helen. The world is irrevocably changed. The iPhone, the tablet, the laptop, the information . . . the images, the interaction and connectivity have all changed the common experience of the day to day for most of those living in first world countries and particularly for artists. Communication and the transmission of information has of course increased in speed. That is perhaps in part key to unlocking the conundrum
I might feel about the choice for the launch show for Painting at the End
of the World.
An aside might be that an awful lot has been said about Instagram recently, so I won’t mention too much at this point, except to say that without it, this show would have been slightly more difficult and likely very different. Our reality would of course be different without this particular sorting device of art. What I will say is that in terms of selection and curation, in terms of image juxtaposition, Instagram for now, is a great free tool and interface for research into contemporary painting happening right now the world over.
What is clear about the selection for this show is that stylistically it seems easy to make connections. That said, for me, the divergence of perceived individual reality is greater.
In his 2009 text Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher, outlines a notion that reality is whatever is possible and that the real, (via Jaques Lacan), is what is suppressed by that reality. Now, if we were to think about painting and apply that model, we might say that the reality of the contemporary painter is expressed in possibility, via the production of work, or the act of making painting, but the thing that is suppressed, the real, is a criticality of the systems, outside of that painting. In more detail, I might go on to suggest that the painter, at the point of creation of the painting, has a multitude of options available in terms of content, style, genre etc. If we accept that the painter, and more generally the artist, mediates the flow of information around them at the time of creation of a work of art, invoking a temporally specific context personal to themselves, then the reality of the finished work, is the mediated, indexical spirit of the times, or, varying representations of the current pervading reality. Realities held in stasis then, become the cultural markers of the time or epoch. The painting, becomes individual expression of a personal struggle with the individual reality. They have no correlation to the real, but rather skirt its edges. An example of that might be the works of Rose Wylie or Richie Culver, where the jumble of image and text may, through juxtaposition, outline a sense of ones peripheral absurdity, a real denied flesh by absurdity, the reality reflected, a disjointed fusion of thought. There are many ways we could discuss this further. We should also consider that criticality in the current economic model is arguably an empty gesture, especially in paintings that sell and get flipped for thousands of dollars or pounds, or that are never seen. The notion of critique, is itself perhaps at best, the thing under examination.
During certain points of early postmodernism, and more recently for example in my own education at Goldsmiths college, it was bandied around by some that criticality was the ‘thing’ missing or unachievable in most contemporary art and particularly painting. Everything is empty. Read Ben Davies 2013 text 9.5 thesis on Art and Class and you get a very compelling argument that criticality, in the current system, is a dead end. There is a conceit there that somehow, the thing that came before i.e. modernism was somehow not so lacking. I mean that there is a long line of thought about liberation from certain structural thought, notions of truth, and the possibility that art, could inform contemporary realities and in fact, become real. Perhaps it did in some instances. Thinking about the pictorial liberation achieved by Pollock and Krasner or Rothko, the ways of living designed by the Bauhaus and later in the environmental works of Robert Smithson.
Neoliberal capitalism, the current model, it is of course as Fisher suggests, quite at ease with self-critique. Many of us are well aware of the problems of inequality, racism, overconsumption and environmental destruction, which of course are the real hallmarks of the system. But the system is currently built to enable critique, as an antidote to those pressing bits of the real. Critique of the system suppresses those bits of real momentarily, in a flash of utopian idealism via the critique, then fades, as nothing ever changes and in fact largely gets a lot worse day by day, info by info.
So, what about these five painters at the end of the world then? Their real is of course the same as yours and mine, as we are all, for now, in this together. Reality is the more complex issue here, because that is where we all diverge. The construction of systems, procedure, rules, regulations and control is what the current reality model does best, because it is based purely on economics and value. If the individual can’t fit into the schema, then they are duly labelled. In particular, this kind of bureaucracy is more often levelled at those at the wrong end of the economic ladder. The reality is that life at the bottom, is plagued by form filling, interviews, sanctions, judgements, alienation, despair and isolation.
If we come back to the notion that reality informed by the structures we encounter in the day-to-day then is perhaps part of the melee, the mediated temporal screen grab that artists re-generate and distribute, we can begin to discuss code. Because we cannot read the work of art as we read a text, we of course have to decode all the signs, signifiers and indexical signs embedded in each piece via our individual association. Each artist may or may not then, code their own reality, within the primary code of the system reality. What I mean by that is that there are at least three (coded) realities being discussed here. Firstly, there is the individually tailored reality of each individual artist as a result of personal and economic circumstance. That personal circumstance is of course a result of the primary reality of the pervading system and all its rules, regulations and dogma. The third reality then, is the one generated, then held in stasis or stored by the work itself.
As an example of this, Lucas Dupuy, recent graduate of the arts education system is a diagnosed dyslexic. According to most dyslexia information literature, Lucas may have some difficulty in accessing certain kinds of visual information. There are long lists provided of the tasks and or systems of behaviour and communication that people with dyslexia may or may not be able to access. Being an undiagnosed dyslexic myself I can identify with some of the issues that those who are diagnosed may face. But, my overriding feeling is that of course, if an individual deviates from the mass schema in any way, they will need to be labelled and categorised. The minutia of detail involved in the characteristics of the ‘disorder’ seem to reinforce the reality of a system that needs a certain normative and measurable level of compliance in order to function, in order to control. The bureaucracy involved in schools, in terms of testing, diagnosing, assisting, excluding etc., is designed of course to assess and sort types of behaviour and performance for a future in the system. This sorting, of a variety of individual realities, against the code of the system reality is of course highly immoral.
Lucas Dupuy’s paintings and drawings are grounded visually and conceptually in mechanisms that reclaim the arbitrariness of written language code, and in doing so ask questions about the common experience and therefore common or pervading realities. As we know from semiotic study, language and communication structure and the naming of things relies on one thing and one thing alone and that is an arbitrary but culturally embedded label, code and sign system. It just so happens these arbitrary communication systems are taught and learned by all, albeit in slightly differing forms the world over. Dupuy’s paintings attempt to re-write that code into something more akin to the individual reality, in this case, that of the artist. The work has echoes of primitive forms of pictographic language, such as the glyph or sigil, but also more complex structures that might hint at alphabet, syntax and conjunction. The intricate block structures that appear in the work, often combined with diffuse zones of blurred forms, may read as though symbol like, as though text and image, or access point to interface.
The communication system being developed, is singular to this artist. It is derived directly from a system that for Dupuy, is partially inaccessible. Abstraction then, or the look of abstraction, is derived perhaps from the will to engage with the system reality of words and letters. What is in fact occurring in the painting, is the formation and expression of ways in which the artist engages with the common experience. The notion of abstraction can almost slip away, when we realise that Dupuy is simply playing with systems he might struggle to see, by mediating those systems into ones he can.
Playpaint (Mike Gittings) makes complex systems for the production of painting. For Playpaint, ‘code’, in his own words, is out. What that means is that for him, there is no latent code per se up for decoding, resting within the work. Code and its others, the title of the exhibition, might suggest that what is under examination in this group of works, are some of the constituents that inform what code is, and how it functions, what happens to it, where does it come from and how it is perceived. A bit like class, whose other constituents might be gender, race or economic background. What we might be doing here is discussing the emerging politics of code, albeit in context of painting. The others that constitute code in this context, could simply be described as the varying mediated output of the common experience of the pervading reality in the day to day. The third reality that I posit rests in the work of art or in this case in the painting, arguably solidifies a coded response to the issues we face as individuals. Whether we agree or not, most audiences look for meaning in a work of art. What we perhaps don’t fully understand, is that if we use the analogy of digital code, we might be unsure what software, codec or form of compression is being used to transmit the content in a work of art. By that I mean, each artist is in possession of her own particular reality, they will mediate that (code it) with their own individual codec (Coder/Decoder) and language of painting. We the audience, are highly unlikely, to be in possession of exactly the same codec (reality) in order to unlock or decompress. This brings me to the next point, which is to explain the opening conceit that abstract painting is not the dominant form here, but rather, representation is.
Playpaint often begins a painting with the construction of some kind of tool to apply paint, along with a specific system for its use. The end goal is always a painting. Mathematics and systematic repetition will, along with sometimes arbitrary choice of colour produce painted works, that for me, are one of the best examples of the representation of both the system and individual reality. There are undeniable elements of bureaucratic procedure evident here. The systematised approach, makes complete sense in light of the day to day and common experiences inside the system reality. The paintings produced, hold via indexical signs, all the technique and process involved in production. They constitute a representation of a systematised approach to possibility.
With Susan Sontag’s text Against Interpretation in mind and in order to clarify as we go, it might be useful here to say something about the notion of reading a work of art. I mentioned earlier that audiences look for meaning in a painting or at least a rationale they can identify with. The thrust of this conversation is that the works being lightly examined here, can correspond to the system reality via certain affectation. That is to say that any sense of interpretation here, is only in terms of identifying markers of the system and its complexity, in terms of process and production involved by the individual artist. Process is the point or place of interpretation here, rather than an all-encompassing appraisal of the thing (painting) as a whole.
In the 1880’s in Paris, Georges Seurat was busy trying to devise ways in which his recent knowledge of colour theory, provided by Eugène Chevreul, could be co-opted into his paintings. Before his early death in 1891, Seurat had achieved a visual equivalent of pre-post analogue painting, largely before analogue equipment was even in mass circulation. By that I mean that his achievements in pointillism or divisionism, had already made what is happening in painting today look more or less old hat, or at the very least repetitive. Seurat’s paintings anticipated a fracturing of the visual representations of reality, into component pieces over a hundred years before the invention of the pixel and neoliberal capitalism. In many of the paintings produced between 1880 and 1890, Seurat achieves a systematised approach to painting and representation of the common experience that almost foretells imaging technology of the 20th and 21st centuries and who knows, perhaps informed them. His use of the cluster of tiny coloured daubs of paint, that at a distance, through colour contrast and optical mixing transform themselves into the appearance of form, tone and shadow, could in the context of this conversation, be explained as one of the first breakdowns of painting into a pure code, beyond or extrinsic to the initial subject. By that I mean that the reality belonging to Seurat, manifested itself onto the canvas through systematised liberation from the objects of study, not just visually, but scientifically too. The changing world of the late 19th century was one of innovation in science via the machine and of course the mass mobilisation of labour, through the industrial revolution. The particles in flux in a Seurat painting, could easily be the shared reality of the millions at work in the mills and mines, producing the textiles he so carefully and particularly renders. Any abstraction here, may simply be the result of an analysis visually, on the emerging divisions of labour in differing realities, those of the dominant capitalist system, in scientific discovery of the time and the specific reality of the maker.
Helen Baker also fractures her reality into micro components that litter the canvas. There is a dialogue in her painting that rests between overload and isolation. The balancing act for Baker, is the endless push and pull between the private and the public, the intimate and the exposed. Baker makes two types of painting at the same time in tandem. There are larger works where a myriad of painterly daubs swarm in weave-like connectivity across the canvas. The connection between daubs is apparent at distance from the surface. They appear as though isolated on close inspection, but zoom out and they then appear to connect, diverge, form a surface and a fragile lattice riddled with errors and a breakdown of order. Glitch here is perhaps representation of the sluggish kinks in contemporary bureaucracy. The net, or indeed, the matrix created in the paintings here in this reality is contextualised by the artists experience in the urban environment, its endless changing via digging and rebuilding, according to the purpose of the passing ideologies and economic models.
The smaller works chosen for this exhibition, represent a more ordered distribution of a reality model. A determined ‘you go here, you go there’ etc. is the careful distribution of austere colour and smaller numbers of perhaps one-pass blocks with loaded brush. This determined zoning on workaday materials might allow an act as though fragmentary remnants of resonant objects, as in the gable ends of working class housing torn down and left naked, to reveal the consumption of interior décor products from decades past. These small daubs also stake out a physical matrix, a shallow skin of paint, glitching, juxtaposed, bounded by edge of support and sometimes wrapping around and slowing – perhaps giving the works objecthood and a certain sense of painterly thanatosis from the menace of reality.
A reality at the heart of this discussion is that of the digital environment, that again, most of the inhabitants of first world countries inhabit day by day, hour by hour. An ingenious part of the system reality, the prevalence of the various interface by which we can measure all manner of personal issues from popularity, to popular and mass opinion, to trends in and out. Not to throw too cynical a slant on this, but right now I can’t remember if the system reality was louder before or after the creation of web news and facebook at turn of the century. By that I mean that if I remember back to the 80’s and my school days before the digital revolution, the system reality shunted me around in terms of my academic ability, my parents’ economic status, my friend circle etc., without physically watching me. The systems bureaucracy was vicariously exercised mainly by teachers and psychologists. Now I have to consider miles of mathematical code, algorithms and masses of data, that in turn, is shunting me around via #fomo, privacy requests, fair use policies and economic assessment. Internet habits and browsing histories, which are part of most peoples’ reality, can now be used in a criminal case or court of law. If you didn’t look at anything you shouldn’t have, I guess that’s great, except that anything and everything, from how to spell ideology, or how to kill moths, anything that you ever searched or wrote will be accessible by the control system for as long as there is storage of code and electricity to access it. What has changed between my 1980’s and now, is that it is no longer paranoid to think that someone, or something, is watching you.
Charley Peters process of making painting involves painting, spraying, cutting, sticking and collage to create juxtapositions of all the available techniques of the medium. Trope or sign of, is significant here. In one sense Peters creates reflections via painting, on the unimaginable mathematical code that is ‘back of house’ in the look of the digital screen and interface, to create meditations on contemporary aesthetics. Her virtuoso paintings often glow with the same intensity of the plasma light of our greatest 21st century reality, the screen, the interface and portal. Her work also maps out a tradition of painting that in her own words explores repetition, hard edges and materiality and again by default a mediation perhaps on the reality of paintings past. Many of Peters’ paintings and collages mediate the digital code produced effects of the interface – blended colour fields, boxed windows and the grid – in analogue materials. This technological back step, described by her in a conversation with me some years ago as mac-straction, is also the mode of the moment, broadly labelled by Kathy Grayson, curator at the Hole in New York, as post-analogue painting.
More and more painters are using the aesthetic of the screen and all the associated signature aesthetic formats of windows, glow and fade, drop shadows etc. to inform contemporary painting. What is new about this phenomena and again a rationale for the title of this exhibition, is that all interfaces are created via mathematic code. It might be relevant here to re-state again that the current painting labelled abstraction or post analogue painting, is perhaps in fact by default, part representation of the unseen digital/mathematical code generating our laptop screens and jpegs.
When Jaques Rancière, in his 2000 text The Politics of Aesthetics, outlined the notion that modernism had an overall anti-mimetic destiny that was later reversed by postmodernism, he outlines a series of paradigmatic shifts perhaps still now, looping. A new technology may bring with it a dream, that dream is of new ways of seeing, making and doing. Eventually, it seems those paradigms revert back, or they have at least twice in the last one hundred years. Perhaps what they revert back to are the all too messy, human mechanisms of understanding change. Again, there is an unspoken hint of the other or ‘others’, as though someone else, something else, is the designer of this world rather than I, Me, We. In the science fiction of The Matrix, Battlestar Gallactica, I Robot, Westworld etc. it was the humans who built the machines, the humans who designed their own enslavement and constructed their own doom. In the system reality thus far for us, it is the human driven need for profit, that in turn drives the machine and its algorithms to buy and sell, hedge profit, marginalise and offer us all the glow toys of reward like Facebook and of course Instagram.
Charley Peters paintings appear charged with a similar intensity to computer graphics or the user interface with all the analogue tricks and techniques available to the painter. Her paintings and collage, reliant on the inherent behaviour of wet analogue materials, are pushed and pulled, overlapped and juxtaposed, to stand in for, the code that creates them elsewhere. I have no idea of the code required to make a blur on my screen, or the programming that allows the overlap and opacity of a window with either text or image. But the overall effects of these technological phenomena and their analogue equivalent for this artist, are perhaps the way in which a part of contemporary reality is examined. The questions present in the title of the exhibition, namely, the others of code, are here in the work of Peters to consider. Peters’ code is that generated from a source of optical delight and fascination and a joy of painting.
Aaron Scheer disrupts and abuses the mathematic language of interface code direct at the source. His printer paintings and large format digital paintings rely directly on the post-analogue for physical production. Making the technology work directly for him in the production of digital paintings and prints, Aaron Scheer manipulates imaging software perhaps in order to re-think the trajectory of so called abstract painting. Sometimes with vague stylistic resemblance to the big hitters of that genre like Hans Hoffman or Jackson Pollock, the works glow with glitch, blur, wipe and miss registration. The printer paintings, often sent through a printer several times, are pushed and pulled as they go, to create diverging overlapping zones of colour, in a mechanical nod to overpainting on coloured grounds or glazing with translucent oil paint. More directly, the miss-use of the document maker to produce ‘other’ by pulling, ramming, shoving etc is perhaps a genius bastardisation.
The larger format digital paintings, sometimes constructed from degraded imagery from those found online or personal photographs, are bold in their apparent lackadaisical use of a blur tool, to disrupt the frenetic grounds of glitched information and data. If glitch is the representation of the kinks in bureaucratic systems, then Scheer’s works take that aesthetic to new formal heights. The mediation of what might be big data, how it appears to speed without disruption through phone cables across the planet is significant here. These digi paintings, printed with expensive ink on archival papers, are a testament to a reality that we as humans cannot always see. Of course, data is comprised of collections of numbers letters and symbols. We know we can take the code of a jpeg, write in some words of our own, and re-print, or re-screen a now corrupted image. What Scheer does here is take corruption of data and code further to, like Charley Peters, show us what part of the matrix actually looks like.
Painting inside the Matrix: Code and its Others then, attempts to ask some opening questions about our current raft of realities, what bounds and informs them and how coded response to control could be said to be prevalent in contemporary painting. Painting is sometimes notorious for its stuckism, in terms of taking decades to turn stylistically. What is exciting about the painting in this exhibition, perhaps due to its engagement with technology, is the new urgency, reflexivity and potential agency it is claiming. A proposal also suggested here is that late abstraction no longer functions as a wall of empty stylistic silence, but rather is crackling and alive with representational claims and connections to its source realities, via its various coded origins. Perhaps this was always the case.
Our matrix as outlined is of course the reality imposed by the dominant form of Neoliberal capitalism tinged with fascism that our culture exists within.
The others of code could be, as I have mentioned, the data flowing through cables, or the way in which paper and paint are proposed to stand in for forms of big data language and the bureaucratic reality that implies. Code to understand code and wet ways of decompressing information are also prevalent here. There is a reflexive response via process, making and doing in the work of the artists chosen for this exhibition, embodying that the others of code may also be the varied realities informing systematised approaches to the mediation of top-down reality into a new turn of contemporary painting.
Edinburgh, July 2018
Painting inside the Matrix: Code and its Others
DOK Artist Space
The Steel Shed, Ocean Terminal,
Ocean Drive, Edinburgh, EH6 6JJ
7th-14th July 2018