by Sue Hubbard
Simon Ling, Untitled, 2012
Painting has now been declared dead more times than the proverbial cat with nine lives. Yet it refuses to lie down quietly and expire, unprepared to hand over the aesthetic reins entirely to competing visual art forms. Painting Now at Tate Britain aims to give wider exposure to five-British born artists. The exhibition in no way claims to be representative of any particular movement, nor is it an overarching survey. As one of the show's curators, Andrew Wilson, claimed: “Painting is a many-headed beast, and we could have made the show with five other artists or ten or twenty”. Seemingly diverse, what these five all share is a concern with the language of painting itself. This takes place against the debate begun in the 1970s, which suggested that painting had little new to say in the wake of film, photography and installation.
Yet the traditions of painting go back to the cave. To draw and paint, to make marks, has long been a definition of what it means to be human. Yet within the arena of modernism painting became not so much a window onto the world or the soul – concerned with philosophical questions about origins and meaning – but a solipsistic investigation of its own forms and processes.
The exhibition starts with Tomma Abts, winner of the 2006 Turner Prize, and includes work by Simon Ling, Lucy McKenzie, Gillian Carnegie and Catherine Story. An air of quietude and restraint runs through the galleries. The arena in which these artists allow themselves to operate is tight and constrained. The works don't suggest subterranean depths or passions. They are concerned with observation, technique and the distillation of composition. Measured and academic, they are intelligent, thoughtful and cold.
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When Henry Moore's sculptures were first displayed, they were considered so shocking, says the art historian Hilary Spurling that opponents not only daubed them with paint but decapitated them. Yet during the 20th century Moore’s work became so ubiquitous within the public domain that familiarity bred a benign contempt. From Harlow New Town to Hampstead Heath, from the UNESCO building to the Lincoln Centre every new ‘modern’ public building had to have its signature Moore. Nowadays there is a tendency to see him as an avuncular Yorkshire man, with an ee-by-gum accent, who made sculptures with holes in the middle that became the easy and acceptable face of modern art, much lampooned in the cartoons of the late lamented satirical magazine Punch. How did this shift from earthy radical to the country’s artistic maiden aunt come about? A revaluation of Moore’s work at Tate Britain attempts to redress this balance.
It is hard for those born in the last 30 years, who have lived through the technological change and economic prosperity of the Thatcher and Blair years, to imagine a post war Britain; grey and ground down by bombing and rationing, a mono-cultural society where white skins predominated, the class system prevailed and poverty was, for many, a daily reality. Divorce was rare, sex outside marriage kept secret and homosexuality a criminal offence. After all, according to Philip Larkin, who was then a young poet:
''Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me) —
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.'' (1)
This was a country where the food was bad, central heating unknown and, as the wonderful painter the late Prunella Clough once told me, no one was much interested in ‘modern art’, so that a black and white photograph of a Korean pot on the front of The Studio magazine was considered rather bold. Moore’s gently rounded female forms; his family groups, mothers and children abstracted from natural shapes – rocks, pebbles and bones – can all too easily seem to us, now, as they sit in their city centres and sculpture parks, as easy, undemanding and quintessentially English. Pastiche examples of his work abound in every little St. Ives craft shop and gallery. And yet this exhibition reveals a Moore who is darker, edgier and altogether more radical than these seemingly familiar images would suggest.
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