I’m Painting; I’m Painting Again (essay) Andrew James Paterson
These are the first lyrics to one of my all-time favourite songs…..Artists Only, by David Byrne and Talking Heads. These lyrics are assertive… they are so show and tell, so much like an excited child to his her their parents or perhaps an introverted student to extroverted jocks and bullies.
Byrne’s lyric continues to proclaim that he is cleaning he’s cleaning again he’s cleaning his brain. Hmmm… that sounds too therapeutic for my taste… Too expressionist or like a bowel movement. But then there always have been cathartic overtones to the act of painting, and not only among expressionists not to mention neo-expressionists.
But I love the simultaneous glee and irony of the song’s initial proclamation. Look at me, I’m making something. I’m filling up available space with playful materials in such a playful manner. I am making use of available canvas, available or free space.
Video art, whatever that moniker might now connote, has not always been associated with painting. The medium and its materials have been more associated with television, with film, and even sculpture. Video has been exonerated and dismissed as an illegitimate bastard son of more traditional art forms or previously established media (or performance art). The video monitor does indeed resemble a television set, so surely video is a medium for electronic information communication and data?
Yes, but the monitor and now of course computer-provided frames are frames… available spaces or, dare one say, canvasses. Video is not necessarily a result or repository of performance; but it is a canvas available for performativity. Entering images into a frame is per formative, as is writing on a page or making a collage or even…. painting.
Even prior to developments in video editing, the medium was ripe for filling in the frames. Video documented performative actions including painting and these documentations became dare one say art objects in their own right. Of course animation found its way into the video-production lexicon; parallel and differently than with video’s cinematic cousin. But not all painterly video is by definition animation. The medium and its framing beg processes, whether edited or body-generated, of this image now becoming visible now it’s moving from here to there not its colour or colours transforming into these colours now the frame or dare I say the canvas becoming empty again and is this available for a fresh pattern or a different collage or a different singular colour. Wheeee…I’m painting and I’m painting again!
There has always been debate as to whether or not the relatively nascent video medium belonged in galleries and gallery systems. Was trying to fit into gallery systems, by comparing one’s work to traditional disciplines such as sculpture or painting, a cop-out, or a distraction from video’s essence as a form of television, which is an electronic medium for the purpose of communicating information across space and time? Well, video art (and video not particularly intended to be read as art) has occasionally infiltrated television and its systems, but only in isolated blips. And one must remember that there is video painting and then there is video painting. I personally think using video to approximate painterly landscapes whether Group of Seven or Turner or Peter Doig is also an isolated infiltration, although there are careers in such infiltrations. When I first laid eyes upon Iain Baxter’s television landscapes ¾ his squeaky landscape paintings on the faces of television monitors ¾ I cracked up and thought thank Christ somebody has finally done this. Now the joke has long made its point due to its multiplicity. The painting influenced video that I like tends to be about the act of filling the frame, about application(s) to canvas. Canvas is not only something one buys at an art supplies store to paint on; nor is it only a frame located above a Final Cut Pro or Premiere time-line to tweak images or sequences before dropping them into that time-line below.
Early video art did tend to explore formal properties of the material and medium as much as document events or performances. Arguably performance and material formalities merged in many early works and feedback, achieved by opening out cameras to fullest extent while pointing them at monitors so that images being recorded would break up and out into delirious abstraction. I think of Nam June Paik and the team of Woody and Steina Vasulka. The fetishization of feedback was indeed an early example of video painting…the process of forming images was as much the priority of feeding back as were any results or products. Early video feedback performances, with dancing videographers operating with or without live music, find themselves humorously yet lovingly echoed with the likes of Jeremy Bailey’s video painting performances.
In Video Painting 1.0, Bailey boasts that he is making painting redundant and that he can form images without needing a canvas - he is “liberated from the tyranny of the canvas“. . But of course he is being too literal regarding defining the word “canvas”. Bailey is a shark or entrepreneur hustling his new software which makes painting and its materials redundant, but he is also painting as in filling up a frame with self-documentation of himself filling up the frame. Except that his painting never does become completed. Bailey begins to form multi-coloured images but do they sustain? No, the performing post-painter painter sustains or remains or becomes a commodity or whatever. He as the performer is competing for space with his painting or action, and the performer of course wins.
Also intrinsic to the video medium from practically its inception are colour bars, which are there for people working in the broadcasting industry to check their colours for realistic
accuracy et cetera. But does what follows the colour-bars therefore become or need to be defined as television ¾ that popular medium supposedly dedicated to the dissemination of electronic information across time into space? Of course, not. Colour bars are there for the taking, for the manipulation as well as for colour-coding. Colour-bars exist to be rigorously and playfully activated, not to mention altered and stretched and inverted and perverted and many other subversive verbs.
John Baldessari’s 16mmfilm on video, Six Colorful Inside Jobs, is sort of an ur-text, a convergence point (or collision point) between the fine arts and video art. Baldessari, with the aid of stop-time editing, paints a small cubicle of a room in six different colours over six days. Monday Red, Tuesday Orange, Wednesday Yellow, Thursday Green, Friday Blue, and Saturday Violet. As there are only six colours in this rainbow, the seventh day Sunday is thus a day for rest or prayer or debauchery or another durational performance. The overhead surveillance camera watches the man painting, omits his own moving of the bucket so that now the bucket is here and not there in relation to the body, applying the contents of the bucket to all four walls and then the floor, and finally observes him exiting the room through a door without getting his feet wet and spoiling his masterpiece. Six days of painting are edited into a thirty-two and a few second long video document. “This work, which started as a performance/installation, integrates the artist as a comic figure faced with contemporary history 'that of American painting' and shifts his function toward that of a house painter.” The comic figure is of course a precursor of Jeremy Bailey’s techno geek who has invented a contraption to make painting and its brushes obsolete. And is Baldessari a house painter, or a purveyor of monochromatic colour paintings? (What are the differences and parallels between house-painters and artists?) This work has played both as installation and as a single-monitor piece in a variety of galleries; and relational art pieces have indeed been curated in response to the audience commitment or duration required in watching Baldessari’s seminal work. I also like the peculiarity of Baldessari’s title. Does “inside jobs” refer to house painting, or to subversion within an organization or institution itself?
Baldessari’s performance and film/video were of the nineteen-seventies, which were an analogue heyday. Now, even before the twenty-first century, video and film (which many claim to be interchangeable) have been overwhelmingly digitalized. Painting and drawing within frames or on “canvasses” does still go on, although not always as literally. The other works in this programme do not literally apply paint to a video or cinematic frame; but they do concern themselves with filling canvasses with selected or preferred colours and they are concerned with both re-contextualization of the factual and celebration of colour or artifice.
In Minimal Differences, artist Jean-Paul Kelly sets up a series of theatrical planes (or canvasses) which suggest receding space. Kelly sequences his drawings of socio-ecological images ¾ “pen-and-ink environments consisting of felled logs; barricades of tires and rubble; multiple planes of billowing smoke; massive garbage piles with swarming flies; impoverished neighbourhoods in the snow”. These are cartoon like-images but also the stuff of realistic craftsmanship and journalism. Kelly interrupts these black and white sequences with four recurring coloured figures: a blue square (or cube), a yellow triangle (or pyramid), a green circle (or sphere), and a red rectangle (or rectangular solid). These are superimposed onto a greyish background (not unlike Suprematist painting) and they are not at all connected to social draftsmanship but to geometry and also sculpture with depth removed. Kelly has set up a dialogue between social representation and abstraction, and these forces do not really compete for the frame but nevertheless their co-existence can never truly be a co-existence. Social representation, also known as social realism, was an omnipresent dictum that abstraction rebelled against. The CIA and other Cold War support for abstract expressionism against the tyranny of social realism is no secret.
Socially themed imagery has become for so many a lifestyle backdrop; and abstractionism (and minimalism) have always existed simultaneously in the worlds of fine and decorative art.
The omnipresence of social art and commentary of course extends to the evening and twenty-four hour news industries. Environmental disasters, labour unrest, and of course wars are for so many (too many?) background action or entertainment. In the case of war, individuals are expected to surrender their individualities when they join the military forces to serve higher ideals than their selves. So when individual soldiers or military recruits are killed, their deaths are expected. There is after all a war going on. In Stephen Andrews’ animation The Quick and The Dead, an American soldier trips over a dead Iraqi man in order to extinguish burning wreckage, or put out the fire. Tripping over a fallen soldier is just an occupational hazard, after all. But Andrews has been struck by these two individuals in this clip, which he downloaded and then broken down into component frames before rigorously re-drawing the images with coloured crayons. By drawing over window, Andrews achieves a broken borderline abstract half-tone effect. The artist’s practice in drawing, painting, and other media including animated videos has frequently dealt with borderlines between figurative and non-object, whether concerning HIV/AIDS, war, and memory in general. The fragmented image from the original newscast has been given an emotional resonance by virtue of its isolation and abstraction from its original form and context.
A different blend of figuration, abstraction and memory characterizes Christine Negus’s video Slit Me A River. Negus zeroes in on the tale of Bubbly Creek, a section of the Chicago River once polluted with animal entrails. Here is another mass of corpses lost to wars and predatory behaviour and other forces of nature and then taken for granted by, well, almost everybody on land. But Negus feels compelled to recreate the legendary or notorious river ¾ with a terrarium for her canvas ¾ as her voiceover recounts a perverted version of the story concerning how all the entrails got to be in the river to begin with. Negus is not reconstructing a memory for anything other than the perverse pleasure of seeing what the bloody hell the whole collage or assemblage would look like upon completion, and she delights in her process. This re-assembled contamination of course alternates between the non-objective and the hideously recognizable ¾ yet another tension between abstraction and brutal realism. Slit me a river, and please don’t cry one.
Karen Trask’s Painting With Pastels is painting, but not with paint and not on a standard canvas. The artist is not indoors but outdoors, with what appears to be a pastel crayon pencil sharpener she has positioned on top of a rock formation. She has three blue, two green and one white crayon, from which she allows shavings to fall onto the rock. Thus Trask is making an art in a public space; but she is not making an intervention or even particularly a site-specific statement of sorts. She is encouraging a material to fall onto the landscape canvas but this is nonchalantly oppositional to Pollock’s dripping or, for that matter, assertive graffiti art. Painting With Pastels is described by the artist as one in a series of “actions” ¾ this particular action or performance is “filmed in DUMBO, Brooklyn with a New York City skyline as background.” In her statement she refers to her art-making expectations. Is art-making synonymous with art-career? Is one visible briefly and then washed away? Or does a smart artist let other fools make the big splashes and statements, while persevering and positioning oneself at a strategic distance from the hyper-intensity of big art and big commerce? It is notable that the shavings from Trask’s pastels resemble chips. Let the chips fall where they may? Cashing in one’s chips?
Trask’s performative work barely leaves traces. The natural light seeping under the bridge is minimal. Barry Doupe’s Thale, by contrast, is indoors and exquisitively lit. . Thale is a rotating plant of gorgeously realized colours. The Thale Cress plant is commonly used in experiments involving biological mutation. Something natural or organic, in Doupe’s video, is both an indicator of healthy environment and also an example of committed aestheticism. Thale rotates and glows ¾ evoking modernist neon sculpture and then also sex toys The phenomenology of light and colour here meets up with fibre-optic floral arrangements. Doupe is of course working with sophisticated digital; technologies, but his results are as worthy of extended attention as a classic Brueghel or Van Gogh or, for that matter, a Mapplethorpe.
Jodi Mack’s Point de Gaze acquires its title from a specific type of Belgian lace. This work, which has been described as a spectral study, is about threading in addition to the lace it threads gossamer threads into an optical film. Mack’s images are of textiles or fabrics. Some fabrics (silk) encourage light while others (wool) block light. Mack shoots close-up… very close. Thus she homages and evokes predecessors such as Stan Brakhage’s and others’ hand-painted films But Mack’s frenzy is all her own. She recalls the flicker films of Paul Sharits and Tony Conrad while setting up frame as canvas and then using the entirety of the frame. The extreme close-up camera position accentuates the textile character of the images, which resemble non-objective painting but not exclusively. Some floral arrangements do enter the assemblage. I also think about rugs. What sort of rugs might John Baldessari decided to decorate his floors with after the paint had satisfactorily dried?.
Simon Payne’s Twice Over used layering of re-filmed video. Payne takes an original series or sequence of digitally-generated coloured rectangles. “The re-filmed layer and an original variation of it are then superimposed on themselves, so that the discrepancies between them generate a third element: differently coloured slender rectangles that judder between the main blocks of colour.” Because the artist has re-filmed his original sequence (with a hand-held camcorder) rather than copied it digitally, the texture and noise of the analogue decay is central to this work, differing it from many of Payne’s surlier computer-generated works. Payne begins with monochromatic frames, then proceeds to split-frames, then quadrangular, then superimposes monochromatic frames onto his quadrangles (frames within frames) and then concludes with mono-chromatics. He delights in bleeding occurring when colours playfully collide ¾ messiness is most definitely permitted. The effect is quite parallel to dripping, except that dripping occurs in “real” or per formative time and Payne’s performance is in his flickering editing. With flicker or any rapid-fire editing, the paint is always liquid as dryness is never an issue.
Video art ( now at least fifty years old) was frequently trumpeted as being a “new” art form separate from the fine arts and even the performing arts (despite its enthusiastic use by musicians as well as performance artists). There are of course parallels here with film, which was new and of the future upon inception despite its obviously being composite (aside from the material, of course). Video installed in galleries certainly referenced sculpture. And then there was always the matter of what exactly can be fit (or composed or designed or….painted) into that frame which certainly is that of a television monitor but which did not by definition host “television”. Video art emerged when television was still a relatively fresh possibility for many artists and activists, but that utopianism flickered out even well before the advent of The Internet and the world-wide web.
Painterly approaches to video art are at least as old as video feedback and artists making durational works concerning with filling their frames. Painting as a video art ghost medium certainly proceeded the introduction of colour. Artists referring to their video works as being “painterly” are not (necessarily) attempting museum respectability. They are simply describing their process of creating video frames, both singular and plural. I’m painting. I’m painting again and again and again. I’m a visual video artist, that’s what I do. Line, stroke, smudge, blotch, bleed and maybe even drip.
Andrew James Paterson is an interdisciplinary artist and curator working with video, film, performance, music, and painting.