Push’n Pull – Hans Hoffmann and July Talk. What the hell is Painting and Beyond?
In answer to “A question that really bothers me: Are you a social practice artist or a painter?"
In relation to the exhibition „The Forever now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World“ Peter Schjeldahl writes about an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, that it seems like „a futile effort to try to shoehorn painting back into a museum culture that has come to favor installation, performance, and conceptual and digital work.“ He ends his review by stating that „painting bleeds but can not heal“. So now, in his narrative painting has become a wounded body that does not heal...a leaking body, leaking fluids...
Weirdest doll in Weimar. 2014, 30 cm x 40 cm, oil on canvas.
I studied painting in New York. Mostly our classes were modelled on some version of the Bauhaus introductory courses. Painting was taught as a series of technical and formal exercises, to which one usually found ones-self attaching some sort of personal content. My teacher Robert Berlind was fond of saying: „The way to paint is to paint. The way to start painting is to paint. There is no other way.“ So there was no conceivable outside to painting for a painter in his mind, and after you diligently did nothing but paint for a few years, you went on to get your extraordinarily expensive MFA, and if things went well, (and pretty much everybody I studied with was convinced things would go very well for them, despite relatively stable statistics indicating that perhaps 10 percent of a class manages later to live of making artwork) - you would strike out and find some sort of signature painting style that would then carry you through the hierarchically arranged and well mapped out roster of significant galleries in New York City and like some, though it must be said, very, very, very few of my former classmates (as a matter of fact, I know of only one), you would spend your life producing slight variants of your signature style work and successfully sell these for enough money to support your hip and fascinating alternative and individualistic lifestyle. You would have a solo show at „your“ gallery every every two years and that was that, perhaps doing a little university teaching on the side, as more and more significant critics ended up reviewing your work, until finally, if you were lucky, smart and that good, seeing your work entombed and offered to eternity in the monumentalized museums for modern art dotting the nations of the world. That idea of painting was way too narrow for me. After witnessing September 11, 2001 in New York City, it seemed like world politics had caught up to me, and, so, after 11 years, I left this extraordinary and self absorbed city to see what else lay out there.
dolls, dolls, dolls (in Weimar) 80 x 60 cm, 2014
dolls, dolls, dolls (in Weimar) 2014 80 cm x 80 cm, oil on canvas.
Bunkerfon, 2017. Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 cm
I had opened my first and last show in Manhattan on September 3rd at Denise Bibro Gallery of that same year. My work was selected for this show with 3 others from 400 applicants based on images of the type above, Exit Rapunzel, or, above: Delilah, waiting. Oil on canvas, 2000.
Like so many of the students I later had the privilege to teach and mentor at Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, many of whom had been politically active in their own countries before coming to Bauhaus in Weimar, I had my doubts about whether the aforementioned sketched out Lebensentwurf. My thought was that there must be more to being an artist today than making attractive things by pushing and swishing paint on canvas in my studio for people who could afford them. Not that there is anything wrong with that. I just needed to see what else was possible, with painting, public art, art history... context... participation... and who got to participate, anyway? Who had the Deutungshoheit? Would what I understood to be painting survive these questions?
Elkins describes the shock of the slow pace experienced by scholars encountering materiality in an artist studio work. He says:
"Art historians who are new to the studio can find their minds racing like the engines of cars stuck in ice.“
„Slowness is painful. It follows that the experience causes anguish: nothing, it seems, is being learned, and no thought can find expression without being dragged through a purgatory of recalcitrant materials.
Studio art can become a kind of chronic, low level pain, where the mind is continuously chafing against something it can not have. Academic thinking – the running equations, the scintillating conversations – aim to be as free of that pain as possible.“
This is the view of an academic frustrated by material resistance and pretty much explains why he is not a practicing artist. For many of the students I have taught in Weimar, the beyond of painting has rather been about exploring its discipinary boundiaries not by foregrounding abstract thought, philisophy or art history but in public space, where there is arguably more environmental resistance and consequent slowness to be encountered than in the studio or exhibition space, spaces specifically set aside for art. So one could say the artists I have worked with have often sought out more resistance rather than less.
Instead of striying as far away from this moment of academic frustration, it is as if those of us looking for painting and beyond were willfully placed ourselves in revisiting this moment of a mind racing while being stuck in ice and over again when we work as artistic researchers. We are looking for this material resistance. We need it.
Painting locates the person doing the mark making in the here and now and then transmitts that physical embodied here and now in the form of a mark into the future, it becomes an actively created trace of a person engaging in a conversation on painting that is at least 30 000 years old – whether anybody ever will look at and mentally follow that mark making in the future or not.
Above, walking paths, some of which have become roads, on the island of Crete. Below, walkway on the former border between East and West in Berlin at Alexanderufer, from the Frauenklinik to Futurium We inscribed ourselves into memory and space in Walking from Weimar to Berlin, walking 267 km in 6 days in 2015.
It is as fundamental as walking, whereby the body, often in groups and repeatedly, when the same path is walked over and over again, through gravity inscribes itself into the ground it is walking on. It makes sense to revisit Pollock, who dripped and splattered and marked all over canvasses laying on the ground, before „civilizing“ his work by lifting it up and placing it on walls.
I recently witnessed an artist inscribing himself onto an exhibition wall in the form of a painting in the exhibition bodylandscapingtime, at ngbk that I initiated and curated. I wrote about it, and then read out loud at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, the following:
The wall painting consisted of rectangles of grey on slightly bluer grey, hand painted square corners where one could see the slight human quiver of the hand of the breathing, live artist. So at first it was a line that formed the space as we discussed how to arrange the painted parts of his body on the wall, considering perspective, for example, and how placing the skull up high would make it look very small. The artist transferred the measurements from his own body to the paper by using his hands to feel the length of his bones and then the width. For example the skull, he would use his forefinger and thumb to feel by touch the beginning where the bone above the upper jaw ended under the cartilage of the nose and his index finger to feel the edge of the ridge of his brow and then carry over that which he had touch felt – ertastet – that measurement onto the paper and make a mark. The drawing on the paper was in pencil and served to transfer to the wall the bones. There was a spot that reminded me of what painting was like. I saw it on day two or three of his painting process: he was there a full week, full time, and subsequently covered that spot that I had seen with more sharpness and at acrylic opacity, pushing the viewer back. That spot reminded me of the sound of the color and how it works together. Where the brush is more generally slathering, having a kind of wetness like when you push a sponge over a smooth surface and it leaks a bit and drips.
This material aspect is what has been neglected these past years of criticism, in my opinion.
I want to think about painting in terms of working with it’s material resistance rather than overriding or mastering it:
From Material resists Concept to Material Talks Back: How to listen, engage with and learn to ride the wave.
Sailing is a practice that works with the forces of nature, meeting, engaging with and when things go well, flexibly riding waves in response to changeable weather conditions, that is - working with the material resistances encountered. To me, it is all painting, whether I am fighting the powers that be with my fellow freedom fighter comrades or swishing some oily goo or other around on a more or less firmly stretched and prepped surface.
Within interdisciplinary projects, I see arts contradictory, messy and unwieldy permissiveness as a field of possibility, speculative knowledge and fantasy, wherein painting is a way of moving, thinking, mark making and finding traces that actively seeks out, engages with and learns to ride the waves of material resistance.
It grounds me and makes me happy and that is all there is to it.