The following conversation took place alongside the development of Sticky and the catalogue essay, between March and June 2004. The artists respond directly to questions raised by this project, and to the place of their work in the world.


Anthony: Maybe I should start by being specific about my interest in Douglas Fogle’s ideas. After he introduces the concept of the ‘ontology of painting’, he goes on to pose the following questions: Is painting a mode of thought? Is there a philosophy of painting that extends beyond the confines of the medium? Where does the edge of the canvas end and the edge of the world begin? For me, as a writer/curator, these questions are useful. But does his framework have any use for you as artists?

Judy: I’ve been thinking for some time that much current painting is too troubled with its own materiality, defending its status as medium by becoming only medium. Then a few days ago I stumbled on Frank Stella voicing the same concerns about painting of the 1960s: ‘The crisis of abstraction,’ says Stella, ‘followed from its having become mired in the sense of its own materiality, the sense that the materials could and should dictate its nature. That’s not enough, and the belief that it was killing painting.’ Stella’s interest is the space in painting, its pictorial qualities: ‘Abstraction has to be made “real” in Picasso’s pictorial sense of the word, to the extent that the abstract image has to be infused with a physical pictorial presence. Abstraction has, in some curious sense, not to be abstract.’ Here we find answers to Fogle’s three questions. So I’m searching for a pictorial presence that breaks through pictorial boundaries to co-exist in everyday space, a mobile, ambiguous space that sets up pictorial drama. My work asks: ‘how can we redeploy composition, spatial structure and narrative form in contemporary painting?’

Sara: I think many of Frank Stella’s concerns are relevant here. I’m still pondering his challenges ‘to find out what painting is’ and ‘to find out how to make a painting’. If we’re not discussing the materiality of the medium then I’m not sure if I know what a painting is, and this is a place I find myself in at the moment. I call myself a painter but I don’t exactly know what a painter is supposed to do. But I’m not sure that painting is a mode of thought or a philosophy as Fogle suggests. There are philosophies that can be brought into discussions on and about painting, but I see it more as a position. How do I deal with being a painter? It’s not the reinvention of painting that I seek but an examination of its possibilities. For me, the questions I’m currently addressing are: How do we look at paintings when we look so much at computer screens? Or, how do I look at computer screens as a painter? I feel somehow caught between the two and the work at present seems to reflect this. I’ve been making a lot of wallbased works for the past four years as a way to blur the edge of the canvas and the edge of the world. These attempt to cast off painting’s object-ness by changing state from monumental paintings to small mounds of refuse.

Luise: I guess what I find interesting about Fogle’s ideas, in terms of the edge of the canvas/edge of the world, is where do they end/begin/touch? Do they? Should they? Perhaps we’re actually talking about the artist and the work rather than the world and painting. My painting and myself and/in the world are always closely entwined, sometimes uncomfortably so. It’s a relationship that changes all the time. It needs nurturing and time and energy. Sometimes we need time apart. I have been thinking lately also about the existential nature of painting and the other ‘traditional’ arts –sculpture perhaps – where the artist is seemingly creating ‘something’ out of ‘nothing’. Of course this isn’t true –we don’t start from nothing. I start from myself and my relationship with, or experience of, the world.

Bill: It seems that we’re fundamentally talking about belief. Not so much a belief in painting but a belief that it has some use value beyond commodity. The one thing that is glaringly obvious is that despite the bad press we all still paint. For myself the death of painting becomes a positive. Painting doesn’t feed into marketing, advertising and propaganda as easily as other media and it becomes a kind of bastion for the individual. It’s perhaps not so much a mode of thought but a scheme of thinking, not so much philosophy but a hypothetical structure. I see it as a tool. Its form and history are mapped and can be used to plot courses through ideas, concepts and aspects of the real. Where I differ from Judy is that painting as an object is a major starting point for me. This is not purely about materiality but includes the need to see painting as a construct derived from history as much as process. In many ways I side with Thierry de Duve’s notion of painting being a mirror, but not in a romantic context – more like the surveillance camera or web-cam.

Noel: I like the idea that the people in this show are known as painters, but we haven’t always felt that we’ve had to make all of our art via paint, i.e.we’re not always invested in sustaining or justifying the medium. As Judy points out via Stella, there are limitations when discussing painting within the parameters of materiality. The point that Fogle makes about the edge of the canvas and the edge of the world is useful, however we could argue that any artwork manifests and generates these boundaries. There is a lot of analysis of the specific properties of painting, its ‘framed-ness’, object-ness and links to physical labour. But I’m interested in self-parodic qualities within contemporary painting – not in an overtly ironic, generic po-mo way – more like a kind of slow-release parody. Paintings can and should primarily seduce a viewer and engage them via image, materials and/or pictorial space but they can also pose questions regarding the value and role of the painter today. The performative element of the ‘labour into object’ process is, in this case, able to be read as something double-edged in that it may add value but it may also be self defeating. Fogle’s earlier point about the possibility of a philosophy of painting is dubious in that it implies that some special form of painterly thought might be present as a narrative and/or discourse. Is painting a mode of thought? I’d like to think that art is and that painting is a useful way of making art.

Anthony: Okay, most of you have raised some concerns about Fogle’s questions. I’m interested in bringing Rohan in here, because Bill, Luise and Judy have all talked about a relationship to the real, to the everyday. Rohan explores ‘the real’ and ‘the object’ and ‘the belief in painting’ quite directly, but with a kind of stylised cynicism. For me, his show Albino addressed this directly, by mixing B-grade appropriation with an awareness of his place in the art-world post-Waikato. The visceral, faux-ritual aspects of the paintings were for me much more about painting’s history than cultural appropriation. It seems somehow like ‘fake’ painting, which, through some twisted logic becomes vibrant and fresh. Are Peter’s portraits similar? The latest ones seem subtler than his earlier works…

Rohan: Coming into this conversation is weird for me, because I don’t think I think about painting very much. But I do have painterly concerns. Obviously my process is all about building up paint. And there are rules, rules about what objects can come out of where, where I cut into them etc.I’ve also realised that some of my rules can be messed around with. The language I’ve created can always be added to, like how to deal with an opening or a nodule. For me, there’s this relationship between my paintings as objects, their relationship to the body and the way that paint can be used like flesh. The whole thing about materials is important, but it isn’t my main concern. I think of content as a means to produce a painting and I have always thought of my works as formal paintings with content. I don’t think that pure formal painting is enough. There needs to be something else driving it other than materials. The work is shifting in an interesting direction at the moment. I’m working on a new series of birth paintings. The work as I see it now is moving in and out, constantly fucking itself and giving birth, regenerating and fucking. With this, I see my relationship with paint as a kind of organic meat factory orgy.

Anthony: Hmm. Now that we’ve dealt with issues of materiality, I onder if your responses to Fogle represent another kind of ‘sticky situation’ for painting. It seems like his example illustrates that critics and curators are still ‘out of sync’ with what painters think they’re doing (note the wavering in my voice here). And the market is out of sync with both. Why is it that painting holds this weird position, where its market and critical values don’t match up? I have my own views, for instance, on the way Rohan’s and Judy’s works have been received, but some of you might have ideas about this painter-critic dealer ‘problem’.

Judy: It’s good to get beyond materiality. As for the new can of worms: obviously right now there is a market hungry for art product. This is having an extremely negative impact, reducing most discourse to the fluctuations of auction room graphs. Art is being seen to be either an inherently significant investigation calling for no justification or explanation extraneous to the investigation itself or worse still, a branding exercise for the nation: ‘abstract’ painting is suffering along with everything else from this unthinking consumption. Abstract art will never be fully autonomous. So the burning question then becomes: how can abstraction live with this realisation? One way it can is to admit in caricature – a caricature that embraces everyday associations and recognisable sparks of life. I think exaggeration and distortion are always present to some degree in the artifice of painting, but has somehow been denied in a great deal of abstraction. It’s this that I look for in the work of others, strive for in my own work, and is the primary source of enjoyment for me in Rohan’s work. Anyone who gets either incensed or excited by Rohan’s content is simply missing this point.

Bill:
Thanks Judy, for making me remember that some of us have already been through a similar debate before and we perhaps are getting sucked back into a death of painting rhetoric. Autonomy, ownership and content have been constant concerns in my work and it is interesting to see a new generation having to deal with the same problems. Is this the continuous conundrum of painting, or have my generation let them down? I fear in some ways we’re steering away from painting by bringing in the market but in many ways it brings in a timely piece of reality. Our work gets consumed by buyers, curators, writers. No one in this show is a market virgin, and I have always been struck by the overwhelming involvement of commercial galleries in the development of artists’ careers in New Zealand. Also, there still seems to be an environment of institutional formalism here. Would we be doing this show in Europe at this time? It worries me that we’re still trying to justify what we do. For me, using painting not so much as caricature but as analytic response allows me some autonomy. I think about painting as an object and try to dissect its incumbent values. Perhaps it can only be an object. For me the question is: how can I use these givens?

Anthony: Bill, I disagree to the extent that I don’t think this is an attempt to justify what you do as painters, because I get the sense that all of you, on some level, acknowledge the uselessness of your actions. Because after all, you’re all still painting, where others have switched codes. So I like to see what you do as a kind of suspicion of the way you’re viewed and received a performance, which, as you rightly point out, is often missed because of an attitude of ‘institutional formalism’. To me, this is the way in which many of your works become ‘content-driven’.

Sara: One of the nicest responses I have heard to the art market popularity polls was that Ralph Hotere was planning to write a book on cricket (or was it a weekly column?), with graphs predicting upcoming test results. Whether this is rumour, fact, fiction, fantasy or humour there seems to be aspects here of what we’re discussing. Over the course of a Queens Birthday weekend spent in Dunedin, painting’s position seemed to fall into place for me: A party with a room full of Hoteres (for sale), disco balls and blaring 80s music; a toilet with a 1998 issue of Like magazine discussing the predicament of painting now; a curator working on a Jeffrey Harris retrospective; a bag made from a canvas painting with barbed wire handles; a painting session with a two year old; a flight spent thinking about painting’s market and critical value; an encounter with a Frances Hodgkins painting at the Hocken; a trip to Gore to coincide with a Rita Angus lecture and country music festival… Perhaps I’m idealistic about painting’s position. This may be a mode of survival, or maybe it’s just Dunedin. For me though, painting is something fluid. What all your comments bring up for me is that painting isn’t static and this is what engages me with it. Its situation, its perception and its market value constantly push me around and deny me a comfortable position to work from.

Noel: Maybe I’m misreading Judy’s definition of caricature but there seems to be in this ‘carrying’ the potential to read content as separate from the material of the object. That is to say the content is ‘carried’ by the object, which is positioned as a vehicle. I’m interested in the way that any object which is submitted to some kind of scrutiny, painted or otherwise, is in itself the content as much as a carrier of content. This is an important distinction for me. As for ‘sparks of life’ I have to admit to being attracted to sparks of death, to a kind of ‘vanitas’ still-life approach. I find Dutch seventeenth-century painting interesting for the way there seemed to be a market for a product that was attractive to its ‘viewership’, but the work also contained commentary on the superficiality and transience of both the art object and the desire for it. So I get concerned about perceived binaries between ‘the market’ (via dealer galleries and auction rooms) and a kind of ‘vanguard’ perception of the possibilities via public institutions. I feel that Anthony’s comment about us still painting while others have switched codes is really relevant as it seems that we may be saying something within our work about knowing the implausibility of chasing a vanguard position while painting. This may sound defeatist, but I think it speaks of an awareness that all artworks are consumed by an art market of some kind. Here comes the scary bit:

autism (n.) Abnormal absorption in fantasy, delusions etc. accompanied by withdrawal from reality; a disorder of mental development marked by a lack of social communication and inability to form relationships.

I’m not saying we should all ‘out’ ourselves as autistic and I’m sure you’ll all think this is relevant only to dangerous obsessives like myself. But to me the lot of painting is that we think (possibly abnormally fantasise) about how it might connect with the world via processes that are solitary and products that are removed from a broad social discourse. This isn’t a failure of painting – I just think that it’s interesting if the painting contains some comment on this removal. The points in the above definition that I would contest are that we don’t necessarily withdraw from reality as much as acknowledge the role of fantasy within the reality of artmaking. As for ‘forming relationships’ I think we do, usually accidentally, which are like consensual agreements between our work and curators, clients, dealers. I think that in these relationships the works act as objects of fantasy and projection for both parties – maker and viewer.