Painting, More Painting: A show more about power than paint

Photo of inside of Painting more Painting exhibition

The curators at ACCA need to get out more. Painting, more painting, purportedly an overview of contemporary Australian painting, constructs a narrative not about painting but about power in our publicly funded galleries.

This curatorial high priesthood has put together their version of the canon, and it’s a very narrow one. The unrepresentative swill (with thanks to P. Keating) exhibited in Painting, more painting is the result. Predictably, like the joke about Catholics in heaven, the conceptualists are pretending that there is no one else here. This narrative hegemony amounts to a concealment of the real status of painting – tantamount to government censorship.

Within the crouching corten steel behemoth which is ACCA, you walk into a vaulted space in which the walls and ceiling are entirely covered in a black and white geometrical design. On this searing backdrop, the works in the first section are hung. The person who dreamed this up must have the sensibility of a rhinoceros’ hide. To look at paintings on these walls is like trying to hear a melody whilst listening to African drumming. There is an explanation of this ‘architecturally scaled wall painting’. Apparently it ‘suggests patterns of connection and dialogue’ between the works, the artists, history, and aesthetics. Perhaps the curators were afraid the actual paintings were a bit underwhelming, so they jazzed up the room a bit.

This show is structured in two parts, a group section (one work per artist) and a ‘solo’ section where seven more artists get a bit more room to themselves. The show’s format will be repeated next month with a second exhibition to include more artists. Lest you hope for a broader survey in the second incarnation, I would point out that the show is grouped alphabetically by artist names; currently showing is A to M.

It’s hard to make a show about painting when you are deeply enmeshed in the late twentieth century aversion to aesthetic form. Paint is sensual stuff. Pictures are things one can fall in love with. Conceptual art held form as secondary to idea, and painting was declared dead. And now they want to be friends? The ennui suggested by the title of this show is telling: not this stuff again. These artists are making paintings, but most seem unconvinced about the medium.

These inert pictures might be more accessible had there been a catalogue available, but it will not appear until the second exhibition. This is no help to the stranded viewer and does no justice to the artists. Despite this appalling hang and curatorial neglect, both Helen Maudsley’s and Travis MacDonald’s pictures are engaging. Juan Davila’s Being in the World  stands out even in this company as trite and shallow. The ‘solo’ part of the show, where each artist has a short statement and several works are included is easier to read. Alas, it’s not much more rewarding, as the practice of painting is presented as a singular mode; a ‘force for social critique’ and the usual conceptual suspects are revisited, with little in the way of form to engage either eye or mind. An exception to this is the poetic bark paintings of Nyapanyapa Yunupingu which are a delight. The woven painterly marks in subtle white paint on bark supports appear to float and shimmer, imparting a sense of life to these simple material forms.

The real problem is not that ACCA is showing uninteresting work, you may be aware that that does occur. But very high quality, diverse kinds of paintings are being made in Australia, and from this show which purports to provide an authoritative overview, you would never know. Tertiary institutions, whilst divided about the merits of painting, have had their champions of the medium and have produced very talented and well equipped artists. Landscape painting is a vital force, as the upcoming John Leslie Art Prize demonstrates (opening Sept 2nd and with a comprehensive catalogue) with 49 works selected from 426 entries. However not a single work in Painting, more painting , with the possible exception of Melville Island artist Timothy Cook’s Kulama or Nyarapayi Giles’ Wamaurrungu, deals with landscape either abstract, realist, imaginary or symbolic. Given that in Australia our lives are so conditioned and mediated by our geography, this is an extraordinary omission. As Tim Winton so eloquently writes in his Island Home

“Space was my primary inheritance. I was formed by gaps…I’m part of a thin and porous human culture through which the land slants in, seen or felt, at every angle…And over it all, an impossibly open sky, dwarfing everything.”

ACCA is our institution and we should demand more from it than this restricted diet of pseudo-intellectual mush.

Alexandra Sasse

Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Chapter 1: 30 JULY–28 AUGUST 2016, Chapter 2: 2–25 SEPTEMBER 2016