Painting isn’t dead.
I remember the excitement of starting art school. The huge, light filled studios, the smell of linseed oil, the noise of staple guns and eager students. The excitement of priming that first canvas, sitting through glorious lectures about the history and development of painting and the notable artists who shaped it. And oh, that first research topic decided upon, and sinking down into the library beanbag just behind stack A3000H-B5345C with a pile of hard backed, fully illustrated, fully coloured, art books.
Then, some time after that came this feeling of being ripped off. What? What is this about the death of painting? Who was this man who declared it’s end in the 1920’s?* Why was it that every book I read was about some hard-edged modernist painter coming to the conclusion that painting was finished, that everything had been painted, that we needn’t bother with easels and paint and canvas anymore? Que?
I didn’t quite know how to act during class. I found myself thinking, am I the only one here in the university painting department who knows that painting died in the twentieth century? I mean what are we all doing here? Someone should tell them.
Of course, painting didn’t actually die. It just sort of lost its hero status. It now shares the stage with a plethora of different artistic media, technology and methodologies. The fact that artist still paint in the face of all of that, however, is what’s truly remarkable. So painting is still relevant, and what’s more, it is now acceptable to paint things. Some of the most celebrated artists in recent history – such as Gerhard Richter, Vija Celmins and Marlene Dumas (more on them some other Monday!) – still paint and continue to push representational practice as something that can be both beautiful and conceptual.
Karin Mamma Andersson, a painter still working today in Stockholm, is one such artist challenging the bounds of figurative work, and she is as much an inspiration for me now as she was in art school. Nicknamed Mamma because she was a mother when she herself was starting out at university, her paintings began as landscapes inspired by the walks she took while pushing a pram. These broody, wintery scenes of birch trees and scraggy mountains immediately give her work geographical context, and you get the feeling that her paintings are very much tied to her own existence within the Nordic landscape. Woven through these scenes that sort of act as stages, she incorporates skewed domestic interiors, composed of odd angles and comped together like a haphazard collage. The figures within these frames appear like actors, hinting at some obscure or secret narrative.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about Mamma’s work is the surface, the way she applies the paint – in washes, poured, scraped, layered, pasted – the materiality of paint is the hero, and her work is a celebration of the medium. The off-kilter mood of the subject matter, the evocative, sad beauty of the landscape and the unexpected quality of the surface make these paintings extraordinary.