Right from the title ‘Real Painting’ sets itself aside from other painting exhibitions, making the bold statement that these artworks are the real embodiment of contemporary painting. By establishing this exhibition as truly representative of contemporary painting, the artist curators , Deb Covell and Jo McGonigal, imply dissatisfaction with the state of contemporary painting in general. Painting has become somewhat unfashionable as an art form, yet the popular understanding of painting is much greater than of installation, performance or even sculpture, and it also remains far more saleable and collectable than other media. This dual state is informed by 20th century modes of thinking about painting - where an image is representative of something, even when it is ostensibly abstract - and it is this mode of thinking that Covell and McGonigal seek to redress.
In their own words, this exhibition does not consider “what a painting means, but what it ‘does’”. This is an exhibition of paintings that exist on their own terms, for their own sake, works that provide a physical presence and don’t just passively sit on a wall to be admired. One of the more established artists in the exhibition, 2010 Turner Prize-nominee Angela de la Cruz, notably contributes ‘Compressed 1 (White)’, a crumpled and distorted aluminium construction, painted in white. It’s an astonishing piece, jutting out from the wall, approaching the viewer’s space with its painful, angular form. By using metal, de la Cruz brings to mind car-crashes, and more large-scale damage and destruction, as compared to the more personal, cathartic destruction of her work using canvas, such as ‘Mini Nothing 9 (Pink)’, also exhibited here. Both pieces conform to de le Cruz’s consistent questioning of the barriers between painting and sculpture.
Alongside de la Cruz’s experiments with the nature of painting, Deb Covell experiments with paint itself with ‘Nowt to Summat’, in which a solid layer of white paint hangs from the ceiling in the centre of the gallery, dropping to the floor where it gathers and folds up on itself. It’s an impressive technical achievement, with the material detail of ‘acrylic paint’ listed nonchalantly alongside the artist’s name and artwork’s title, functioning almost as a deadpan punch-line to inform the viewer that this really is made only from paint.
Testing the limits of this exhibition’s goals, ‘Yellow Yellow’ from Jo McGonigal and ‘Piece’ from Adriano Costa function as opposites to Covell’s piece, as neither uses any actual paint. ‘Yellow Yellow’ is made from a t-shirt and a scarf, presented in their original colours, while ‘Piece’ is made from carpet. Both bring to mind larger questions about the nature of painting itself, if painting can move into the territory of sculpture as with de la Cruz, then can work move in the other direction? Can art that does not use any paint move into the territory of painting? Both pieces from McGonigal and Costa would suggest so, as they behave in the manner of paintings, they are isolated, individual artworks that are hung on a wall, ‘Yellow Yellow’ plays with colour, ‘Piece’ plays with texture in a way that paintings might, why should they not be included in a painting exhibition? ‘Real Painting’ encourages thought on broader topics - what is the value of labelling one work as painting and another as something else? And, even, what is the point of ‘painting’?