Wednesday, April 14, 2010

In Defense of a Painter

Don Kimes

I spent the past weekend defending a former student who is in a tenure battle. She is a painter, and a good one. And also a good teacher. But one line in the explanation of her tenure denial awakened that slow burning desire to do battle with Philistines in emperor's clothing, whether they be in the guise of the academy or the art world. That line suggested the need to "question the relevance of painting in the 21st century". So let's talk about the trendy and the perennial, the ephemeral and the enduring, in terms of relevance to the 21st century:

The large majority of all art students nationally begin as painting/drawing students, regardless of where they emerge (and the reality is that many, if not most, also remain painters). Over more than three decades I have had occasion to defend painting in contexts ranging from 1970’s conceptual art movements and subsequent deconstruction mania to the 90’s time based media/installation wave, and on to the art world's early 2000's (now over) digital craze. Every ten years or so a critic makes a reputation by declaring the “end of painting” (the art world loves to construct its firing squads in a circle) yet painting always seems to return. As my friend, the painter Audrey Ushenko, once said "Painting is like syphyllis. You think you've gotten rid of it, and then after awhile a little bit shows up, and then a little more, and all of a sudden there's a full blown outbreak all over again". In each of these periodic death of painting cycles it has been important for me as an artist to remember that, from the cave paintings at Lascaux to the most contemporary painting, the human race has been painting for more than 35,000 years - it's not going away and it can be short sighted to think otherwise. For instance, the digital world did not supplant painting as some thought it might - instead, among other things, it became part of painting, another tool just like the invention of canvas 500 years ago, or the camera obsura 400 years ago, or photography 150 years ago, or motion pictures a few decades later. The emergence of these new media didn't end painting but instead ultimately provided additional tools. Painting affected them as much as they changed painting. Several years ago I went through the third such "end of painting" cycle in my own lifetime. It’s important to recognize that in each of these cycles a number of well intentioned programs in various art schools and universities jumped on the idea that painting was no longer really relevant and had been supplanted by some new conceptually driven enterprise or more experimental media, only to find themselves gradually sinking into the obscurity of the ordinary. This is not to deny the significance of new technologies. I don't believe for one second that if Leonardo were alive today he wouldn't be pushing the envelope to the maximum. But it is misdirected to embrace new media or new conceptions without retaining a strong base in painting and drawing. Painting is to be embraced at the core both to effectively understand that which is outside of (not beyond) painting with any sense of meaning, communicability, or purpose, as well as to for it’s own sake - sometimes 'it's own sake' is all that is needed. Understand that I am an artist who uses new technologies and who hasn't painted on canvas in any traditional sense in more than thirty years – painting is still at the core of the educational process for young art students, as well as for fully mature artists. Without a strong foundation, which is one of the roles that painting serves as students enter into their visual arts studies, nothing can be built.

As for the longevity of painting, every year for the past 17 years I have visited the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii. The walls, the frescoes, the remnants are magnificent. They have come to us from a culture that never saw a light bulb, let alone a computer terminal - a culture that never saw anyone travel faster than a horse could run, let alone traveled in a jetliner 5 miles above the earth across the Atlantic Ocean - yet the frescoes in Pompeii still talk to us across millennia. And while standing in the courtyard of this marvelous two thousand year old house I am always reminded that painting is painting. It is incapable of being threatened by the incredible access to technology available to some of us. Whatever has happened since the walls were painted doesn't do anything to diminish the walls. They still talk to us more than two thousand years later. Before the Romans there were the Etruscans. They painted frescoes on the walls of tombs. The Romans came and the Etruscans disappeared. Painting continued. The Romans built the Pompeii that we know, and they painted the frescoes on the walls in the Villa of the Mysteries. Vesuvius erupted and buried Pompeii. The Roman Empire rose and fell. Painting continued. It survived the Dark Ages and industrial revolution, world wars and how many other empires? How far has pictorial space "progressed" since the frescoes on the walls at the Villa of the Mysteries were painted? As I see it, the notion that technological innovation (from camera obscura to motion pictures, from conceptually driven theoretical constructs to the 21st century cyber-world) might somehow diminish the meaning of painting represents a kind of naive, self directed and simplistic arrogance. It is an arrogance based on either the inability to transcend, or the inability to accept one's own time. Art exists outside of time. The rest is only about time - or the compression of it.

Anyway, I do hope she get's tenure because I'm not sure that we have really progressed so much since those drawings on the walls of Lascaux first appeared.

Don Kimes is on faculty at American University.

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