Douglas Gimberg, Painting
I do not identify as a painter, although it does form an integral part of my practice as an artist and especially as a teacher. Because of the long and particular history that painting has within and beyond the canon of western art, it is very difficult to escape referentiality, and which I have instead chosen to embrace. This is partly as an extension of my teaching but also as a valuable tangent to my sculptural work.
In sculpture, which is a far broader category (materially and formally), the ability to work from a point of first principles is significantly greater, whereas the aforementioned history of painting, makes it is far easier to 'stand on the shoulders of giants'. This forms a valuable part of the longstanding question "why paint?", as does the fact that there is a significant point of intersection between the two disciplines in the problem of 'space', as well as the inherently deceptive character of art-making (these two being particularly concentrated in the art of painting, and taking more of a back seat in sculpture).
While each of the series of paintings presented below address themselves to specific problems 'out there', a part of them always refer directly back to the wonderfully absurd art of painting itself.
Because, basically, one looks like an idiot when one writes, I mean in the reading of the writing, not in the act of writing (although perhaps then too) I have decided to write, and to present that writing for you to read. I am writing about some paintings, to further discourage you from thinking, to further encourage you to think, and to challenge you to think.
“… because it’s a more direct sort of expression: you only have a pen and paper in between you and what you are in your essence” - Werner Herzog
So, starting in the beginning of the middle of the beginning: we have the above series of paintings by Gerhard Richter from 1965 . Of toilet paper. But in their evocative, shifting surface and colourlessness, they address themselves to the fact of Death: There is something about finitude and life and light in the way the paper hangs there, framed by its shadow, and the knowledge of the limit: the end of the toilet paper, in which eventuality there will be only the middle grey of the wall and no coordinates by which to assess light or shadow. They are simultaneously “set in stone” by the unchanging fact of the painting, yet fugitive and transient in their blurriness. That’s even before we consider their relation to excretion, which has the same invisibility that death does in the Western world-view.
For my first Paintings addressed to painting (Painting, Also Painting, Also Also Painting, Also Also Also Painting pictured first) I used the studio dustbins as the vessel for my subject. There is the puerile approximation of “painting” with “rubbish”, present in the choice of title. That is something of a ruse, defeated by the painting itself, by its obstinacy: the voice cannot unspeak itself. In the painting, and beyond the scope of its historical reference (which begins with Courbet’s radical act of addressing the form of painting to those subjects which society of the time deemed unworthy, and which found in Morandi's countless modest renderings of stupid vessels it’s incontestable pinnacle), what we have finally at work in the painting-as-still-life is a parasitic relation to the represented forms: the bins become not-themselves. The bins are certified as an object worthy of a purely aesthetic engagement, as opposed to their functional and utilitarian materiality. The bins as ‘encountered’ are henceforth encountered via the aesthetic consideration of the paintings: so the paintings have stolen the as of yet unknown or unthought pure encounter with the object in its being-as-functional. The spectre of the painting appears now always between the bin and the observer/subject.
But in the first sentence of this paragraph I said that the “dustbins are the vessel for my subject”. When we see the paintings, it is somehow not the bin which comes to mind, the bins are always-already Subjects. In the inherent narcissism of the observer and our understanding of the inherent narcissism of the painter, we know immediately that the bins-as-painted are anthropomorphic. We interpret their relations as human; the tilt of their handles; their lids and bags; their differences in colour; their backs against the wall; their relation to each other and the minimally formalised environment and finally; their relation to Art. The paintings address themselves to death and human interaction or relationships on a zero level, exploiting the bins as bins and the materiality of painting and its cultural signification. They are nihilistic, if in a rather celebratory and delightfully crafty way, a nihilism not quite circumvented by the saturation of the bin with aesthetic and symbolic potential. This is invigorating, and a declaration of the enormous power of painting as a craft: the bin is now first and foremost a vessel for Painting.
Following in the trajectory set out by these Paintings, I produced a number of paintings of the toilet rolls: Painting, Allegory; Painting, Functional Aesthetics; Painting, Ivory Towers; Painting, Egalitatrian (I – XI). In the spirit of these white egalitarian paintings, I simultaneously produced the first of my Wall paintings: Wall, Painting; Figurative Painting and; Painting, Overview or, Schopenhauer's still life.
Painting, Egalitarian I-X, 2015
The first one, Painting, Allegory, addresses itself directly to Gerhard Richter, but is not without criticism and compliment. Firstly, the perspective is from the toilet, and it was in fact painted ‘from life’ - on the toilet. This is a kind of challenge: Richter takes the object but raises it to eye level, and in so doing removes a very bodily context, in favour of the spiritual contemplation of the aforementioned finitude. Secondly we have the cheap white tiles and built in, ‘municipal’ roll holder: this is clearly the third world, there has been a serious depreciation or dilapidation of circumstances, no doubt affirmed by the definite depreciation in quality of craftsmanship from his majestic renditions. This is painting now. Finally we have the material/ bodily situation forced into an immediate extreme by the fact that “Oh Shit! There’s only one piece of paper left on the fucking roll!” This is a realisation that only has meaning when it comes too late.
Need I mention that Richter’s and mine are both paintings by men? Men obviously have a slightly different relationship to toilet paper than women, which is simultaneously more benign and more catastrophic, and which in that sense covers a far wider scope of human experience, or can be engaged to do so metaphorically to a greater degree: covering the fair-to-middling, the repulsive, and the calamitous. So the bodily eventuality of death is brought to the fore (by the single sheet and also by the hard light and clinical situation, that of ‘easy-to-clean’ surfaces), all of which tacked like the donkey’s tail onto the historical art of painting (by the title).
Painting, Allegory delineates a particular terrain, and all the other “white paintings” on the show (NOT QUITE WHITE PAINTINGS, 2016) navigate in that terrain, or skirt around it and the terrain first delineated by those earlier paintings of the bins.
Painting, Egalitarian I – XI, advance and illustrate various relations (in the anthropomorphic sense) with the further mediation by light and shadow, and to which the objects are made subservient: they are vessels for the light that shines on things in space. But not just on any things. In this series, in which the rolls are not in their natural habitat, and which are now removed from a traditional perspective of encounter, there is another level of deprivation of the original object’s being. The paintings are now of things that have their closest approximation ‘in-the-world’ not to toilet rolls, but rather to sculptures that look like toilet rolls: they are presented in the whiteness and artificiality of light of the gallery space, and the paintings stand as documents of their occupying that space and their inter-relations, and not merely as representations of a familiar and everyday form (which as demonstrated in the first Paintings are always-already destructive of the actual being of the object exploited in the painting). The limits of the surface are tested compositionally to question its capacity to represent “a world” and to discern the effect that the limits of the surface have on the reading of the object/subject thereon.
Against the paintings of the bins, and Richter’s toilet rolls, the Egalitarian paintings are direct assertions of life and interactivity of subjects and the world, with a critique of consuerism present in the reference to Wayne Thiebaud's remarkable cake paintings.
In the case of the Wall paintings, the goal was to connect not with a everyday subject but rather to take the reified activity of easel painting and address it to the other kind of painting which is much more commonplace in terms of peoples experience: that of painting walls. The challenge with all art making is how to take the discoveries and processes from the exotic environment of the studio and make them relevant to "the real world", to connect with, grow and challenge people's experiences in real life, so to speak. Because of the familiarity of painting and its primary status as that of commodity as opposed to cultural artefact, it is a particularly challenging medium in which to achieve anything at all, and this series rests on a Marx Brothers style misunderstanding of how to speak broadly and truthfully from an incontestable foundation!
Wall Paintings, 2015/16
Hopefully this writing has stolen from the paintings in exactly the way that the paintings stole from those vessels victimised for the sake of their supposed subjects.
So, a certain logical process has been outlined: that of the two previous series’, and the next works are extensions of that logic, once again exploiting a familiar, utilitarian and minimally objectionable-though-convenient object, one that has already suffered under the yoke of painting and which will be made to suffer under that yoke further - to the point, one might argue, that they it too might be thought of as human (because suffering understood as such, is a privilege reserved for humans). The aim will be to shine a dim light into the history and operation of painting overlooked by the previous two series of paintings, and for which purposes I will be dragging Stella and Rothko through the mud. In a modesty nowhere to be found in this text, the paintings will be rather small, no doubt in proportion to their efficacy as regards the grand challenge which I have set out for them. The subject of my paintings will be Painting for Subjects, extended from my earlier projects and mediated by my understanding of the contributions to the artistic category of the aforementioned Stella and Rothko.
Painting, Painting and Painting, not painting
Painting Painting, Painting, not painting 2017
The canvas, as a vessel for the vast number conceptual, representational, sensible, and largely idiotic expressions of culture, is celebrated for some of its objective qualities. These are juxtaposed by another familiar and largely ignored object 'from the studio': the painting side-tables. Painting as a craft and activity is directed at some of the usually invisible objects that facilitate it. In all of these works the shadows have been given more attention than the objects which appear to cast them, and it is conspicuously only these that structure the 'natural' space of the composition. It is an antiquated but once relevant idea that light is the subject of all paintings, which is a stupid idea although as a perceptible rather than any other art form, variation and balance of tone is the primary mode of composition regardless of content.
A new questioning of painting as persistent-cultural-activity takes form in the history paintings.
The starting point is a misunderstanding/joke/trivialisation of what are called "rock paintings": looking a little further back than the longstanding western tradition of easel painting and reflecting on the beginnings of painting as such, of which there are examples that date back 60 - 70 thousand years. Rather than the mysterious paintings of figures, animals, patterns and hand prints that we associate with the words 'rock art' these paintings are instead observational renderings of stones, they aim to reflect on and honour the matter which acts as the ground for our trivial activities rather than cultural activities themselves. There is a political and cultural complexity in this project which will raise flags for critics of painting in the arena of postcolonial discourse. On the technical front these paintings (oil on board) explore the wide gamut of traditional Western easel painting, exploiting chiaroscuro, colour temperature, impasto, al a prima and glazing and the categories of portraiture, still life and landscape in terms of theme. These are the paintings of a gravely mistaken African.
I recall a distant conversation with Dan Halter in which he spoke about his youth in Zimbabwe and his enduring surprise at why, horrified by the extremes of economic inequality, the poor did not simply pick up rocks and smash the possessions of the rich.
These stones that I painted range in age from 180 to 550 million years old, all of them collected in Southern Africa, and somewhat older than the world in which painting has meaning, and are presented floating in an ambiguous, dark, space which invokes that of celestial bodies. They hang at roughly head-height. This series is the first to connect my sculptural practice to that of my painting.