"If you make a painting with oil on canvas no one's going to question 'why is this oil on canvas?' If you make a painting that's menstrual blood on snake skin, now we're talking about the materials."
Quote-worthy moments such as this abounded last Saturday at the Torrance Art Museum where the current exhibition Paradox Maintenance Technicians served as a perfect backdrop to a panel discussion about contemporary painting and its place in Los Angeles. Panelists included Catlin Moore, Max Presneill, Christopher Pate, Grant Vetter, and moderator Jason Ramos. Kevin Appel was also listed as a participant but didn't make it, which was a bummer as he more than likely would have had some interesting thoughts to contribute.
|Kevin Appel, Salton Sea (Room 2), 2012, acrylic, oil, and UV cured ink on canvas over panel, 77 x 66 inches, at Paradox Maintenance Technicians|
Ramos structured the dialog around a few loose themes - the death of painting, the characteristics (if any) that define paintings made in Los Angeles, and the effects of the art market on painters and their work. A number of interesting questions came up organically during the discussion as well. What is a painters' painter? How have JPEG images affected the way people make and view paintings? In other words, it was a total painting geek out.
|Viewer looking at Tom LaDuke's, Long, silent drives, 2010, oil and acrylic on canvas over panel, 45 x 60 inches, in Paradox Maintenance Technicians|
|Tom LaDuke, Long, silent drives, detail|
"Death of painting? It absolutely died...right around the 80's," declared Vetter, a painter himself, among numerous other things. His view was a bit more nuanced then he first let on, however. He argued that painting, as it was known for most of modernity, was based on a very specific set of learned skills that took years to develop. This "esoteric knowledge" has been mainly lost as painters today are trained more in the discourses around painting than in its material practice. That, according to Vetter, is the death of painting. "It is, at the material level, a completely different age. It is, at the knowledge-base level, a completely different age," Vetter concluded. "Every painter that is alive right now is reinventing everything."
Presneill, Curator at the Torrance Art Museum, found the question regarding painting's death "ridiculous." He suggested that a more interesting discussion could be had concerning the differences between abstraction and figuration and why one is often seen as more progressive than the other, even today. That did indeed seem like an excellent topic, but unfortunately, it wasn't discussed further.
|HK Zamani, Untitled #10, 2011, oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches, in Paradox Maintenance Technicians|
|HK Zamani, Untitled # 10, detail|
Despite some disagreement about whether painting was dead as a medium (or whether that was even a relevant question anymore) all the panelists did seem to agree that a resurgence of painting was taking place today in Los Angeles and elsewhere.
"I think the reason why painting still makes this resurgence time and time again is because it really confirms our humanity in a unique way that no other material can," said Moore, Director at Mark Moore Gallery, Co-Director at 5790projects, and a writer with too many credits to list here. "In the end, we crave something that really has a human touch or a human element to it...I think that's a reason why Los Angeles specifically is moving the way that it is, simply because there are so many avenues and mediums that are diluting that experience. It seems natural to migrate back towards painting...in a society that is so technologically saturated."
|Matthew Choberka, I Wasn't Really Very Scared, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 90 x 84 inches, in Paradox Maintenance Technicians|
|Laura Krifka, Tyger! Tyger!, 2012, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches, in Paradox Maintenance Technicians|
|Sarah Awad, Saints and Thieves, 2012, oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches, in Paradox Maintenance Technicians|
One of the more interesting points in the discussion came when Ramos asked the panelists if they could detect a style or quality specific to paintings made in Los Angeles. According to Presneill, he may have been able to detect a specific style when he first moved to L.A. back in the 90's, but not any longer. He cited the massive influx of artists to Los Angeles as a main reason - a trend spurred by the growth of professional art schools, the availability of space, and the affordability relative to New York.
"I don't think you can detect a style because it's everyone from everywhere doing whatever the hell they want," said Presneill. "And I think that's a really good thing. The one thing, maybe, I can say about L.A. is that it values the intuitive. Even when a painting adopts a conceptual position it still values and has space for the intuitive without that being somehow deadening, which is how it might well have been seen in the past."
Both Moore and Vetter also cited the the availability of large, affordable studio space as having an impact on the artwork that gets made in Los Angeles. Moore, who does her share of studio visits, suggested that Los Angeles painters seem interested in narrative.
"It could just be the artists that I'm visiting but...I think L.A. has a certain fascination with the idea of the narrative and having a narrative quality to the painting that's being produced,"said Moore. "That could be as much a reaction to the entertainment industry as anything else."
Vetter pointed to "crazy plurality" in Los Angeles and the possibility that painting in L.A. is not as "intellectually overwrought."
|Aaron Smith, Deevie, 2012, detail|
|Summer Wheat, Dirty People, 2011, detail|
|Viewers at the Torrance Art Museum's exhibition Paradox Maintenance Technicians|
As mentioned above, the term "painters' painter" popped up a few times during the discussion, prompting Ramos to ask the panelists for their definitions of the term. The responses were relatively short but interesting, ranging from "any project that has the potential to be symbolically meaningful," to "Philip Guston," to "paintings that make me want to eat them." My favorite answer actually came from Ramos himself. "I like to look at paintings that look like they were made by someone who looks at paintings."
Paradox Maintenance Technicians: a comprehensive technical manual to contemporary painting from Los Angeles and beyond, is on view at the Torrance Art Museum through March 9th.
(Photo at top: installation shot of Paradox Maintenance Technicians at the Torrance Art Museum)