Nina Rodin>Writing> Thoughts on Painting




Thoughts on Painting

date > February 2013
publication > head to head exhibition catalogue

In the studio of one of London's last painting courses we wryly joked that for something that is dead, Painting is certainly exhibiting some curious symptoms. There is however no denying that we are past a point of no return with respect to an age of innocence where marks were yet to be invented and where merely letting paint do its stuff as a direct extension of the artist's thoughts and emotions was original and could be construed
as sincere. Navel-gazing painters who stick to the expressionist mark as one that represents emotion make me cringe with their naivety.Perhaps this is why a number of abstract painters feel ' up against the wall'. In 'La peinture est presque Abstraite', the existence of abstract painting seemed almost denied: all painting is representational, there is no such thing as painting that is just itself.(1) All painting is image, it cannot just be mark and process. Declaring yourself an abstract painter with brush and canvas today thus seems a stubborn act of defiance, a position, an attitude. How can you insist on invention within a medium that is but a series of quotes of gestures already performed by others? Every brush mark feels like an imitation of the marks of those that have come before me, every painting feels derivative. The notion of the hand of the artist as a value seems outdated: trying to invent a new mark for yourself seems like a desperately forced attempt at affirming difference. Whether you apply the paint through the intermediary of a joystick or an electric drill, I will be briefly amused but walk away shrugging my shoulders and wondering what the point is. If originality through touch is no longer possible, then why not simply exploit the amazing productivity of the digital image, where variations in colour and composition can be experimented with infinitely faster, then choose a form of mark making from the archives of history and send the whole project off to china where skilled craftmen can imitate the hand of any artist.

I would like to propose that the reason we painters keep banging our head against this wall that we feel pushed up against has something to do with touch. When I work on studies for my work using photography and photoshop, there comes a point where I am overtaken by a physical urge to return to the materiality of paint, an almost primeval desire for the visceral mess of pigment and binder. Though we have become more and more adept at talking about concept and form in our bejargonned statements, dig a little deeper and this infatuation with the damn stuff is what draws contemporary painters back to the coloured mud again and again. Talking to Nicole Hassler, a Geneva-based artist who produces
immaculate and conceptually tight monochrome panels with nail varnish or cosmetic foundation powders, I was relieved but not really surprised at her admission over tea in my studio that it was all very good, but she needed to get back to 'la matière'. (2)

I find that this urge is satisfied in equal measure when I actively paint or when I look at a painting but hardly at all or much less directly when I look at a reproduction,whether printed or digital. I believe this has something to do with the mirror neurons or empathy neurons - a subset of neurons in our brain which do not distinguish between self and other.(3) For example,
some fire in exactly the same way whether I move my hand or watch someone else make the same hand movement. Thus if I see someone
painting, there is a small part of my brain which feels exactly as if I was painting myself: touch by another is experienced like touch by myself. By
extension, I believe that when I look at Fiona Rae's latest paintings, the excitement I feel is to do with the illusion that I might have painted
them myself , the memory of an illusion of touch, and it is all I can do to stop myself running a hand over their surface.(4) By contrast, what the
images of the same paintings on a computer screen fail to convey, is a sense of the layers, the thickness of the paint. The image is physically
flat and does not engage our stereoscopic vision or our sense of touch. It starves it. And so there is no empathy, only detachment, a flat array of
pixels that sooner or later sends us scuttling out in search of physical presence, yearning for a communion with the painter through the thin surface of the canvas, the relief of standing in front of the real thing in a gallery and leaning in to its flimsy but real depth of surface, layers, time and labour, personal engagement and sincerity. No shortcut combination on the keyboard here: painting allows for no hurry, no impatience.

Painting can be skinned, crucified and disemboweled, burnt and dismembered. Emptied out of meaning to our heart's content. It survives
and remains relevant because we are animals who need to touch.

(1) La Peinture est presque abstraite, 2009, Les Presses du Reel, and artpulse magazine article by Claude Termin-Vergez

(2) Private conversation, January 2013. Images of her work can be seen at

(3) neurons_that_shaped_civilization.html

(4) Fiona Rae: New Paintings at Timothy Taylor Gallery, London, 18 January - 23 February 2013.