In an increasingly digital world, celebrations of painting as an important artistic conduit are becoming fewer and further between. But - as contemporary abstract painters and !GWAK members Jack Hardy, Shivani Khoshia and Poppy Vinciguerra show us - exciting, boundary-bending and subversive work in paint remains rife. By critically questioning how a medium, with such a textured and complicated history, might operate in contemporary spaces, and exploring the possibilties of assimilating a wall-bound piece into the artistic age of interactivity, Hardy, Khoshia and Vinciguerra show us that today is the most exciting time to be a painter.
MN: Declaring that both abstract and representational painting had “outlived their usefulness” in 1975, ARTFORUM published an inflammatory request for responses from painters to the following questions:
“What possibilities, not found elsewhere, does this medium offer you as an artist? What energies and ideas in painting strike you as worth attention, and why?”
How would you respond to these questions? Do you think the “utility” of a medium matters?
JH: There are so many ideas, energies and possibilities that painting offers me. I seem to learn more about the medium and the human experience each time I engage in a work. The fact that such a simple activity grants me answers to questions I can’t find anywhere else, and also raises questions in which I haven’t pondered before is infinitely valuable. One idea that is of particular value to me that I came across when I first started painting is that ‘there are no mistakes’ . When I feel I’ve made a mistake while painting, a ‘wrong’ brush stroke, or the whole piece just looks ‘wrong’, I remember to view the error as simply phenomena, and most of the time I end up with a better, more complete image. While this is very much a subjective thing, the more I follow this rule the more transparent certain moments become - in painting and in life. In a nutshell, painting has taught me that it’s all about perspective.
The utility in a medium definitely matters. In its utility, painting allows me the freedom of expression and equally benefits me by acting as a channel through which I can articulate my ideas and gain perspective. It is the key factor that distinguishes the art form from merely slapping paint on a canvas, and creating genuine art. If I actually do make ‘genuine art’ is a whole other question and it's totally subjective, but the feeling I get out of it is genuine for me, and that’s more than enough.
PV: An experience of colours and shapes, that are absent from reality, is made possible by abstract art and paintings. As an artist, I am drawn to this medium because it provides an escape from the pressures that come with trying to depict something that already exists in reality. It’s about being in the mindset that there are no mistakes, since I am working instinctually.
The simplicity of making a painting, for no other reason other than the experience of making it, comes most easily with abstract painting. In my own practice, I certainly enjoy arranging forms and colours into a composition that is rhythmic and balanced. I enjoy it for reasons I’m not sure that I entirely understand. It could be the fact that, through this medium, I become entirely absorbed in trying to satisfy a visual world that represents something intrinsically emotive. I try not to overthink it.
I don’t think that the utility of a medium matters at all, if you think it should have a purpose, then you’re defeating the point. In my own work, I tend to be more satisfied when I act spontaneously and instinctually without hesitation or distraction. I try not to question why I do things and just do them.
SK: Painting lends itself so easily to intimacy and immediacy. You can follow a feeling or thought with a single brush mark - it is so beautifully economical. My logic is, if I can feel closer to the work, others can too. I feel closer to painting than any other medium because I can be so direct in it.
For me, the most interesting thing about looking at a painting is that it reflects your own being, like a mirror. Through a painting, you can really look at yourself or experience yourself in a new way. Whatever it brings up for you is really just about you. A painting is as much as the person looking at it, but it is also a window to another human being: you can connect to the person behind the art work. Whatever the transformation they went through making it, you can move and transform with them. Being a tiny part of painting is an honour and a humbling experience, you are simultaneously connecting with the people that look at your paintings, the painters in our current time as well as those that have come before you.
Our time offers a wealth of different media to engage with and we all naturally gravitate towards certain media. I am, personally, more interested in how different media can flow into one other, and how the boundaries of one can question the boundaries of another. That way, the content of the art can be given more of a focus - how an artist can innovate within a medium and in between mediums can open doors for thinking about art and experiencing it.
MN: Situating this debate in a contemporary context might raise questions about how painting might function in an artistic age of interactivity. How do you engage with these contemporary ideas of immediacy and participation within the confined space of the canvas?
JH: Although we as a society are becoming more and more dependent on technology, and in turn the arts will inevitably become more virtual, I believe painting specifically will retain its cultural significance as it is today. Its stillness carries novelty in the overstimulating efforts of modern technology. I think it will become an oasis from all the constant interactivity we are currently engulfed in. Painting will always have its place in the foundation of human identity.
SK: Looking at a painting requires a special kind of reading or interaction, a rare opportunity to slow down in a time where many things are competing for our attention. It can offer focus for contemplation. It can give the freedom to find another way to see, rather than solely relying on society to offer us explanations and narratives. Most paintings, it's true, you cannot literally touch and the 'hit' is not always immediate. The time is takes to deeply resonate with us can be long. However, I feel that paintings are incredibly interactive and dynamic. They are alive and vibrating with energy. When you look at a painting, a very dynamic process is happening. Our attention is giving the painting a life, a purpose. It is reflecting whatever we're projecting onto it but it is also breathing its own energy and changing us. The space of the canvas is genuinely an infinite realm, if the viewer can find the time to really discover it. It can be a life changing experience to sit in front of a painting for an hour. To see how you feel, what comes to mind, and meander into new inner spaces.
PV: I believe that people will always use painting as a way of self-expression, despite the many pressures of a constantly changing world that we find ourselves in. Therefore, I don’t think the adaptability of painting is important. The simplicity of picking up a paintbrush, dipping it in some paint and dragging it across a surface will never grow old. People will always find their own way of expressing themselves but I hope that people will pursue painting, regardless of anything else in the world that might change.
MN: How do we go about making painting more accessible, or flexible? How can we begin to de-elitise a medium that is understood to be rooted in tradition? How does a medium that has been so historically grouped and separated into schools of thought or characteristics function in a contemporary age where the multiplicity of art forms mean we do not have a definitive artistic style of the times?
PV: Moving away from trying to describe or categorise a creative behaviour, such as painting, will, in turn, open up the accessibility and flexibility of it. I think it’s important to have a background knowledge of the history of art and the origins of paintings, but equally important to let your knowledge inform, and not define, your art or intentions. Painting fits into this more contemporary idea of the fluidity of a concept. For example, the idea that you don’t necessarily need to use paint on a canvas to make a painting. I find it encouraging that painting is less definable now than it has been in the past, because it opens up the freeing possibility of other mediums and artistic styles being explored, while still maintaining a painterliness.
JH: Painting has started to take on a new form of tradition. Especially in recent years due to sites like Instagram, it’s really exciting to see the medium itself shed its skin and become something almost entirely new. You only have to look 50 years in the past to see how much painting has morphed and progressed. Painting has always been a medium that moves with the times, and in the best case it propels the times forward. So the way in which it will function in a contemporary age, is that it will do what it has always done - reflect and progress the times.
As for de-elitising the medium, I think the reason the art world has its elitist reputation is because of its novelty - only one person can own an original piece. This excuses the high prices, hence it being a luxury to own original, reputable art. In saying this, I believe art’s accessibility is how it should be, and will remain, certainly until other forms of owning artwork are introduced. I’m not sure if painting will ever be accessible to everyone especially compared to the long running reputation of art and the elite. But we are witnessing immense progression today - the fact that literally anyone can start a Instagram account and start putting their art out into the world broadens the horizons for contemporary emerging artists, collectors, curators and galleries worldwide.
I hope that the gap between what is paid for an emerging artist’s work to an established artist’s work becomes more narrow in the future. In an ideal world, art would be priced simply for its originality, significance, and beauty rather than the reputation behind the work. But because beauty is 100% subjective, there is no real way of pricing it. At least for now.
Not having a definitive artistic style of the times is wonderful. One thing that hinders artists is restrictions and conventions. We are moving from a collective style of the times that artists would follow, to times where the style of the individual is most important. Having boundless possibilities for what art is and where it might be going is incredibly liberating and exciting!
SK: It’s so important to help people connect to a painting, especially when it's abstract. It doesn’t need to be a definitive or illustrative guide. The artist needs to give enough so that the viewer can more easily surrender to it. Looking at a painting is more about experiencing something rather than completely understanding it, there's always some mystery which makes the looking process compelling. A painting can help us enter more deeply into our own soul, and help us walk into another's. We can feel an empowered sense of focus by really looking at something and owning our experience of it. A work of art always has multiple simultaneous meanings that cannot always be captured at the same time. Most of the time, we have to take a leap of faith, because the artist is showing another way to look and some surrender is necessary. I have a deep respect for the history of painting, but I've always wanted to trust my own experience as material for making art as well as engaging with topics that mean something to us universally. I hope that viewers can do the same, trust their own experience and 'be' with art. Paintings are incredibly flexible. They take on the myriad of feelings and forms that we bring whilst looking at it. Art history is proving to be flexible as well with new or forgotten artists continually being written into it. Without a current definitive art style, artists have more freedom than ever to bring whatever they like into the mix.
MN: Words and language seem to appear in all of your work. There are thematic elements of storytelling, mythology and spirituality in your work Shivani, and there are verbal fragments of thought in many of your paintings, Jack and Poppy. How does language collide with visual art, and why do you want to represent it?
JH: I find words beautiful in and of themselves and want to express that beauty the best I can. When I use words in my work it’s usually relative to something I’ve been experiencing at the time of painting, but I would say it is more so for the fact that language is beautiful in its own right - visually and symbolically. I use words to give the viewer a more dynamic experience with my art - to have words that correlate with the image but also to cause the viewer to fixate on the word itself - to hear the word in their mind, to understand and to feel it. Words are very intimate, and I use them almost as a tool to better connect the observer with the observed.
PV: I use words as images in a lot of my work. Recently, the inclusion of words and phrases in a work has been more about the lines and mark making that they aesthetically create, as well as their literal meaning. There is a frankness that comes with words in art; sometimes I find it necessary to be frank in my artistic expression, and other times I don’t. Usually, when I include words I’m saying exactly what I mean and feel. This can be good in getting a point directly across, but it does risk coming across unnecessarily blatant, when, perhaps, the visual imagery is enough alone. More frequently, I am finding that there are more effective ways to express or get across a feeling other than to literally write them in a piece. Using language in art is a risky business for myself, but when it’s done right it can be incredibly emotive. It’s also quite cathartic in away.
A while back I made a painting called ‘2019’ where I photocopied every page of my private 2018 diary, and pasted them onto a large sheet of paper. I then begun to work over the top of the drunken diary entries, bad poems and shitty doodles with expressive explosions of paint and other mixed media. I felt vulnerable in showing my inner thoughts so obviously through the use of words in a painting. However, the process of bearing all that was once private felt extremely therapeutic.
SK: I really want my work to be as accessible as possible but making abstract art poses a challenge for transparency. I feel that abstraction offers me the right space to develop a more personal language but it's important to me to keep it open to those who wouldn't normally engage with it. I don't use language literally but the work refers to myths that people can relate to and although my interpretations can be wild, it gives an anchor. I'm not always present to explain the starting points of my work, so having this contextual info at hand helps with engagement: my use of less familiar parts of history and mythology may not be immediately apparent. At my shows, I really enjoy discussing the ideas and personal memories behind the work with people: discussing something meaningful helps me feel closer to people. However, the most beautiful thing about deeply connecting to a work of art is being able to go beyond language or to a pre-linguistic place, and this is more likely to occur in silence. Stories definitely give a way into that kind of space.
MN: What role does colour play in the process of your work?
JH: Colour plays such an integral part in my process. It really dictates the kind of image I create. Whatever my mind is reflecting or projecting is what I follow. It’s purely an intuitive thing. I treat painting as a venting mechanism - whatever colours I’m drawn to reflect my state of mind/emotions. The colours in my works are essentially the foundation - once they are down, I can then assess the next move. I rarely approach a painting knowing what path it will take. Colours help pave the way.
PV: I consider colour very carefully when I am working. It’s important for me to figure out the right colours to use for each painting. Usually, I’ll spend a lot of time mixing very specific and unnecessarily complicated colours before I’ve even stated a painting. I like colours that are rich and earthy. I tend to also be drawn to pastel colours that I’ve tried to keep vibrant. In my mind, there are colours that suit emotions; for example, there could be melancholic dirty pink, or a nostalgic duck egg blue. How I decide on what colours work best in a painting begins with how I’m feeling. How each colour looks beside one another can also be a deciding factor. I like colours to zing, but I also like them to cry.
SK: Every colour vibrates at a different frequency and I am interested in pulling those qualities out of colour. I find it fascinating that colour is actually light. So a blue object is actually absorbing all the colours of the light spectrum except for blue: it is reflecting blue light. I've basically set myself an impossible task of trying to make a physical painting glow! But that means there's always a challenge in terms of how to manipulate the paint as well as to approach my changing relationship to colour in more articulate ways. I think the human body 'produces' light and this is the source of colour in my paintings.
MN: In a recent interview with me, Poppy said “I think in a painterly way but this doesn’t mean I only make paintings...my work can become three dimensional and sculptural, but I’m always thinking about composition and colour”. There is also a very three dimensional element to your work Shivani, in your use of models, fabric hangings and manipulation of space. And in Jack’s, the layers of colour in “hoyas” and “different expressions of the same thing” have a very textured, three-dimensional feel. How does the interactions between sculptural or three dimensional thought and the two dimensional space of the canvas interact in your work?
PV: I am drawn to a painting or an artwork when it holds a presence in the room, and you can really imagine how the artist made it. The way in which I work often blurs the line between painting and sculpture. I can never be fully satisfied by painting solely on a flat canvas, which is why I like a lot of texture when I painting. I can’t escape the feeling that any painting which I’ve made flat on a canvas is nothing more than an image. I’m not saying this makes a bad painting - sometimes an image is all you need. But I definitely get more excitement when I’m building something with my hands. I’ll use recycled wood and other found objects and try and fit them together like a puzzle. I’ve also used stitching before as a way of expressing intimacy in a piece. I would describe most of my paintings as a collage of mixed media.
JH: I think that’s one reason painting is such a peculiar and unique medium; distorting and manipulating a two dimensional space into a three dimensional thing. It’s certainly something I’m still working on. To have the skill to articulate the three dimensional world around us, our thoughts and feelings - which I think are very much three or even four dimensional - and transfer it onto a two dimensional space is what makes great art, in my opinion. Not necessarily of appearing three dimensional, more so of feeling/exuding more than one or two dimensions. I believe an important role an artist plays is essentially to sieve down ideas and expressions for others to see and understand. To successfully create a painting that has come down through various levels of experience in its most pure form possible - that is one of my most ambitious goals as a painter.
SK: Most of my paintings are small, the size of my torso. I arrange these paintings over swathes of coloured fabric, reflecting the part of the light spectrum the painting emanates from. It also functions by more completely 'holding' the person standing in front of it. Across my work, different media influence each other, and it creates a fluidity across them. Sculptures are painted, paintings are built up sculpturally, and I use fabric in both a painterly and sculptural way to resemble tapestries. I want to create a kind of cocoon-like experience.
MN: What do you see in the future of painting?
PV: I see the future of painting continuing to grow expansive and diverse.
SK: I think the future of painting is exciting. Painting will naturally grow and adapt to its environment as it always has: it will always be compelling for humans. It's not just a painting we're engaging with, we're also looking into painting's rich history.
JH: I can see the future of painting, and art as a whole, continuing to be the driving force in which we conduct our lives and articulate what it means to be human. Just as the first humans recorded were painting on cave walls, to the Ancient Egyptians and their transcendent art, to Rembrandt, Picasso, Basquiat, and today, painting and art will always be what we turn to for solace and understanding. I believe that a thirst for beauty and aesthetics rests in every human being, and in a quest for beauty and knowledge, peace, self-realisation and truth flourish and hence gives us a deep sense of meaning and purpose.