Lisa Brice, “Smoke and Mirrors”, 2020, courtesy of the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery painting
It’s always exciting when an institution like the Hayward puts on a major show of painting. Any attempt to categorise Western art’s oldest and most prevalent medium is always met with the same questions: is painting dead? What do these artists reveal about contemporary culture? The Hayward Gallery’s recently-opened exhibition Mixing It Up: Painting Today, running until 12 December, invites just such questions.
Other notable exhibitions which catalogued contemporary painting recently include Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millennium at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2020 and the Hayward’s Slow Painting in 2019. Both exhibitions went further than cataloguing, aiming to give painting a purpose. Radical Figures examined bodies, both political and social, to show that, in an era of identity politics, figurative painting was best placed to make sense of issues such as subjectivity. The noir, cartoonish style of Sanya Kantarovsky and the fleshy, abstracted, baroque visions of Cecily Brown came across particularly well, as did Michael Armitage’s paintings on bark. It successfully demonstrated the mass appeal of figurative painting and, in the form of Tschabalala Self and other twentysomethings, showed the future is bright.
Slow Painting, in turn, wasn’t so concerned with painting’s ability to make sense of the moment – but instead with what it could be used for, including what it could offer the stressed city dweller. Much like the philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s idea that “Western Buddhism” is the ultimate remedy against the stress of capitalist dynamics, Slow Painting showed the “mindful” potential of painting, as a meditative tool. Both exhibitions, then, showed painting had purpose.
Mixing It Up, by contrast, is both more and less ambitious. It’s a mélange of painting: abstract and figurative, old and young, European and Asian, oil and plaster, miniature and gigantic. The true diversity of painting is here – various windows on various worlds open and close as the exhibition zigzags around both the upstairs and downstairs rooms of the Hayward. This variety doesn’t resolve itself into any overarching argument or justification – instead we’re invited to gaze at the vitality of the contemporary art scene.
The exhibition is loosely organised around seven different zones, made up of groupings of four to five artists who display a casual connection, either stylistic (such as Oscar Murillo and Rachel Jones) or thematic (in the case of Peter Doig and Caroline Coon). The first zone mixes familiar stalwarts of contemporary painting such as Lisa Brice and Lubaina Himid, as well as more peripheral figures such as Sophie von Hellerman and Mohammed Sami. There are, of course, notable absences: Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Jenny Saville immediately come to mind; but this makes room for new lights.
Gareth Cadwallader, Egg, 2017, courtesy of the artist and Josh Lilley Gallery
Emerging and mid-career artists Lydia Blakeley (b. 1980), Louise Giovanelli (b.1993), Gareth Cadwallader (b.1979) and Graham Little (b.1972) form the most exciting of the groupings. Each of these artists paints figurative pictures on a small scale, with a surreal edge. Instantly accessible, while simultaneously elusive, their mystery and lack of specific context is the joy of them. Take Gareth Cadwallader’s Egg (2017), which measures just 27cm x 22cm. Steeped in art historical references, from Vermeer to Hockney, Cadwallader creates an atemporal, uncanny environment by avoiding any period-specific references. Yet each element of the picture: figure, object and space, seems connected in an almost sacred way.
This slippage between painting and our contemporary moment is discussed by the exhibition curator, Ralf Rugoff, in his catalogue essay. Instead of insisting that painting should reflect the world as it is, with instant-consumption, algorithm-generated, digital experiences, Rugoff suggests painting is itself a technology but one that “goes against the grain of the disposable, swipeable, one-liner images that inundate our lives.” He claims the featured artists “aim to make pictures that not only heighten our attentiveness but also sustain it by generating layers of intrigue and resonance.” This is a welcome response to the “death-of-painting” accusation routinely levelled by art critics since the 1970s who claim that painting – as an analogue medium – is a relic without relevance. Ruggoff counters this by pointing to the potential for ambiguity in painting, noting that all these works “eschew clarity of intent”.
This makes a lot of sense. By way of analogy, Google’s latest advertising campaign is called ‘Hands Raised: It’s Okay Not to Know’. The online ad shows people confused by contemporary issues such as cultural diversity, with Marcus Rashford’s voice-over explaining: “It’s okay not to know; to be curious; to be clueless; to wonder what that is; to wonder what to do.” The ad posits Google’s search engine as a neat solution to moral confusion and the culture wars, helping “curious” people to “do the right thing”. The campaign feels like a desperate attempt to counter growing public distrust towards big tech companies over the last 18 months, given we have repeatedly seen Google functioning in practice as a locus for anti-vaxxers, lockdown protestors et al to promote their outlandish claims. The internet tells people who have already made their minds up what they want to hear: it confirms biases, rather than countering them. Painting, by contrast, offers no solutions and no easy answers.
Hurvin Anderson’s painting Greensleeves is a neat exposition of this idea: three green trees are layered on top of each other: a mango tree from Jamaica, an apple tree from Birmingham and a pear tree near his south London studio. Anderson comments that he’s “trying to transmit this idea that two different sets of experiences… can co-exist in one painting.”
Hurvin Anderson, Greensleeves, 2017 courtesy of the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery
Painting then, comes across as the opposite of the “hot take”. Its relevance right now lies in its opposition to the TikTok moment, and its deliberate lack of innovation. If painting is a technology, as Rugoff says, then it is remarkably antiquated, but perhaps its enduring appeal lies in its lack of desire to “solve” anything. We turn to painting to gently unpack our experiences, not to add to the clutter.
Max Lunn is a journalist based in London