The question of whether painting is still relevant in a multimedia world has been debated almost to the point of absurdity in recent years, while the practice of painting has continued on its course relatively undisturbed. On December 15th, BFA Fine Arts and BFA Visual & Critical Studies departments co-sponsored a panel discussion that addressed this issue, yet reflected a lot less skepticism and a lot more hope than many other lectures and writings on the topic. Titled Svetlana Alpers, James Hyde and Barney Kulok: Paintings/Photographs/Problems/Possibilities, the event focused on the creation of Painting Then For Now, a collaborative artwork that addresses the question of painting in the modern world from three distinct perspectives: that of an art historian and critic (Alpers), a multi-media artist and painter (Hyde), and a photographer (Kulok). (More information about each participant can be found in the event’s press blurb, located on SVA’s press resources page, or at the sites liked from their names above.)
Created over several months beginning in August 2006, Painting Then For Now consists of a suite of 19 archival inkjet prints, each of which features a carefully prepared and processed photographic detail taken from a set canvases by the eighteenth-century Venetian painter Giambattista Tiepolo that are on permanent display in the Grand Staircase of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The images are presented without digital manipulation other than basic color correction, and are meant to bring the viewer closer to the surface of these works, so that the care with which they were made becomes apparent, as well as the textures of the paint and the ravages that occur from being on display (cobwebs included). The result is a set of works that look as much like modernist abstract paintings as studies in the close reading of brushwork or coloration.
Each of the participants brought s distinct perspective to the panel, yet all three provided evidence that painting is by no means dead or meaningless in the contemporary world. Using images from the suite and other works from across the history of Western painting. Alpers argued that a close look at style and technique sometimes opens a window into an artist’s philosophical and emotional temperament. Hyde spoke of the way in which the interaction of photography and painting has deeply enriched his artistic practice, telling of a series of chance events that led him to start using photographs as a painting surface. Kulok showed how living with modern technology (in his case, a GPS-enabled cell phone) led him from photography to painting and back again, resulting along the way in a series of compelling images that attempt to capture the invisible, constantly shifting virtual networks that hover invisibly around us everywhere we go.
Throughout the participants’ presentations and the discussion that followed, there was a sense that although painting is no longer the dominant art form that it once was, it is nowhere near its last gasp. The experiences and insights presented by Alpers, Hyde, and Kulok suggest that painting has taken a new relationship to other art forms and the world of mass media, and that this relationship is likely to enrich artistic practice on both sides of the old/new media fence.
A complete recording of the panel discussion will be available soon on SVA’s page at iTunes U for free download. I will update this post with a link as soon as the file has been uploaded.