Today, for the first time, I built a canvas stretcher. Until now, I’ve been painting on paper and unstretched canvas.
The process of building this made me think about the tradition of oil painting on canvas. I feel a kind of pressure about the idea of making marks on an object that’s built to preserve them for centuries. It also made me think about the materiality and sculptural qualities of the stretcher and canvas. Art & Language drew attention to this in their 1967 work Painting / Sculpture.
Mostly I view paintings as dematerialised images, reproduced in books and on digital screens. When I visit galleries, I enjoy the relationship between seeing a painting in person and seeing it’s reproduction. There are nearly always surprises, both ways. The difference between owning a reproduction and owning the original also interests me, philosophically and politically. But today, building a stretcher has brought my focus squarely onto paintings as objects.
I thought about artists who’ve made this into part of the subject of their work: Primarily, the 1960s-70s French movement named Supports/Surfaces. Until now, this group didn’t interest me much. From what I understand, their work had some of the spirit of literary deconstruction, and combined elements of minimalism, conceptual art, and installation, focussing on – as the name suggests – the supports and surfaces which have traditionally carried painting. Daniel Dezeuze’s work particularly seems to epitomise this conjunction.
In 2014, the Supports/Surfaces movement was revisited in two exhibitions, prompting this informative article by Raphael Rubinstein (I haven’t read it all yet). One of those recent exhibitions was titled Supports/Surfaces is Alive and Well, which seems to be true, judging by how many younger artists are making new work that explores similar territory.
I’m not very familiar with any of the following artists but, superficially, I see three tendencies:
1: Paintings which retain the tradition of mark-making with paint on a pliable surface supported by a rectangle wooden stretcher, but disrupt the surface and partially reveal the stretcher, bringing in sculptural and conceptual concerns. ie. Diana Molzan, Richard Aldrich, and Merlin James.
2. Paintings which (I think) evoke images of canvases or stretcher supports, but are not necessarily themselves made using those materials. Examples here from R H Quaytman and Nathan Holden.
- Paintings on canvases that are stretched over structures whose shape departs from the conventional rectangle or square. ie. Wendy White, Rafal Bujnowski, Philippe Decrauzat.
I don’t immediately feel inclined to try anything like this in my own work, but I’m interested that stretchers and canvas seem to play such a visible role in works that (are said to) occupy the space between traditional painting and conceptual art, from Fontana and Stella onward.