Don’t paint that

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Garry Winogrand Central Park Zoo, New York City (1984) gelatine silver print 22.9 x 34cm

Pace London have a photography show on now called American Classics. It includes this Garry Winogrand photograph, which I hadn’t seen before. In a split-second I saw the black man, then the white woman, registered them as a couple holding small children, looked down expecting to see mixed race children and was surprised to find clothed chimpanzees. My eye was moving around the picture collecting information, and at every stop new thoughts were firing off: about race, miscegenation, US society – and it didn’t end there.

In the bottom right corner I saw the child, positioned below one of the chimps, and my eye skipped back and forth between the two. The comparison felt loaded. The child is holding onto an adult’s hand, a white hand, which happens to be positioned in the photograph almost exactly where the black man’s hand would be if he weren’t holding the chimp, and the child is wearing a mitten which makes his own hand appear to be darker than the white hand that he’s holding. These hands are directly adjacent to the black man’s hand supporting the chimp, but he’s wearing a two-tone glove which covers part of his hand in dark leather and part in a much lighter fabric. The complication of dark and light in those details fed back into the thoughts already raised by the central figures. Even Winogrand’s shadow seemed significant, in the way it placed him in the picture, and complicated the value relations between different fabrics (ie. in the sunlight the man’s suit is mid-tone and the chimp’s trousers are white, but in the shadow the man’s suit is black and the chimp’s trousers are mid-tone).

This experience of looking and thinking is unique to visual art, and I love it. Initially I took it as a reminder that I want to introduce a kind of content into my paintings that, so far, has largely been put aside in favour of experimentation with methods of painting. It’s like I’m still learning painting like a language, but not confident enough to “speak” it, yet. But what am I waiting for?

Then I realised that I’d feel very nervous about painting a subject like the one in Winogrand’s photograph (I had reservations about painting a single black man, let alone an interracial couple cradling clothed chimps). There’s so much difference between a photographer documenting something from reality, and a painter creating an image.

I haven’t come to any conclusions on this subject, but it made me think of Norman Rockwell’s painting The Problem We All Live With. It lacks the complex and troubled circuitry that I enjoy in Winogrand’s photograph but, as a painter, Rockwell was negotiating a different relationship to his subject matter.

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Norman Rockwell The Problem We All Live With (1963) oil on canvas 91 x 147cm

The Problem We All Live With is everything my early art education advised against: realist figurative painting, illustrative, and politically didactic. “Illustration” was a put-down, regarded as antithetical to “art”, and “didactic” meant the work was a total write-off (I find a similar tendency among film critics who reject moral messages that are “hectoring” – applied to Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, or “lecturing” to describe Michael Haneke’s Funny Games). The positive sense of “didactic” as morally instructive was never mentioned, perhaps because “having a message” was seen as a banal and naive approach to making art. Ambiguity was favoured, and the risk of incomprehensibility was preferred to the risk of being “too obvious” or “literal”. I don’t subscribe to those prohibitions anymore, and yet I’m still hesitant to transgress them.

In some ways, I’m inspired by both of these pictures. Winogrand’s photograph dares to be difficult, and Rockwell’s painting dares to be didactic in that it expresses a clear moral point of view and seeks to persuade the viewer into sharing that view. I like them both.

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4 thoughts on “Don’t paint that

  1. Hi Liam,

    I found your blog by mistake. But man oh man what a mistake! So glad I made it. .
    Your posts are very informative and accessible. Not having a formal background in art, your blog broadens my horizons about painting and painters. by pointing me in new directions that I never would have ventured toward on my own. Keep up the great work.

    kevin

    Like

  2. I could have stared at that photograph for a week and not noticed half of those, in hindsight almost obvious, aspects. You obviously have a talent.

    Like

    • I think close looking is a habit anyone can get into, but we don’t do it much these days. That might be why a lot of people find “old” art boring. We’re just not in the habit of reading pictures. Thanks for your comment. 🙂

      Like

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