In 1839, French painter Paul Delaroche, on seeing a daguerreotype for the first time, declared, “From today, painting is dead.” Apparently not everyone was listening.
While this catch cry has continued to be repeated to the present day, the group most affected, artists who like to paint, just get on with their business. Not that the position painting once occupied as the pre-eminent art form remained unchallenged. The photographic image altered the balance of power by demonstrating that there are other ways of seeing the world. The found object as interpreted by Duchamp et al mounted an even bigger challenge by denying hand crafted ‘authorial’ values associated not only with traditional painting, but photography.
Duchamp did spare a thought for the embattled painter. “It’s awfully hard to go on painting … Having done anything, you naturally want to do it again and if you do it again then you know that you’re doing it again and it is not interesting. This is what worries everybody … A painter has more trouble about it than anyone.” Don Judd commented that, “The main thing wrong with painting is that it is a rectangular plane placed flat against the wall. A rectangle is a shape itself; it is obviously the whole shape; it determines and limits the arrangement of whatever is on or inside of it.”
By the end of the 20th century debates about painting’s ‘death’ or ‘resurrection’ had become a Punch and Judy show, fed by an art market that clearly believed that paintings outperformed all other art forms. In art schools, forums, debates and so on, the topic has become a kind of Pilates routine to tone up sagging intellectual rigour. But deals had to be done if painting was to look, somehow, contemporary.
Enter painting in an ‘expanded field’, which meant making art about painting – a kind of public disclosure of a private conversation between artist and medium. To this end, canvases came off the frame and draped over structures, hung from the ceiling, were slashed, sewn, burnt or worn. Plastic, reflective metals and other materials replaced canvas. The concept of pigmentation was extended to industrial surfaces and the colour values of found objects. In this repositioning process, critic Jerry Selz said that “art is turned into a problem, something to solve and move along incrementally, one issue, surface, color, and compositional tic at a time”.
Christian Lock has been working in this context for a long time. Because the objects he makes fit broadly into the category of flat things that get placed on walls, he has a strong appetite for colour and compositional exchanges. The body of work by which he elbowed his way onto the art scene (earning a Samstag Scholarship along the way in 2013) involved manipulating pigment on textile/soft/malleable surfaces. It remains possible to loosely locate him within this even looser category of painting in an expanded field – without losing sight of the fact that his works often blur the distinction between image and object, painting and sculpture.
Maybe the ‘loose’ tag works for Lock. His approach has a certain hang loose character, which may be appropriate given his immersion in surf culture from a young age. He refers to boyhood experiences of seeing glossy resin boards as inspiring and enduring fascination with materiality, surfacing and form.
His current studio ambience is only a stone’s throw from that of a board shaper. Primary coloured resin sheeting lies about. Some of it is cut with machine precision and glued firmly onto high end industrial foam laminates. Other units are free-form offshoots of a casting process in which resins are poured onto flat surfaces and ‘popped’ clear.
Armed with a combination of geometric and organic shapes, Lock is now faced with multiple choices about how they will be combined. It might look like ‘hang loose’ territory but Lock’s hard won experience in working the uncertain zones of abstraction means that in the world of no rules there are rules, determined more by creative instinct than logic.
The artist sees parallels in working with a lump of wet clay – the way it can be squeezed to any shape. ‘Malleability’ is a term he often uses to express the potential of any given moment to suggest a resolution of possibilities. From this perspective, no materials or processes have been off-limits in a practice that has variously exploited digital scanning and printing, synthetic resins and holographic material, spray painting and laser cutting techniques.
Lock is alert to the pitfalls of abstraction; particularly the slide into ‘zombie formalism’ and eye-candy tweaking that can seduce a young and not so young player. His only proof against this appears to be a state of mind that knows intuitively if the decision making is authentic and that he is listening to what the colours and forms have to say. In that moment he says “the voices switch off” and nothing matters but the moment.
This is something that only the creative journey can throw up when it’s decided you’ve earned it. Abstractionists like Lock know it better than most.
Christian Lock: Space Junky
Greenaway Art Gallery
Until Sunday, October 7
Header image: Christian Lock, Bomb factory, 2018, colour pigment, Bio Sap epoxy resin, aluminium composite, expanded PVC thermoplastic, 200 x 300cm
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