What’s interesting about so much of today’s better-known painting and painters’ styles is how “handmade” it all looks. This vintage style is all about the fetish finish of the artist’s hand – surfaces, scumbles, pentimenti, veils, drips splashes and skeins. You might say we’re experiencing a return to Greenbergian process abstraction, but a little more European than American in feeling and structure. That’s because contemporary paintings are not pushing Modernism into another phase of change (Greenberg’s Neo-Modernism) or reacting against the history of Modernism (Postmodernism). This new process abstraction comes from a change in artists’ approach to the past. Artists now concentrate on and use the stylish and optical or retinal properties of Modern Era painting. Familiarity and recognition with this history of style and technique, their recreation for an audience, have become raison d’être of contemporary abstract painting. Laura Hoptman underlined this new attitude in contemporary Abstraction in her controversial exhibition at MOMA. She used the term “atemporal” to describe this unique time of change.
“What characterizes our cultural moment at the beginning of this new millennium is the inability – or perhaps the refusal – of a great many of our cultural artifacts to define the times in which we live. This is an unsettling and wholly unique phenomenon in Western culture and it should come as no surprise that it was first identified by a science-fiction writer, William Gibson, who in 2oo3 used the word atemporality to describe a new and strange state of the world in which, courtesy of the Internet, all eras seem to exist at once? Since that time, atemporality has been observed in literature, popular music, and fashion, and subsequently called many different names, including retromania, hauntology, presentism, and super-hybridity.” [Laura Hoptman on Atemporality]
It would be folly to try to say in just what, exactly, the enduring fascination of painting resides. I will offer only one suggestion. Painting’s quasi-miraculous mode of existence is produced, I believe, by its mode of facture. All those things of the spirit and mind thought to be so unseizable, so nebulous, so other, find expression through the hand, taking up a material existence in the world. And what is achieved bears no relation to normal calculations of means and ends, the means so paltry – canvas, stretchers, pigment, whatever – the ends so vast – powers, glories, visions, ecstasies of pleasure and terror. Painting proclaims the true incarnation, the union of matter and spirit, in the act of painting – of body and soul. How could Western culture not love painting, thrust headlong as it was by Christianity into the pursuit of the miraculous?
Through the hand – this is the crucial point. Painting presents us with an image of the world reconstituted. It makes use of all modes of sensorial knowledge – the tactile. oral, auditory, even the olfactory – to supplement the visual. Whereas photography is only able to provide us with information derived from light, painting provides us with an image of the interrelationship of the senses, in the synthesizing and constructing activity of the human brain. It should further be borne in mind that the camera is a Cyclops – one-eyed. Unable to reproduce the stereoscopic effect of binocular vision, the camera produces images in which the depth and solidity of objects are diminished, as is the sense of distance. [Richard Hennessy What’s All This About Photography?]
The revivalism of current painting, which Hennessy’s text so perfectly articulates, depends, of course, on reinvesting those strokes with human presence, it is a metaphysics of the human touch. “Painting’s quasi-miraculous mode of existence is produced by its mode of facture. Through the hand: this is the crucial point.” This faith in the healing powers of the hand, the facture that results from the laying on of hands, echoes throughout Rose’s catalogue text, which pays special homage to Hennessy’s attack on photography. The unifying principle in the aesthetic of her painters is that their work “defines itself in conscious opposition to photography and all forms of mechanical reproduction which seek to deprive the art work of its unique ‘aura.’ ” For Rose, elimination of the human touch can only express “the self-hatred of artists…. Such a powerful wish to annihilate personal expression implies that the artist does not love his creation.” What distinguishes painting from photography is this “visible record of the activity of the human hand, as it builds surfaces experienced as tactile.” [Douglas Crimp on the End of Painting]