Painting

FLY ON THE WALL – Content is Sort of Life and Reality…

 … I’ve only been doing them for a relatively short time. I’ve been doing them for not even quite two years. That’s when that thing that you mentioned started – the artist’s support pledge – and that was what got me going on doing them. I’ve always done some kind of scribbling and doodling and always had a sort of feel for it, but I never, since I was about 17, I never did it very intensely. You know, once I started thinking about how to be ambitious as an artist, and how to go to art school, and how to get clever – I had that stuff all knocked out of me. So now I’m 67 and in the last couple of years, it’s like I’ve become 17 again! I’ve been really quite prolific with pictures, that on the whole, I would say, are about art history, or at least their subject is art history.
[Matt pointing out a drawing] That’s Picasso and that’s an erotic painting by Picasso on the wall. My subject is art history, but I think the content is something else. I’m not really sure what the content is… I think the content is sort of life and reality nowadays, and to some extent, it’s my own autobiography. But the subject for sure tends to be art history and the people in Art history. And ideas and the groups of people and types of art which everyone who is into art has heard of… [Matthew Collings on the Large Glass with Todd and Terri Podcast]

Matthew Collings Instagram – Picasso in 1902 in Barcelona with a painting he’s just finished of a ridiculously explicit sex scene. An unreal idea came up in 2010 when the Met hesitated to show it, in a survey of 300 works they own by him, that it “isn’t very good.” He never apologised for it or explained himself except once when old he was asked about it, and he said “I’ve done worse.”

All through COVID I began to think that something elemental was missing in the art that we were all being directed to online. The galleries and fairs and auction houses and museums were all presenting virtual rooms of art online by the artists that we had been seeing before the world imploded, and in a stunning lack of foresight, these institutions continued to push products that upheld their one going concern – the industry itself. Many of the images of the works in the contemporary sphere were the usual thing which amounts to the continual beautification and representation of Modern ideas and visions. But as the proliferation of this imagery upheld the norm something began to happen that was a bit unexpected. Because everything was now being presented through the same media one could notice a leveling effect. The actual size of the things online evened out and if one was visually engaged with these images other things began to matter. The scale of the image, the specific vision presented by the artist and the breadth of ideas contained within the image began to matter more and more.

Picasso photo ” “à mes chers amis Suzanne et Henri Bloch” 1904 – “Portrait of Suzanne Bloch (1904) belongs to his so-called blue phase, from Picasso’s first years in Paris. With a frugal color palette, he sought to fuse figure and background. This unity became one of the dominant motifs in cubism. The model was a lyrical singer born into a family of great musicians. She attended the artistic circles of Paris and Picasso’s studio. Among the last paintings of the blue phase, the portrait was preceded by a drawing made in pen and ink and gouache, conserved in the Neubury Coray Collection in Ascona, Switzerland.” MASP

For instance – you could see online a 10 foot painting by Joan Mitchell presented alongside a 10 inch drawing by Cezanne at exactly the same size. Our browsers caused the scale of the images to become more important to our understanding of the work. It soon became apparent that a few contemporary artists were seeing and confronting these exact problems with different approaches and different solutions in interesting ways. And in that difference one could see a real challenge to our blind acceptance of the incessant beautification of the past. The takeaway has been that Modernism 4.0 has not been groundbreaking in any way – and it isn’t meant to be.

Many of these new images would not be considered or comfortable in the Mega-Meta-Gallery world considering these works’ humble sizes, their reliance on specific narrative or a predefined precedent. Works like Matt’s drawings reminded me of the surprises and radical visions that are found in many of the small drawings and paintings from the early Modern era. And I found this realization truly exciting. These works encompassed visions of scale rather than economies of size and used imagery (both figurative and abstract) to define singular narratives through warped histories, strange visual connections and unexpected juxtapositions of time and place. This kind of imagery began to challenge works defined solely through revival, process or critique, especially today’s abstract paintings. We were being faced with a new challenge – if this kind of small personal narrative imagery can be radical – how then can we define abstraction?

Picasso Erotic Scene 1903 – When shown a photograph of this painting in the 1960s, Picasso denied that he had made it and dismissed it as a “bad joke by friends.” Recent research has shown, to the contrary, that it was one of two paintings purchased in Barcelona in 1912 by Picasso’s dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, from Benet Soler, whose clothing shop Picasso frequented. Hence it is quite likely that Picasso had exchanged the painting for clothes about 1903.

COVID changed our game. Being force fed a narrative in articles, interviews and press releases about the perfection of process (both as facture and meta-critique) while being presented a series of beautifully dumb abstract paintings seems arrogant, desperate and out of touch especially in this Post-Covid moment. The old Modernist bullshit about the singular importance of formal issues, space, surface or material can no longer drive our understanding or our critique of 20th Century painting. The leveling of scale and narrative on the internet meant that an artist could find other ways to break through a world oversaturated with nostalgic and pointless images of all kinds – and this includes the entire legacy of Modernist abstraction. These images raise the possibility of a new avant garde made up of diverse and strange thinking individuals rather than professionals following a career path.

Questions arose about narrative, content and subject. Things that might be fun or silly, deep or dark, decadent or desirous, began to matter during our pandemic isolation. One only had to be direct and forthright about the image itself. A few artists got very good at the willful manipulation of what an image in itself might mean. They weren’t relying on a Postmodern critique of an image or a style or a theory – but instead they were creating a wholesale reinvention of the specific history contained within an image itself.

Look – we live online now, and like this post, anyone connected can unfold and expand an image in no time at all with a few quick searches or clicks – better than a wall text in an exhibition and better than a critic or a press release telling you what to think. You can clarify or embellish your own memory using the image as a catalyst. You can open new avenues to explore your thoughts and visions. You can enhance the image as you see it. You can make it yours. In other words – this is a new form of online abstraction, a kind of handmade AI. For instance in Matt’s Picasso drawing he adds just a few words about the Met and their hesitation to show Picasso’s early erotic work, and this small image scales up and reaches into our time, this place, our current ideas of propriety and censorship, and the complicated personal history and institutional legacy of Picasso and his work.

This kind of instant access to history, narrative and imagery has also exposed our visual laziness. We have all the tools to know and experience more in our art, the histories of art and artists, and it’s all at our fingertips. Our willful dismissal and ignorance of the power of images in today’s world is a capitulation of our responsibilities as artists. We do not have to continue on ad nauseam about Modernism or its decades long convalescence in a Postmodern hospice. We do not have to make work for the market. What we must do is use our imaginations, our daring and maybe even a bit of decadent joy to find possibilities that change our relationship to the torrents of images we come across everyday. I think Matt’s long and varied career as an artist and bon vivant as well as his very personal work points/dares us to ask more interesting questions about the power of art and images in these times.

More Fly on the Wall to come…

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