The Secret Life of Paint

26 May 2007 - 26 August 2007

The word ‘art’ usually evokes paintings hanging on walls. And the word ‘painting’ usually evokes canvases held inside frames. But the paintings in this show aren’t your usual. Oozing out of their frames and sometimes bellyflopping right off the walls, they show just how far paint can be pushed before it’s no longer a painting at all.

The Secret Life of Paint is a journey under, around and through paint. What’s a painting made of? What’s it like to get under the medium’s skin? What happens when you rob a painting of its standard tools and props? Among the answers on show here are a painting machine that goes to work straight on the gallery wall, an artist who uses his body as a paintbrush, big blooming brushes created from mops, a huge paintball peeled back to show the layers of colour underneath, and surfaces that bristle and squirm with seemingly biological life.

The artists in the show don’t share one style, but they share a style of thinking. Many of them are maximalists and materialists, taking one aspect of painting’s physical life and sending it into a state of overload. They like to show how they made what they have made – the layers and fingerprints and false starts. And they also like to arrange unexpected meetings between painting and its one-time enemies, such as performance and process art. Judy Millar’s big work provides a vivid map of her own bodily movements over and around the canvas as she made it. In her striking response to the women flower painters of Canterbury, Julia Morison provocatively merges the act of cleaning and the act of creating. And Guy Benfield literally pours it on in his two performances – spectacularly messy send-ups of the creative process.

Today, every time a painter opens a tube of paint they’re also opening a tube of history. The artists here all make paintings in the knowledge that painting, since the camera came along in the mid-nineteenth century, has regularly been pronounced dead. Indeed, quite a few of the works seen here look like attempted autopsies, from Rohan Wealleans’ alarmingly sliced surfaces to Seung Yul Oh’s ornately painted innards.

But these are less true assaults than they are examples of ‘tough love’. Pushing painting’s surfaces and conventions to their limits, literally ‘opening it up’ to examination, these artists end up affirming the medium’s strange persistence and vitality. For these artists, every one of painting’s ‘problems’ is also a potential source of fresh thought and pleasure. In the face of horizon-sweeping statements about the medium’s past and future, they invite us to put an eye to the microscope, here and now, and watch as painting’s secret life bubbles away.

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