Painting Made Novel

In New Paintings, artists unravel the concept of painting by approaching the art form through unconventional techniques.

In 2013, the de Young Museum exhibited a series of David Hockney “drawings” done on an iPad as part of a showcase of the internationally celebrated artist’s work. In large part, those in the fine art arena didn’t know how to react. The images looked like paintings, but could never earn that title. After all, they were made with an app. What did it mean for a painter of Hockney’s caliber to embrace the supposedly textureless sheen of a technological drawing? In a sense, he had rejected centuries of fetishization of the brushstroke, by instead celebrating the flatness of “lowbrow” internet art.

Many critics, like The Guardian‘s Adrian Searle, were offended by Hockney’s bold experimentation into new modes of image-making. Safe within the church of traditional painting, Searle accused Hockney of mistaking technology for modernity. “They can never hide their electronic origins, no matter how painterly they appear,” he wrote in regard to the drawings. “There’s something inescapably dead and bland and gutless about them.”

But perhaps electronic origins are something to highlight rather than hide. The hybrid aesthetics that Hockney’s drawings employ are actually prominent in contemporary illustration, and conservative on the spectrum of “post-internet” art, in which the uneasy aesthetic of simulated textures on flat screens is often deployed.

In fact, many of the works in New Paintings, the current group show at Aggregate Space gallery (801 West Grand Ave., Oakland), make a more interesting inquiry into the intersection of painting and new technology. The show as a whole is meant to present unconventional approaches to painting, each a step removed from the traditional art form.

Among these approaches are the digital paintings of San Francisco artist Clive McCarthy. McCarthy, who enjoyed a long career in the semiconductor industry before deciding to become an artist, codes painting simulations that utilize algorithms with random variables, so that the same image will never appear on the screen — which is continuously in the process of being “painted.” At times using up to one thousand reference photographs, McCarthy’s software switches between sources, pulling color and form from each and abstracting them depending on the input that McCarthy provides. Simulated brush strokes with remarkably realistic texture appear on the screen, gradually layering to form expressionist compositions.

Evoking texture, gesture, and artistic spontaneity, it would be unfair to call McCarthy’s art works visually “bland and gutless.” (They don’t stray far enough from traditional painting to afford a criticism so harsh.) Conceptually, though, they reposition the painting as one point in a continuous application of color — in McCarthy’s work, “painting” is more of a verb than a noun. They also reframe the role of the painter, allowing for technological intervention and blurring the idea of an image creator altogether.

Adam Hathaway’s “Rainbrush” is another one of the most interesting works in New Paintings. Hathaway, an Oakland-based conceptual installation artist, also created a painting machine for the show. Two hundred and eighty-eight liquid vials are mounted onto a grid, then attached via plastic tubing to an air pump that pressures them to drip at the same rate. Beginning with a source image of another artist’s painting, Hathaway digitally pixelated the work into a grid of the same dimensions, then filled each dropper with watercolor paint to match its correlating pixel. Beneath the hanging grid, thick watercolor paper absorbs the paint as it falls like rain, creating a rough forgery of the original painting in approximately thirty minutes.

Hathaway has been creating these pieces in the gallery during open hours on Saturdays, then placing them on the walls once dry. At the time of this writing, he has finished four of seven paintings. Like McCarthy’s pieces, the authorial artistry in Hathaway’s work is in creating the method for its creation. Neither the imagery itself nor the application of paint can be wholly attributed to him, yet the product is a painting nonetheless — a soft and swirly watercolor painting, to be specific.

Along with McCarthy and Hathaway’s works are thoughtful pieces by Evan Reiser, Tara de la Garza, and William Emmert. As a whole, the show cracks open the painting genre for examination, allowing for a reframing of the art form from many angles. While much art exploring hybrid aesthetics gets stuck on questions of cognitive dissonance, this show proceeds onward without leaving the viewer behind.

Through May 2.


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