Painting is dying..some say

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Painting is dying..some say

Comment piece by Grafico Topico's SUE SMITH (1999)

This article was first published in The Courier-Mail, Brisbane, Australia - Saturday, May 1 1999.

PAINTING is dying, some say. Not the painting of sheep and gum trees, which died years ago, but serious figurative painting, the most popular genre of modern art.

The death last week of Arthur Boyd, perhaps the greatest of the famous and now elderly or deceased postwar generation of modern Australian figurative painters (including Charles Blackman, Ray Crooke, John Olsen, Jeffrey Smart and the late Sidney Nolan, Russell Drysdale and Donald Friend) has reminded many that this group of acclaimed artists has almost past into history. Who will replace them in the 21st century?

Some curators say that the kind of painting Boyd represents is itself on the way out, a dying art form, if you like. They claim that the central art of our time is not the anachronistic business of daubing paints onto canvas, but the new media of video, computer and photography-based art, installations and performance art, which better suit our fast-paced, technology-obsessed way of life.

Prominent exponents of these new art forms who pundits say are likely to continue to make a mark in the future include Mike Parr, Fiona Hall and Tracey Moffatt in Australia; and artists like Christo and Damien Hirst in Europe and America.

The Australians in this bunch are hardly household names. Nevertheless, they have the backing of the art establishment which, through museum exhibitions, scholarly publications and government grants, has helped them to advance their careers.

Moffatt, a photographer and film-maker who has spent time in New York aggressively promoting her work, is currently hot in many European and American cities. Hers is, however, an exceptional success story.

Other Australian artists whose work was toured by the Australian Government in Europe and America in the 1980s have instead had the depressing experience of seeing their work dismissed as being merely derivative of mainstream Euro-American trends.

Yet the upside for some is that at least being seen in the big recurring exhibitions like the Venice Biennale, Kassel's Documenta or Sydney's Perspecta has given them some credibility and the benefit of these events' razzle-dazzle aura.

The razzle-dazzle is a big part of much new art. In London a few years ago, a furore erupted when Damien Hirst won the $30,000 Turner Prize with his exhibits of a woolly lamb in formaldehyde and a container with maggotts and a cow's decaying brains. The people looking and talking about Hirst were part of the exhibit.

Similarly, in Berlin when Christo wrapped the Reichstag building in silver cloth, the crowds who gathered in front of the building gave the performance life.

In Australia, Parr, who was born with only the stump of his left arm, enacts public performances about loss and mutilation. Some of these involve dressing up as a bride, or in wigs, lacy bra and knickers; carving himself up with a knife; writing "ARM" on his arm and so on. Without an intrigued audience, these would just be bizarre acts of self-indulgence.

Whether you find such things brilliant or revolting is a matter of taste. But taste aside, the impermanence and apparent lack of skill in the production of much new modern art creates a question mark about its long-term future: if government largesse dries up, as is happening in some arts sectors, it is unlikely that private collectors will dash for their cheque books to support video and performance artists.

Like the museums, collectors will have a strong influence on who rises to the top in 21st century art. As always, they want durable, well-crafted products and are mostly concerned about the shrinking supply and escalating prices of the most desirable collectables -- paintings by Boyd and Smart, for instance, have sold for up to $300,000, and Christie's are now talking up a Brett Whiteley painting, 'The jacaranda tree', which they say may fetch $1 million at auction on August 17.

With such modern artworks now out of reach of all but the most well-heeled investors, art dealers say that in the 21st century collectors everywhere will continue to buy heavily in Aboriginal painting. They point out that Aboriginal art put Australia on the world art map in the 1980s and '90s but has still not achieved very high prices.

Of course, lately the gloss has gone off the Aboriginal art market a bit with the death of some of the greatest senior painters -- Emily Kngwarreye, Rover Thomas and Queenie McKenzie -- and with recent so-called "scandals" over the authorship of some of their works completed with the help of assistants.

Yet Aboriginal art still commands respect as a vivid expression of the human spirit and experience. Informed observers say that the traditional Aboriginal art market will continue to expand, and that young urban Aboriginal artists, like Judy Watson and Fiona Foley, will also grow in stature in years to come.

One reason that Aboriginal artists look like being the most significant successors to the Boyd generation is that they have the support of both trend-conscious curators and more conservative collectors.

But what will happen in the future to today's other group of commercially successful painters: landscapists like Tim Storrier and Ralph Wilson, and portraitists and subject painters like Nigel Thomson and Brian Dunlop?

The work of these non-Aboriginal artists currently sells well, but what of their long-term reputations? Curators tend to see their work as too slick or concerned with themes that have expired with time.

Still, I wouldn't write them off, as nothing blows so hard as the fickle winds of change in art. You have only to look at the up-and-down career of Jeffrey Smart. He seemed destined for oblivion when his figurative work was ignored during the explosion of abstraction the 1960s, but with subsequent revivals of figuration and surrealism his late career has bloomed.

And even the museum establishment, which to date has tirelessly promoted avant-garde art, may also soon change. One of Smart's supporters, John McDonald -- a conservative critic well-known for his loathing of cutting-edge art like Mike Parr's -- is set to take up the influential position of senior curator at the National Gallery of Australia.

Detractors fear this appointment will hinder the recognition of young modernists in the 21st century. But it may give an unexpected group of artists their turn to shine in the future.

Copyright © 1999 Sue Smith. Not to be used without the permission of the author