Painting in the age of the pixel



By Lauren Carroll Harris


Pure Blonde – Nigel Sense

Painting is dead! Long live painting!

Well, kinda. Not really.

That was the conclusion Nigel Sense and I came to during this week’s overdose of independent, emerging and experimental arts.

I had the pleasure of chatting with Nigel about the group show he’s part of, “Uncanny Valley”, currently on at Hardware Gallery, Enmore.

The brief of the show is simple: a bunch of artists were given a phrase – uncanny valley – which they had to Google (yep, it’s a verb now) on the same day. They then had to go to page three of the results, and create an artwork in any format, inspired by the result.

It’s all very 21st Century – creating and exhibiting artworks directly inspired by collectively attained Google results. Which brings us back to where we started: the death of painting. It’s a question that many artists to day are weighed down by: has painting died? In the era of digital media, are artists – let alone traditionally trained painters – being squeezed out of the frame? Isn’t it all about digital media, three-dimensional films and night-time light installations?

The conundrums stretch further. Aren’t we all media-makers now? By snapping a photo on our digital cameras, shooting and editing an inpromptu video on our phones, and broadcasting the result to potentially millions on sites like YouTube, is painting just an outdated craft belonging to an era of singular geniuses like Da Vinci and Monet?

Similar arguments were posed more than a hundred years ago, when photography was the rising media form and became recognised as a legitimate art form, in and of itself. ‘Why paint,’ some asked, ‘when you can merely take a photo?’

Well, painting changed. It shifted, dynamically with the times. Painters moved into abstraction, and alternative ways of representing objects and figures in space. They stopped being human cameras.

We’re seeing a similar shift in painting today. At one end of the continuum lie the canonical painters of our time, Lucien Freud and Gerard Richter (or, as many argue in Australia, Ben Quilty), whose works seem to scream, “We’re not dead! We’re paintings, and we’re living and interacting with the world, and we won’t die that easily!” Richter’s practice in particular has a rigorous and ongoing dialogue with photography and the duplicated image.

At the other end of the continuum are artists who acknowledge the impact of this brave new world of high-speed media on their work. Last year’s Primavera show at the Museum of Contemporary Art featured the work of Jackson Slattery, who paints tiny, exquisitely detailed watercolours based solely from scavenged online sources (most likely on Google!). They’re so hyper-realistic, you could mistake them for genuine photos. But they’re not. What’s more, they’re not just photographic in appearance, they are simultaneously painterly in nature.

Uncanny Valley, or as I call it, “that yearly Google art show”, is a contribution to the dialogue about the role of art in an increasingly and relentlessly hi-fi world, and a testimony to painting’s ability to transform and rid itself of the centuries of tradition and history which lie behind it.

Have a listen to my conversation with Nigel by downloading the podcast.

And you can suss out Nigel’s online portfolio.

Uncanny Valley – 5th Annual Google Exhibition

13 Sep – 24 Sep 11
Hardware Gallery
263 Enmore Rd
Enmore, NSW
Open Tue – Sat :11:00 am – 5:00 pm