Painting with Architecture in Mind
by Edward Whittaker and Alex Landrum, Editors
Wunderkammer Press, Bath, UK, 2012
168 pp., illus. 31 col. including insert. Paper, £16.99
Reviewed by Agnieszka Mlicka
Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design
University of the Arts London
With the title in mind, it is easily anticipated that this book advances the current debate on painting in the expanded field, but it covers a much larger territory.
Exemplified by practices from the early twentieth century up to today, the contributing authors approach the relationship between painting and architecture through notions of colour, aesthetics versus aesthesia, (de)framing and display, geometric thinking, objecthood, dematerialisation and autopoiesis. The introduction by Edward Whittaker and Alex Landrum hints at this heterogeneity, but it lacks a more consolidated outline of the book in order to provide insight into what ‘painting with architecture in mind’ might signify. A more useful attempt at a contextual framework is provided by John Chilver who seeks to analyse current developments in contemporary painting based on but distinct from modernism and postmodernism. Chilver argues that contemporary painting paradoxically derives its pictoriality from the simultaneous disappearance of the painting-as-object and the materialisation of the space of display. His ability to ground this otherwise expansive topic is partly because of his incorporation of artists’ intentions aside of his own interpretation and the larger historical framework. In contradistinction, several other chapters such as Linda Khatir’s on framing painting take a more philosophical approach that requires solid background knowledge for a full engagement with the text. The danger with such impenetrable essays is that the artist’s intentions are overridden by the abstract analysis of the work. This approach fails to acknowledge that ‘painting’ in the book’s title is an active verb rather than a passive object.
Several chapters do not address painting at all, raising further questions as to how the discussion contributes to contemporary concerns within painting practice. For example, Whittaker’s and Rajchman’s analysis of respectively Lawrence Weiner’s and Fred Sandbach’s work revoke exhausted discussions on conceptual art and objecthood. A much more unusual contribution is the in-depth discussion of Matisse’s mural by Eric Alliez and Jean-Claude Bonne, which proves that painting with architecture in mind can be traced back to early modernism. Their text revisits the critical moment when painting moved outside of itself, rejecting pictorial representation to engage with its architectural context through notions of perception, becoming and processes. While there is a danger in applying contemporary concepts such as ‘the becoming of space’ to works created almost a century ago, Matisse’s thinking may offer useful insights to contemporary painters who choose to work in spaces that do not conform to the white cube model. Therefore, this chapter would have benefited from a more direct dialogue with current strands of enquiry.
The book offers more potential for crossover debate that could have been picked up by the editors. In his writing on the integration of colour into architecture, Mark Pimlott raises the thought-provoking question: "When art is led down the path of fulfilling or representing a function, does it cease to be art?” Bernice Donszelmann’s text seems to respond by arguing that a wall’s inscribed surface, for instance through art, is inseparable from the architecture. Her interesting take on the critique of autonomous form builds upon Gotfriedd Semper’s writing that prioritises surface above structure. Catherine Ferguson comes close to answering this question in her intriguing treatise on how painting is analysed. She argues that rather than asking what painting is within its own discourse, painting requires a different kind of interpretation to bring out its functional value. Through the concept of autopoiesis, and building upon Deleuze’s idea of 'the representational image of thought', she aims to establish some methodological principles of analysis that ‘proceed’ with painting though logic rather than observation. The application of this idea to her own analysis of Scheibitz’ painting proves more difficult, but, nevertheless, the text is an original contribution to the current debate on painting. This may be because of the underlying shift from discussing architecture to the issue of functionality in relation to painting. In this regard, what is perhaps most functional in this book is the fold-out insert of a painting specially designed by the artist Brad Lochore. While lacking the vibrancy of other illustrations, the architectural fold straight through the image continues to simultaneously disturb and intrigue. It evokes a curiosity as to the ‘framing’ of this work in the way it occupies an asymmetric space on the double page. As noted by the editors, it becomes a standing object that emerges out of another space, while also potentially functioning as a model for a real architectural space. If the painting holds such a relevant proposition, why is it not acknowledged in the contents? After all, this contribution truly signifies how challenging it is to understand the spatial thinking of the painter.