If there is an “avant-garde” art form in Australia today, it is undoubtedly figurative painting. It is figurative painting that has gone furthest in the elimination of critical meaning, of history, of everything we have come to know as art. It is figurative painting that all the other art forms aspire to as a kind of impossible utopian condition: post-historical, post-medium, post-art. If it was once the case that painting was surpassed by photography, now it is photography and all of its off-shoots – video, installation, even performance – that is surpassed by painting. Today it is figurative painting alone that knows what it is to be art after the end of art.
Let us recall for a moment T.J. Clark’s brilliant observation that what is at stake in Manet’s work is the “dissonance” between “painting’s intractable means” – the fact that oil paintings take a long time to make – and its “casual, available overall look”. It is to speak of the way that Manet is the first “modern” painter, the first for whom – and this is what it means to say that his work is mediated by photography, even though photography was not a real artistic option at the time – the relationship to the medium was historicized, a matter of choice. After Manet, the tradition of oil painting is not something the artist is simply in, but something they self-consciously have to occupy or seek to resolve. Manet is the first “post-medium” artist, the first for whom their medium was anachronistic, mediated by a choice not taken, inhabited by something essentially photographic as that which does away with all media.
It is of course to suggest that Manet is already involved in the “death of painting”: the long meditation through painting on the historical impossibility of painting. It is a lineage that runs all the way from Manet through to someone like Gerhard Richter, who literalises through his recourse to both abstraction and figuration the arbitrariness of any particular style of painting, and through the serial nature of his abstraction the historical conditions of beauty.1 It is a matter not so much of the end of painting as of its permanent ironising or self-questioning: painting henceforth about itself, reflecting upon itself, undermining itself from within. It is not the end of painting but rather its endlessness, guaranteed by the ceaseless meditation on its continued possibility.
The young Sydney-based painter Ben Quilty inherited all of these concerns when he first attended art school in the 1990s. And indeed much of his early work – continuing in a way up to the present – can be seen as about the “death of painting”. His images of beautiful but now extinct parrots, no-longer-manufactured cars and skulls can all be understood as tropes for the absurdity, unfashionability, even disappearance of painting – all executed, of course, in the most luscious, virtuosic and painterly of styles.2 It would be a typical instance of that criticality – Clark’s “dissonance” – that characterises post-modern art: the artist deliberately staying outside of their medium and commenting upon it as though from somewhere else.
But at the same time we can see – or would want to see – another temperament or tonality in Quilty’s work. It is difficult to describe, but we would say that it is characterised at once by a radical indifference towards the medium – the work is now post-medium in the true sense – and by a simple immersion in the medium. The crucial point is that there is no longer any critical distance on to oil painting, no critical commentary on its historical position or “dissonance” between its form and content. Perhaps this other possibility can be seen at those moments when Quilty moves away from any recognisable subject matter in his work or when his objects are caught in the process of metamorphosing into something else: cars into hamburgers, hamburgers into skulls, skulls into cars… There is a literal fading away of the “death of painting” to be seen in a work like ‘Hill End Landscape’: the canvas is drained of all negative qualities, leaving us with an alternatively lushly or indifferently painted landscape that means nothing, says nothing, implies nothing. This is an absolutely post-historical work that is also strangely pre-historical. And it is at this point that we might say that the long artistic adventure of modernism (of which post-modernism is only an extension) is finally over.
1 And our ultimate point would be that this series of critical concerns arising out of the history of painting has now been taken up by such photographers as Jeff Wall and Andreas Gursky, whose work is fundamentally about the “death of painting”.
2 We might even say that the series of ‘Hamburgers with the Lot’ is allegorical of the historical condition of painting today, with its surfeit of artistic choices, its glut of incompatible alternatives.