Painting Now: Five Contemporary Artists

Tate Britain

12 November – 9 February

We are used to Tate Britain housing the finest paintings from the past several hundred years, but seldom having any space for the genre born of today. The gallery’s newest exhibition; ‘Painting Now: Five Contemporary Artists’, provides a momentous anomaly.

November 19, 2013
by Anna Beketov

Simon Ling, Untitled, 2012.

Our contemporary art world tends to stress the decline of painting over the past 50 years, but this particular exhibition seeks to stimulate debate to the contrary: now, more than ever, is a strong moment for painting. Its location amongst arts finest classics is then entirely justified.

This mantra is conveyed though the voices of five very different, but nevertheless outstanding artists. ‘Subtle affinities’ link the works, but each room plays host to its own world of demonstration of painterly imagination.

In terms of realism, the work of Simon Ling may be the most prominent reflection of the way we live now. His vibrant room displays urban oils, predominantly painted in situ. Ling is said to choose his subject matter by cycling around London, before parking and propping his easel on his bicycle. These works are particularly vivacious in their depiction of the everyday.

What is usually considered nothing suddenly becomes everything. The derelict buildings of Old Street roundabout become gorgeous; the use of orange suggesting a fiery sunset behind the viewer that reflects onto the gritty glass. By being selective with composition and exaggeration of colour, he is able to turn mundane observations into a viewfinder on paradise. The exhibition also tickles the particular fancy of those inclined towards abstraction. Works of 2006 Turner prize winner Tomma Abts and London-based painter Catherine Story respectively convey complexities and aspects of the familiar. Abts’ forms are almost mathematical, communicating with us in a specific language based on the logic of her composition. Story explores the relationship between the recognisable and the dream–like, anthropomorphism and illusion.

Illusions also dominate Lucy McKenize’s neighbouring room. At first glance, her work appears to consist of crowded notice boards and a dominant marble construction. Upon closer inspection however, everything is oil on canvas and thus renders McKenzie’s painterly techniques incredible. But the works go beyond this degree of technical skill, pushing us to consider deeper meanings, certain ideologies or gendering within the viewing structure.

The final room presents the paintings of Gillian Carnegie, another artist whose explorative works led to her being nominated for the Turner prize. Using the impasto technique, Carnegie’s work appears to reach out towards the viewer, with glossy black oil that takes on its own dimensions. She asks that we resist any analysis of narrative or figurative meaning, and instead explore her painterly technique. We marvel at her use of perspective and innovative angles, and contemplate the certain dark mist that engulfs each work, providing eeriness to otherwise commonplace subject matter.

For an exhibition that focuses merely on one genre, we’re confronted with a range of work that spans an incredibly large spectrum. This is one of Painting Now’s greatest success: with such differentiation and excitement in our current painting climate, how can one ever acknowledge its decline as art’s finest expression?