A few years ago the Belgian painter Stephan Balleux undertook a residency in Melbourne. While he was here we had several conversations about the current state and recent history of figurative painting. At one point Balleux suggested that “we must kill Gerhard Richter and destroy all of his paintings so that we can have something left to do.” Balleux was in the process of destroying imagery in his own work, applying thick whorls of paint to photographs, then rephotographing and repainting, repeating the act of destruction by denying both the materiality of the paint and the mimetic quality of the image. Balleux’s more recent work continues to explore themes of representation with windows that become mirrors of more windows, or a series of early 20th century photographic plates of French architecture which he has obscured and darkened by overpainting, excluding only the mirrors. His interest in glass and mirrors, yet another part of his practice which overlaps with experiments undertaken by Richter.
But Balleux’s ambiguous relationship with Richter is illuminating, as is Richter’s decision to place the work Tisch as the no.1 work in his catalogue raisonee. The economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the term “creative destruction” in his 1942 work “capitalism. Socialism and Democracy.” It should be noted that, as is well known, Richter himself personally lived under socialism, capitalism and democracy so perhaps echoes of Schumpeter in his work are not so surprising. Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” describes the process of industrial mutation that revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” This occurs when innovation deconstructs long-standing arrangements and frees resources to be deployed elsewhere.” This process is ongoing so that economies will never reach the stable equilibrium predicted in classical economics. Characteristically Richter has had the effect of destabilising painting at the same time as creating new possibilities. His practice freed the scarce resources of painters from the century long labour of defining painting in opposition to photography. Schumpeter’s ideas have been of increasing interest over the last 10 years or so (according to google analytics), as the global economy undergoes the painful and chaotic transition away from fossil fuel.
Clump of Trees (1987) was the first Richter painting I became aware of, thanks to a book I stumbled upon at high school. Even in reproduction, I was very moved by the feeling of seriousness and by his willingness to “destroy” what looked like an incredible piece of landscape painting. Richter’s destruction is not just a description of the technical process of his painting. As Tom McCarthy writes in his essay, Blurring the Sublime, he has also “reduced to rubble” binaries between abstraction and representation and between form and content, photograph and painting. Kaja Silverman agrees stating that “He has a profound aversion to binary formulations, both within the domain of politics and within that of art, and he cannot encounter one without attempting to dismantle it.“
All of this rubble and dismantling lends itself to an ecocritical reading of Richter’s practice which one might see the destructive aspects of his painting technique foreshadowing this revival of interest in Schumpeter. Even more significantly, his destruction of binaries hints at Timothy Morton’s dark ecology as the apparent distinctions between the human and the non-human world blur and crumble.
Just as Schumpeter’s ideas are undergoing renewed interest, the Schumpeterian aspect of Richter’s legacy has been increasingly evident in recent figurative painting. A show in Adelaide earlier this year curated by the painter Tony Lloyd looked at the work of a group of five Melbourne based painters, Camilla Tadich, David Ralph, Stephen Haley, Darren Wardle and Lloyd himmself. All of these painters have some relationship with photographic imagery. The relationship between the paint and the photographic image is analogous to the relationship between humans and the environment. As Silverman notes, an analogy is distinct from a metaphor. A metaphor, she writes, “entails the substitution of one thing for another. This is a profoundly undemocratic relationship, because the former is a temporary stand-in for the latter and because it has only a provisional reality. In an analogy, on the other hand, both terms are on an equal footing, ontologically and semiotically. They also belong to each other at the most profound level of their being.” The connectedness between analogous terms or objects invoked in these paintings is the constructive counterart to the destruction of binaries involved in making them.
Tony Lloyd freely manipulates and combines found images to construct paintings that frequently resemble cinema stills. In this work the farmer seems to be noting impending catastrophe which, since this is a painting, we know will never come. Lloyd’s palette and use of blurring clearly owe something to Richter, but I suggest that the possibility to interpret the formal qualities of this work as analogous to geological history is the more substantial part of Richter’s legacy. The image is suspended before the moment of collapse. The placement of the asteroid creates a pattern through the centre of the painting of alternating light and dark horizontal bands which extend down through the tractor. These striations, and the hint of hazy mountain in the background suggest cycles of destruction over geological timescales. The farmer, whose machine is cut off prematurely at the bottom of the canvas, his own epoch also about to be cut off prematurely.
Camilla Tadich’s work shows a local level of disruption in her nocturnes. In this case, the party is literally over. Her use of a solid black suggests a reproduction of the effect of flash photography, but it also means that the illusionistic depth of the painting is denied. Only the hint of reflection of the balloon tells us this is water and not boundless void or a black wall. The two images, a car crash and a wayward party balloon are linked. By analogy Tadich connects both death and festivity with the deep night of rural Australia. The stillness of the night is emphasised. The expanse of black paint dominates the flash of colour of the balloon and the bright white wrecked car. It is as if that deep black will soon completely cover the violence of events indicated by the imagery, hinting at one of the deep fears expressed in Australian culture of being swallowed by the bush as with movies such as Picnic at Hanging Rock or Wolf Creek. This fear speaks to the fractured relationship between Europeans and the Australian landscape. In Tadich’s painting the only hope is the relief of oblivion.
David Ralph’s “jungle room” seems to depict an interior space becoming overgrown with plants. As with Wardle’s work, the setting hints at abandonment. A setting in which humans have metaphorically left the picture. In Ralphs painting a controlled gradations forms the floor of the room while the wall is comprised of delineated by a series of horizontal marks following the conventions of linear perspective. In contrast, a band of green marks of various hues and sizes wends across the canvas. There is no clear order to these marks, or even any real semblance of specific foliage. It is the contrast of this section of the painting that indicates to us that this is an organic intrusion, an eruption of the jungle.
Darren Wardle’s paintings of ruined modernist interiors hint at a post-apocalyptic environment. It is not depopulated since the walls are streaked with lurid graffiti. The graffiti though, is comprised of smears and stains. These stains are in a sense real stains, drips and smears on the canvas. As one looks at this painting, one cannot help but dwell on this central chaotic area. The tone is set by the hint of off-colour exterior light and sinister figures lurk at the edge of comprehension. That this area of paint on the canvas does not attempt to represent anything other than paint on a wall does not diminish this effect. As Richter said, abstract painting “draws its life from analogies with the appearance of nature.” Richter’s colour paintings from 1970-73, large canvases based on close photographs of details of abstract paintings, invite this associative construction of analogies. But Wardle’s painting points to another analogy. The graffiti is, in a sense, an uncontrolled intervention in the image, a zone of entropy as the pigment drips and dissipates. In the logic of the image, the graffiti must be made by humans who have occupied this building after whatever catastrophe has befallen it. So it is the humans who are themselves the agents of entropy.
Stephen Haley’s Black Ground presents a group of bungalows, resembling a dystopian new housing development. The title suggests a bitter pun about both the occupation of indigenous land, and the dark strip at the bottom of the painting, suggesting a road. Haley’s work is based on computer-generated images. The analogous relationship expressed by painting these images is naturally different to paintings using photographic imagery. As Silverman outlines, the relationship between a Richter’s photo-based figurative painting and the source photo is analogous to the relationship between the photo and its referent. That is, painting analogises the difference between a photograph and the “real” world. When Haley paints a virtual world, there is no referent to analogise and Haley’s smooth execution of the painting seems to bear this out. Haley, talking about his work strikes a Schumpeterian note when he argues that the ability of digitally constructed images to resemble photographs means that “Finally, photography can get away from the assumed truth of the copy and revel in its vastly greater potential as a simulation. A simulation that is much closer to the veracity of contemporary life.”
These works speak to conditions of contemporary society, especially concerns about climate change and impending ecological collapse. But this is done through analogies rather than metaphor, an important distinction which Richter has helped to define, especially as applied to painting. Richter’s contribution is not just that his practice has rigorously exposed the complex relationships that emerge from connecting binaries, but that these relationships are analogous with events in the world.
Hill Smith Gallery, Adelaide
23 Sept – 14 Oct. 2017