A long-living medium imbued with ideas of conservatism, tradition, academic standards, painting started to be seen as an obsolete practice by art critics and artists themselves especially after World War II. The economic boom favoured an optimistic creative wave which looked for new ways of celebrating the modern world and its consumerist aesthetic: Pop Art entered the scene, elevating advertising and print processes to artistic status. Painting however survived these and other ominous scenarios, including that foreseen in Douglas Crimp’s pivotal essay The End of Painting, ironically published in 1981 immediately preceding the explosion of painting in the 1980s with figures like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Julian Schnabel. However, if the medium managed to go through all these apocalyptic statements, it is because artists started to question its nature and value in our contemporary world and tried to make it viable in the context of an art scene saturated with photographs, videos, installations and sculptures. Painting embarked on a self-referential journey through the exploration of its own limits and possibilities, in a direct confrontation with its peculiarities and those of other mediums.
This path, passing through Gerhard Richter’s photo-realistic works on canvas, leads to a present situation where artists feel compelled, in one way or the other, to come into terms with the virtual world that is taking over everyday life. Painting in the digital age sees infinite possibilities to renew itself by the appropriation of the lexicon and techniques of new technologies. The computer hosts the parallel platform where the artist’s expression is enabled to come to life. The artist draws lines by the simple drag of his mouse, fills fields of colour with a single ‘click’: a software is his new tool box, the screen a blank canvas from where to start experimenting an almost infinite range of artistic possibilities. The results obtained on screen are then usually printed on canvas, in a process critically questioning the boundaries between paintings’ uniqueness and prints’ reproducibility.
This is usually the process followed by German artist Albert Oehlen in his most recent paintings. Coming out of the ‘New Wild Paintings’ group in the late 1970s – in a period where the medium was generally thought to be obsolete – and having bought a computer as early as the 1990s, he was one of the first artists to explore the creative potential of new technologies. Finally rejecting figuration, he embarked on an original critique of the myth and aura surrounding Abstract Expressionism. Works such as Untitled, 2001, are a jumbled commingling of vigorous brushstrokes, hard-hedged lines and fluid smudges of colour traced with the imperceptible movement of a mouse. All-over fields of colour clash with digitally-collaged patterns in compositions that question all the assumptions about the sacred role of the artist’s hand and the impersonality of the machine and of mechanical reproduction.
The fluidity and immeasurability of the data moving at incredible speed inside our computers is beyond human time and vision. A translation of this digital language into our everyday being is felt as a more and more urgent need, and many contemporary art practices have tried to address this issue. Under these auspices, Jeff Elrod’s paintings act as analogue renderings of a virtual reality. In works like Untitled (Green Screen) the artist creates his compositions with the help of computer editing programmes. The resulting image is then projected onto canvas, where Elrod reworks it by hand with paintbrushes or spray paint. In rejuvenating ‘life painting’ for the computer era, Elrod gives his medium a new aim, that of depicting the virtual. In a modern take on Surrealism’s praise of automatic drawing, Elrod sees in computer graphics a tool to go beyond the human control on his creations, the software becoming an integral part of the aesthetic process.
When he was creating his first ‘pixel paintings’ in the early 1990s, Frank Stella was already well aware of the creative potential offered by emerging digital technologies. Belonging to a previous generation of artists rooted in Minimalism, Stella was able to foresee a new life for painting, anticipating some of the most radical tendencies in contemporary art. For his sculptures, such as K.359, Stella begins by constructing a model by hand, which is then scanned into a computer and rendered in three-dimensions using CAD software. Stella’s ‘pixel paintings’ are enveloping virtual environments of exceptional dynamism, created by computer programmes. Works as Study for Princess of Wales Theater, Toronto, IV manifest an illusionistic depth which is suggestive of an immaterial space beyond physical reality – the web with its infinite ramifications of interconnected threads.
Looking at Stella’s enveloping digital paintings, one may say that the digital is much more a context we are all immersed in than simply a medium. Painting in this new virtual time means exploding conventional spatial coordinates in order to penetrate the realm of instantaneous transcontinental communications and global networks. Stella’s outburst of shapes, Oehlen’s superimpositions of formal languages, and Elrod’s play with virtual iconography, all bear witness to an artworld that, following the dematerialisation of today’s reality, is more and more in a state of flux.