Cinematic Visions: Painting at the Edge of Reality
Since the infancy of cinema, when moviegoers would watch in disbelief as two-dimensional images leapt into life, painting and film have enjoyed a fruitful if sometimes fraught relationship. Cinematic Visions: Painting at the Edge of Reality (8 June to 3 August) takes as its starting point an ongoing dialogue between the two media, looking at the enduring influence of film on visual artists and how in an age of the Internet and social media painters continue to engage with and redefine their practice in relation to the moving image. At the exhibition's heart are questions about time, technology, narrative, memory and their impact upon contemporary painting.
The exhibition brings together a broad spectrum of leading artists, prompting thematic conversations across generations, between those who rose to prominence during the closing decades of the last century and younger artists who have found their voice in today's world, a place of incalculably more images, where distinct movements have given way to heterogeneity and the availability of and reliance on technology is taken as given. Shifting ideas about portraiture and our relationship to the body are central themes. Ian and Mary, 1971, by the late American painter Alice Neel, is one of a handful of images in the exhibition painted directly from life, yet in her spare, urgent paintings Neel, who famously stated 'I don't do realism' always alerts us to pictorial shifts and disjunctions that trigger psychological readings beyond the painted surface. Painted four decades later, Chantal Joffe's Jessica, 2012, a portrait of the actress Jessica Chastain, was made by remarkably different means. The result of a photographic shoot directed remotely by Joffe via Skype, the painting could be regarded as an archetypal twenty-first-century hybrid - an oil painting derived from a photographic image, which was created via camera and screen with artist and model thousands of miles apart. Joffe's is certainly a highly mediated image, yet her direct painterly approach bestows a convincing physicality that, as with Neel's painting, transcends space and time.
Painting, like film, is revealed to be a powerful motor in the creation of fiction. Like cinematic moments, many of the works in the exhibition invite us to construct a whole from isolated images. In Eric Fischl's Victoria Falls, 2013, figures ascending and descending are caught in a moment of stasis that resembles a perilous psychological dance. The noir-ish scene depicted in Hernan Bas' HOAX REVEALED: the Devil of Deckheart Manor caught on film, 2013, reads like a still from an imagined movie, one in which the central character - a figure in disguise - seems humorously to question ideas of authenticity and authorship.
Peter Doig, whose practice over the past twenty years has drawn heavily on the language of cinema, layers the personal and public, figurative and abstract, visual and conceptual in works that resonate with narrative potential. In 2003, Doig started a film club, StudioFilmClub, in his studio near Port of Spain, Trinidad, making posters for the weekly screenings. An audience member walking in front of the screen, casting a shadow across the moving image, inspired the artist to create a version of Lapeyrouse Wall, one of a number of works by Doig that depict a mysterious figure walking beside a cemetery wall. In Doig's shadow world the real and cinematic merge. Fittingly, the image was eventually reproduced as a poster for the 2008 Trinidad Tobago Film Festival.
While several of the images in Cinematic Visions appear haunted or suggest heightened states, as in the metaphysical world conjured by Chris Ofili in Ovid-Windfall, 2011-2012, others seem subject to unseen forces or interior compressions. For many artists in the exhibition, the radical language of modernist painting developed during the early twentieth century - of collapsing and expanding picture planes responding to the frenetic pace and fragmentary encounters of modern life - continues to evolve as distortions and mutations of the image take on new permutations with each technological advance. Cinematic Visions examines how, through a variety of painterly strategies and gestures, figuration starts to break down and, conversely, how a residual figurative substratum can be found in even the most apparently abstract image. In Cecily Brown's Sweetly Reminiscent, Something Mother Used to Make, 2013, brush marks and body parts, paint and flesh, begin to dance in a contemporary bacchanal. The cut and splice of Wangechi Mutu's hybrid figures and Inka Essenhigh's sinuous biomorphs, meanwhile, seem to exist on a sliding scale between figuration and abstraction, realism and surrealism.
For many artists the questions, diversions, doubts and decisions of the painting process become ways of altering an image's rhythm, narrative and meaning. If film has the capacity to capture its subject in an instant and painting, by its nature, requires time for its production, the decelerated space of painting becomes an expanded arena for enquiry. Painted surfaces invite the eye to linger. Working between surface and image, flatness and materiality, source and transformation, artists such as Peter Doig, Chris Ofili, Eric Fischl and Luc Tuymans harness the operations of memory and desire to uniquely atmospheric ends. In more abstract works by Yayoi Kusama, Adriana Varejão,and Nicholas Hlobo, embellished surfaces are designed to engage the mind while leading the eye on an orchestrated journey around the picture plane.
It is through these shifts and nuances of pace and touch that the paintings in Cinematic Visions address the slippery world of image making and image reading in the twenty-first century, where access can be instantaneous yet often at one remove and the screen dominates experience. If individually some of the works bear a resemblance to film stills, installed across all three spaces of Victoria Miro Gallery the paintings gain a cumulative momentum that can be thought of as a kind of tracking shot. Narrative threads are revealed and renewed with each experience of viewing. The act of looking becomes cinematic.