Show of two halves fascinates and frustrates with A Bigger Splash at Tate Modern

By Mark Sheerin | 14 November 2012
A tromp l'oiel photo of a frescoed room with a fireplace
Lucy McKenzie, May of Teck (2010)© Lucy McKenzie. Collection Charles Asprey
Exhibition Review: A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance, Tate Modern, London, until April 1 2013

Some 100 years after Kasimir Malevich painted art history into a dead end with his Black Square, a new exhibition at Tate revels in renewed current interest in painting. It also appears to suggest that, since the 1950s, painting’s continued relevance may owe much to performance art.

Pairing Jackson Pollock with David Hockney, Room One brings us a microcosm of the whole show. If you ever thought the existential American was too brooding and authentic to play to a camera, think again.

Summertime: Number 9A is installed on a horizontal plinth, from where it is all too easy to picture its creation as a somewhat cheery dance around the canvas. But the accompanying film by Hans Namuth irked Pollock, who felt he came across as “phoney”.

Colour photo of a portrait format action painting with dripping colours
Niki de Saint Phalle, Shooting Picture 1961© The estate of Niki de Saint Phalle. Photo: Tate
Hockney, by contrast, held no such fears. His famous swimming pool scene, A Bigger Splash, is entirely artificial. The Yorkshireman makes a mockery of Pollock’s instinctive working methods by taking two weeks to paint a photorealistic splash with delicate white tracery and individual droplets of spray.

It is so clinical, one wonders what this well-known work might have to do with performance and why, indeed, curator Catherine Wood has borrowed its title for the entire exhibition. But the title also runs alongside a film by Jack Hazan which demonstrates the camp theatricality for which Hockney’s work has in the past served as a backdrop.

Pollock’s studio and Hockney’s diving board are both jumping off points for a lesson in the history of performative painting from 1950 to the early 1980s. It is no accident that both come with films, since film and photography proved essential to the documentation and circulation of action painting by its many practitioners, who include Yves Klein, Niki de Saint Phalle and the Viennese Actionists.

As Eda Čufer points out in the catalogue, this is art for the age of mechanical reproduction. After 500 years of painting unique works, these have now become secondary. The sharp-suited Klein employs live nudes to draw attention to his process; Saint Phalle invites third parties to burst polythene sacs of paint with a shotgun; and the Actionists photograph orgiastic paint parties.

In some cases, artists really do paint themselves into a corner. Stuart Brisley is a revelation in this context with documentation of his Artist as Whore performance piece in which he spends seven deranged days painting the gallery walls and himself; Romanian Geta Brătescu papers her studio with white paper and paints herself white in an attempt to vanish into the walls. 

So in many cases, what artists most want to perform is their own disappearance. In one interesting case, a former Situationist, Pinot Gallizio, develops a machine for painting and puts assistants to work on a production line. His minimal role is a bit of scissor-waving salesmanship as he sells the finished work by the metre.

The first half of this show is almost too dense to take in. Paintings sit alongside photos with detailed interpretation plaques. Films play out on monitors and projections on the wall with resulting sound- bleed from room to room, but the overwhelming mood is one of excitement rather than didacticism.

Painting of a californian swimming pool with splash beyong a diving board in foreground
David Hockney, A Bigger Splash, 1967© David Hockney
So what of part two, in which Wood has chosen nine contemporary artists working on the boundaries of painting and performance? Most have a room each, allowing for some genuine theatre, but there is nothing quite as confrontational as Viennese Actionists, or even quite as radical as Cindy Sherman who, after all, paints with make-up. As a result, this show fades a little before the end.

It is not fair to blame the likes of Lucy McKenzie, whose paintings of well-appointed corridors are floor-to-ceiling tromp l’oeil, or Ei Arawaka, whose films of painting "actions" are presented before a recreation of a huge theatre backdrop by Léon Bakst. But these are works with relatively limited charge which perhaps reflect the limited possibilities of our times.

Of course, part two does have installations to recommend it. Edward Krasiński borders one whole gallery with blue scotch tape, which stretches the picture plane to include a forest of mirrors; you may find yourself performing for them in a small way yourself, so be warned.

Another highlight of the entire exhibition is The Juniper Tree by Joan Jonas. Red and white paintings on banners create a pageant-like backdrop for a past performance of a fairy tale by Brothers Grimm. It is some achievement that you can now really feel the space is enchanted.

Most works in this fascinating, if patchy, show point towards such a re-enchantment, and the body painting frenzies of the late 20th century surely connect painting to its prehistoric roots.

Not even a mechanical painting machine can change that, and not even the apotheosis of Western civilisation: namely a Californian swimming pool scene, frozen in time as if by a photograph.

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