Post-Conceptualism and Figurative Painting An excerpt from: Apologia (Contemporary Art Issue, 2020).
Ill. 1: Juxtapostion; [image on the left] Marcel Broodthaers, Armoire blanche et table blanche, 1965. Painted furniture with eggshells – 86 x 82 x 62 cm & 104 x 100 x 40 cm. Photo: Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. [image on the right] Michaël Borremans, The Egg IV, 2012. Oil on canvas – 42 x 36 cm. Courtesy of Zeno X Gallery.
In recent years, figurative painting has become increasingly visible. However, the notion of contemporary figurative painting remains often rather problematic in certain circuits. Wrongly, even today, representational painting is still associated with, or seen as, a reactionary tendency in contemporary art. As a result, in some cases, it is even looked down upon. The medium and visual language of representational oil painting is labelled as traditional and obsolete – and thus, not an intellectual form of art or high art in general – even though the aesthetics are exclusively time-bound, contemporary, and the subject matter is closer to Joseph Kosuth (b. 1945) than by example to Claude Monet (1940-1926).
Even though, at the same time, one must also be cautious and critical in the manner one approaches figurative art today. It is to say, representational painting is often – and also wrongly – judged or admired solely for its skillfully rendered figurative imagery. A trick of magic by the painter, transforming pigments and turpentine into people, landscapes, animals, life. Ready to bite art, ripe to be consumed by a much wider audience. However, it must be made clear that today the usage of a figurative visual language is not a free agent to serious, good or successful painting. Although figurative painting is on the up in the art world over the last few decades, the premise or pretext of figuration does not perforce fulfill the outcome of relevant art. In fact, the figuration is often rather a casing, a vehicular language externalizing its concepts.
Postmodern movements in art have changed the semiotics of art radically. A culmination point for this often-linguistic game of the signified and the signifier can be found in Conceptual Art. At first, from a visual point of view, one might argue Conceptual Art and figurative painting today are completely different, one might even say, opposites. However, the semiotics of a painting by Michaël Borremans (b. 1963) (ill. 1) are much more alike to a work by Marcel Broodthaers (1924-1976) (ill. 2) than to, by instance, Borremans' baroque painting teacher Diego Velázquez (1599-1660).
Ill. 2: Michaël Borremans, The Egg IV, 2012. Oil on canvas – 42 x 36 cm. Courtesy of Zeno X Gallery.
Ill. 3: Marcel Broodthaers, Armoire blanche et table blanche, 1965. Painted furniture with eggshells – 86 x 82 x 62 cm & 104 x 100 x 40 cm. Photo: Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Broodthaers, who has made many works with eggs and eggshells, alludes in a humoristic manner on the absurdity of using eggs as a medium in an artwork. However, by using eggs and eggshells, the eggs also become a symbolic construction for interpretation. The meaning of ‘the egg as a metaphor’ arises. The egg is a reference to fertility, and the genesis of things. Even more, by placing the egg in an art historic context, the role of the egg as a part of art history – as a medium for paint and mixing pigment – comes in to play, juxtaposed to the absurd sculpture by the Belgian conceptual artist.
Borremans also plays with the shifts in meaning of the egg in his painting, yet evoking different analogies. The painting itself, the pose of the girl looking down at the egg in the palm of her hand, feels as a very surreal image. This (neo-)surrealism is an indication the image is staged, there is no narrative taking place. Although the image is very representational and thus less absurd than the Broodthaers sculpture, it has a same kind of humor in its absurdism. However, in contrast to Broodthaers, this humor is drenched in the melancholic atmosphere of the image. Further, being painted in a manner reminiscent to old master painting, this omnipresent dialogue of Borremans’ works with art history, in relation to the egg and its role as a medium for painting, raises intriguing questions and even statements, presented in an anachronistic setting of Postmodern and Post-conceptual Art, rendered in traditionally painted manner.
Thus, Borremans' paintings are not at all reactionary or an opposite to Conceptual Art as one might possibly argue. They are in fact strongly Post-Conceptual. Even more, his work would not have been possible to make in another era. From a dialectic perspective, Post-Conceptualism is not a counter reaction or an end to Conceptual Art, it is rather a synthesis of new developments, building upon the legacy of Conceptual Art in which the concept – the idea – is the main concern of the artwork. This Conceptual notion had freed the artist of the so-called dictatorship of beauty and esthetics. But this does not imply a Conceptual work cannot be esthetically pleasing. Think about the iconic One and three chairs (1965) by the aforementioned Joseph Kosuth (ill. 3). Although the beauty of this sculpture is less convenient, the arrangement is very esthetically pleasing, and, these esthetics are without a doubt strongly premeditated. So why would an esthetic figurative piece of art not be able to have a conceptual foundation?
Ill. 4: Joseph Kosuth, One and three chairs, 1965. Wood folding chair, mounted photograph of a chair, and mounted photographic enlargement of the dictionary definition of "chair", Chair 82 x 37.8 x 53 cm, photographic panel 91.5 x 61.1 cm, text panel 61 x 76.2 cm. Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
For the case of Michaël Borremans, I think many of his paintings are misunderstood because of their beauty. Sometimes, I would even like to say that they are too beautiful. However, as Borremans has stated before, they are relevant because they are painted in this manner. The painterly technique creates an anachronism with its contemporary subject matter and composition. This notion functions as a continuum throughout his oeuvre and can be seen as a conceptual notion itself. This case study illustrates a possible pitfall for figurative painting today as a traditional form of art, craftsmanship without any contemporary input or intellectually challenging aspects. In particular with painters such as Michaël Borremans, whom are not only very esthetical and skillful, but also very subtle in their approach. The conceptual subject matter is disguised in virtuoso brushstrokes, asking a great effort from the viewer to remain attentive in a daze of beauty.
Not all artists occupied with conceptual figurative painting work in this manner. Another great example can be found with the works of Manuele Cerutti (b. 1976). Visually reminiscent to Michaël Borremans, the burnt umber and yellow ocher palette, surreal compositions and masterly brushstrokes, the Italian artist choses for a more radical conceptual approach. Seemingly in the tradition of still life painting, Cerutti paints images that seem to be installations or sculptures of found objects. Doing so, he creates a rhetorical question for the viewer to solve. The objects, taken out of their context, become the actors or protagonists of the painting. By example, with his series La folla, ‘the crowd’, the painter conceptualizes objects as characters. Their original function is undone, questioning our perception of everyday objects. By example, with Personaggio secondo (ill. 5) and Personaggio ottavo (ill. 6), Cerutti creates and depicts the characters of this crowd. The first painting in a very implicit and enigmatic fashion, the second in a humoristic and absurd manner, giving an everyday object a beard.
Ill. 5: Manuele Cerutti, La folla, personaggio secondo, 2015. Oil on linen – 35 x 29.5 cm. Courtesy of Artuner.
Ill. 6: Manuele Cerutti, La folla, personaggio ottavo, 2015. Oil on linen – 40 x 30 cm. Courtesy of 401 Contemporary / Photo: Cristina Leoncini.
Another example can be found with the works of Michael Simpson (b. 1940). Although the British painter is from another generation than Borremans and Cerutti, Simpson effectuates in a similar fashion figurative conceptual painting. He is known for his, most often large scale, paintings of ladders, steps, benches and plinths. Objects, often used in Conceptual Art and Installation Art.
They are used as a symbol of human culture, human presence, or, when being depicted empty, the absence of human presence. From a visual point of view, the works of Simpson are much more rooted in Minimalism, Conceptual Art and the ‘clean’ esthetics of the 60s, 70s and 80s. His images seem to be conceptual installations, but then painted. By example, the diptych of Leper squints 21 and 22 (ill. 7) depict a black plinth, and, the same black plinth that is becoming a step by adding a slightly higher part, shifting in its categorical meaning. With both paintings, there is a black rectangle on the background at the top of the painting. These objects are both installed in the same setting. It is to say, the setting is as if in a gallery. A grey, probably concrete, floor, and a white wall.
One of the most important aspects in Simpson’s works is the way he composes these elements in this space. As with Conceptual Art, by example the aforementioned One and three chairs by Joseph Kosuth (ill. 4) or the installation of Marcel Broodthaers (ill. 3), the objects are arranged in an aesthetic and artistic manner in space, as an accrochage of forms. Michael Simpson connects this way of arranging forms with painting as a medium. In the end, according to Simpson, painting is all about putting the right things in the right places, as it always has been.
These three painters – from three different generations – indicate a continuum of the legacy of Conceptual Art in painting. Post-conceptualism has not only shifted the esthetics in painting, but also the semiotics.