Slow Painting is the first showing of a Hayward Gallery Touring exhibition that will subsequently be seen throughout 2020 in Plymouth, Bath, Inverness and Thurso. It is fitting that it should open in Leeds, the city where its curator, Martin Herbert, studied fine art, and specifically painting, in the 1990s before a career focused on writing and curatorial projects. Herbert writes astutely in his detailed catalogue essay about changing attitudes to and fashions in painting over the decades between his own art education and now, as well as how they relate to wider cultural shifts. As Brian Cass, senior curator of Hayward Gallery Touring, suggests in his introduction to the catalogue, Herbert presents us here with, ‘a cultural counter-tendency [that] sustains painting’s role as a rewarding repository of time, as a counterbalance to an increasingly accelerating world’.
The American physicist Alan Lightman, who combines high-level research in astrophysics with a contemplation of the relationship of science and religious thought in his poetry, essays and novels, has written that, ‘faith is the ability to honour stillness at some moments and at others to ride the passion and exuberance that is the flight of the imagination’. Try replacing ‘faith’ in that sentence with ’art’, and this offers a way of thinking through the place of slowness in art making. Slowness in the context of painting might refer to the artist’s processes of seeing, thinking and making, as well as the audience’s looking and contemplation in response. Whether made over minutes or months, a painting requires a concentrated period of attention from an artist interspersed with periods of painstakingly slow or frenetically quick action. Once presented to an audience, that same painting might receive patient, concentrated attention and a fixed gaze, or a momentary encounter and a fleeting look. Cinematic metaphors—slow-motion or time-lapse, single long takes or jump cuts, close-ups or wide shots—can be applied to the changing perspectives from which any given painting is viewed, not only by its audience but also by the artist during the process of its making.
The slowness or otherwise of the painter’s process is not always revealed, even to the attentive viewer who is closely contemplating the work. As Allison Katz points out in the catalogue, ‘paintings can conceal their labour. One of painting’s qualities that I appreciate is that you can’t necessarily tell the time it took to make: a gesture could have taken a long time but looks like it happened really quickly, and vice versa.’ This temporal ambiguity counters and complicates any sense in which the exhibition’s theme might be seen to make a value distinction that privileges the slow over the fast, whether in its philosophical attitude towards painting as a practice or paintings as objects of contemplation. The visual evidence on the wall may not demonstrate how a painting was made, or why, or how long it took, and indeed, it may intentionally mislead us. It might also remind us of the relativity of time, of the way in which speed can be contained within slowness and vice-versa. To illustrate this by returning to a cinematic example, two hours watching an Ingmar Bergman film is an altogether slower experience than the same two hours of a fast-paced action movie. Current technologies that provide the capacity to fast-forward or skip back have significantly changed the experience of watching a film or listening to an album of recorded music, allowing a means of consumption that has always been possible in an art gallery. In a gallery there is always the choice to contemplate a painting for hours or to walk quickly past, or to return for longer on multiple occasions; decisions that any viewer is free to make.
The variety of painting in this exhibition is considerable, ranging widely in scale, process and subject matter, and reflecting the diverse and eclectic use of the medium in much contemporary art practice. Interestingly, though, abstraction is largely and noticeably absent. The only truly abstract paintings in the exhibition are by Yelena Popova, Varda Caivano and Sherman Mern Tat Sam. Darren Almond’s small paintings might appear so at first sight, but their apparently abstract oval shapes are in fact representations of atoms in motion. The absence of abstract painting means that none of the tropes of the recently fashionable genre of ‘painting in the expanded field’ are present (a welcome absence in my view), with the minor exceptions of the (slightly) shaped canvases and reversed stretcher works by Merlin James and the irregular combined panels of Simon Ling. A more significant absence in a national touring show, particularly given the recent prominence of so many Black artists working with paint, both younger generations and ‘recuperated’ older painters such as Frank Bowling, is the relative lack of artists of colour.
The current prominence of painting in contemporary art is reflected by the fact that almost all of the work in the exhibition is from the last decade and much of that from the last two years. Where older work is included (Lubaina Himid, Carol Rhodes), it is paired with more recent work by the same artist. Thought-provoking pairings of works and of artists of different kinds are one of the clear curatorial strengths of this exhibition. For example, the placing of large works by Michael Simpson and Yelena Popova opposite each other, where Popova’s geometric abstraction is complemented by Simpson’s equally geometric formalist compositions of architectural subjects, is punctuated by the small realist paintings of Gareth Cadwallader. Benjamin Senior’s carefully choreographed realist paintings of everyday life, adjacent to Lucy Mackenzie’s trompe l’oeil images within images (in which a mix of letters, photographs, newspaper cuttings, maps and other miscellaneous items are illusionistically pinned to bulletin boards or bedroom walls) form another astute and rewarding pairing. Inevitably, personal readings of the works here suggest other possible pairings. For example, Mackenzie could equally well be seen alongside the intriguing and witty juxtapositions of imagery in the work of Alison Katz; or Simpson’s formalist architectural compositions might be paired with Carol Rhodes’ topographical landscapes that contrast flatness and depth whilst implying human presence through its absence.
It is fitting that an exhibition dedicated to slowness provides ample opportunity for study and contemplation. Leeds Art Gallery should be commended for furnishing the gallery spaces with seating, on which resources are freely available in the form of monographs of almost every artist included in the exhibition. These, together with the thoughtful and erudite writing of Martin Herbert in his catalogue essay, also available in multiple copies distributed throughout the space, encourage the audience to engage with Slow Painting more fully by doing some slow reading.
Slow Painting is at Leeds Art Gallery from 25 October – 12 January. Curated by Martin Herbert, it is a Hayward Gallery Touring exhibition. The exhibition features 19 artists, primarily British or UK based, whose work spans a myriad of styles and applications, from figuration to abstraction. The exhibition travels to The Levinsky Gallery in Plymouth (25 Jan – 29 Mar 2020).
Derek Horton © 2019