It could be said that “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (The Young Ladies of Avignon, originally titled The Brothel of Avignon), a large oil painting created in 1907 by the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, was a significant leap towards modern painting. In my opinion, modern contemporary painting peaked with the Abstract Expressionists; Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still or the New York School of the 1940s, 50s and 60s.
The New York School is often characterised by gestural brush, drips, marks and strokes or fields of colour. The action painters were led by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, spontaneous, gestural, energetic, using large brushes and drips on large format canvas. Pollock even rejecting the need to use a brush at all favouring sticks and pouring paint directly on to his canvas laid out on his studio floor.
Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still created more subtle compositions, colour field painting, with large areas of colour intended to offer contemplative and almost religious experiences for the viewer.
The New York painters’ influence can still be felt in the contemporary painting of today. Abstract painting is by far the most represented painting style of the 21st century. It has become traditional.
Fernando Gaspar is one of my favourite Portuguese painters. He tells stories and recounts journeys through his work. Gaspar’s painting is rooted in a fascination with the concept of territorial identity. Technically, the ghosts of Abstract Expressionism can be felt in his work.
The influence of the New York Style is foundational to paintings of note some 70 years later (works by Fernando Gaspar can be viewed at São Mamede, Galeria de Arte, Lisbon).
Even the most avant-garde of modern artists such as Damien Hirst hark back to the fields of colour and marks of the New York School, especially in his “Spot” paintings, a self-controlled version of Pollock’s “drips”.
Since 1986, Damien Hirst has produced, unimpressively I might add, over 1,000 spot paintings. The dots appear printed or digital but are actually hand-painted. Hirst’s spots follow a number of specific rules: the spots must be uniform in size, hand-painted in a perfect circle, and positioned in a grid. Ever repetitive and perhaps intentionally cynical, Hirst’s paintings are not as groundbreaking as his pickled sharks.
“I wanted to create a system where whatever decisions you make within a painting, the paintings end up happy,” explains Hirst, tediously.
So, where does this leave the future of painting? Is there room for a painting revolution or new movement that debunks the work of the past 70 years, a defining work like Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles” that make all paintings before look conservative?
We have explored nearly every colour combination, mark and canvas shape with only personal styles differentiating artwork and nothing significant that could mark the beginning of a new age of painting. Perhaps some of the most notable contemporary movements have been in “street or urban art” like Banksy.
What about NFTs and digital art? Are NFTs really an art form? Or a gimmick? A little confused or have no idea what NFT stands for? Here is a little explanation … “non-fungible token” any clearer? No? “Non-fungible” means that its unique and can’t be replaced by something else. NFTs exist in a digital soup.
I am personally inundated with crazy offers to buy my original paintings minted as NFTs. I have often thought to sell my artwork as NFTs and include the original for free letting Finanças and my accountants deal with that can of ethereum worms.
The value of crypto “assets” or NFTs is only true if enough people believe in the self-propelling hype, a little like fiat currency and collectible art. To own an original piece of art is so much more valuable than to own a digital version or computer-generated graphic. The experience is incomparable. Compare the experience of visiting MAAT museum in Lisbon to a virtual online gallery and I think you can see my point.
If we look at the universal future of humankind, the greater question will be how far we become part of an augmented or virtual reality. More art is viewed via Instagram than physically in galleries.
Will we neurolink our minds to a meta verse? Will we trade digital art that adorn tradable digital real estate? For art and artists, how will we add colour, imagery and wonder to this internal digital space?
Neurolink is building a fully integrated Brain Computer Interface (BCI) system; technologies that enable a computer or other digital devices to be controlled directly with brain activity. Research has demonstrated that a person with paralysis can control a computer mouse or keyboard just by thinking about how they want to move it.
So, where does art, or more specifically painting, fit in this future? Perhaps these devices can take us on a journey of visual experience by stimulating serotonin or other brain chemicals. As an artist, maybe we could truly “think paint” an artwork without having to move a muscle.
From my own painting experience, I go for years not being able to afford studio space that is big enough for my work or the time to fully immerse in painting. I can spend many hours thinking on large works in my head and filling notebooks ready for when a studio opportunity arises. Perhaps in the virtual space I can just think an artwork and it becomes part of an online experience.
These thoughts fill me with terror, I spent my teenage years perfecting my handwriting and now all I do is tap a keyboard (apart from those spiritual mark making moments in my notebook). My art is physical and, like de Kooning and Pollock, I enjoy the movement, the action.
We are on the edge of something and the thoughts of what that ‘something’ could become fills me with a nostalgia for the great tradition of abstract contemporary painting. From the very first moment our ancestors drew on cave walls, it defined us humans as something unique. If we lose that connection between our hand and mark, between gesture and storytelling, do we lose what it is to be truly human?
|| [email protected]
Durães-West is a contemporary artist and painter living and working in Portugal. His new studio, under construction in the Alentejo, is intended to be a creative space where artists, technologists, digital nomads and computer programmers can live, create, work and explore new artistic dimensions. www.duraeswest.com