On Painting Identity

In the same way that an Illustration can be realized with a pictorial medium, for example, oil, and still not to be considered as a “Painting”; Can one question the status “Painting” of a work done in pictorial medium? As later we shall see, this is not a metaphysical or a purely ideological question, but a question of use. To illustrate the point, we returned to a text made after the visit to the last Biennial of Painting done at the Museum of Contemporary Art Alfredo Zalce, a text that has been revised to approach the question:


(Or how to not understand painting as painting)

Obra galardonada con el Premio de Adquisición de la X Bienal Nacional de Pintura y Grabado Alfredo Zalce 2016
MARCO ANTONIO ARCE ANGUIANO Epekenia tes ouslas (Acquisition prize, Tenth National Biennial of Painting and Engraving Alfredo Zalce. 2016)

Cornered and with the lights out, so it’s as the few figurative paintings of the most recent Painting and Engraving Biennial of the MACAZ (1) are, symptom of the understanding that governed the selection and awarding. Clarifying: We do not criticize the little figurative presence, nor do we enter into the discussions between the abstract and the figurative; Of painting with the conceptual; Of the “traditional” with the “new”, what we are interested in, is to dialogue with the understanding of painting that was clearly evident in the show. We use the word figurative because it is the most common to describe the neglected works of the biennial, the rest of the selection shows instead of paintings, are rather postmodern devices that use painting, as a medium and as a tool; The change is in a not so subtle emphasis: from painting to concept. The exacerbation of the conceptual aspect of painting is already a rather deciduous tendency that is fallaciously used to justify the use of painting in the postmodern, post-structuralist, posthistorical, post-art context (or as one wish to name it according to any theoretical-ideological affinity in such subjects). Here it’s necessary to remember that all painting, and any work of art has its conceptual aspect, in other words, it is not that the objects highlighted in the selection are not paint, but in fact, that they are not used as such.

This emphasis is clear from the text that opens the painting’s selection, which is congruent in the choice of honorific mentions and the acquisition prize; we do not try to undermine the merit of any of them but to address the underlying question: Not to understand Painting as painting. In other words: Understanding painting only as a conceptual device, which leads to questioning: What is to understand painting as painting? The most specific criterion that can be reached is that in which by moving away from all metaphysics and any theoretical a priori, there we can concentrate on the phenomenon of painting itself. Thus, the specificity of painting is the manipulation of light, which follows in the definition of painting that we propose:


Painting is the manipulation of light on a given surface.


It is in this censor, exalt, tint, conjugate, abstract and saturation of the light that the painter performs his work. Even in manifestations closer to materiality, the painter works the way light is perceived in his work. It is clear that this specificity does not delimit the entry of conceptuality or, if one prefers: of the idea in the art work, for every work has a purely intellectual component. To be clear, we do not affirm that the painting that serves as a conceptual device is not a painting, what we try to address is precisely that within the concept of painting there are different understandings. In the case we are studying, we know that artists, jurors, theorists and critics related to conceptual understanding may argue that there is no conflict at all, that in fact “that´s the only way to paint today”, so they would perform quasi academic recitations about the use and mention of the forms of the past and other theoretical lucubrations, but you can not hide the essential fact that it was a painting and engraving biennial, not one of conceptual art that uses painting. And above all, that anywhere in the call is specified some emphasis on a specific type of paint. In fact in the category of engraving we could find a true multifaceted selection in terms of techniques and conceptions of the graphic arts. Add that we found a virtual absence of participants from the state of Michoacán (place of the competition), not in a xenophobic but symptomatic reading; Is it a lack of “talent” or lack of relevance to the jury criteria, or it rather reflected the true absence of Michoacán participants?, If so, the question arises whether this is due to lack of interest, little confidence in the selection criteria, or the loss of credibility in the contest, and therefore, in the institution.

The problem here is not that the selection choose works far away from what is normally called “beautiful” or “well rendered”, the problem is that it raises a single facet of painting as valid. Even within the small group of “figurative” paintings, there is the interesting inclusion of “Sebastian” by Rafaella Freyre Ortiz, a purely academic painting, which in the light of the rest of the selection makes us wonder if its presence in the selection is due to Its pictorial qualities, or rather to an understanding on the part of the jury in which it is designated as revival or with some ironic tone; Again: was it understood as painting, or as a conceptual object? Is even a separation between the painting aspect and the object/conceptual device  necessary?

To begin answering the questions that have been formulated, we need to returned to the first paragraph, an illustration created as such, made simply for illustrate a text, can be used as a work of art independent of the text it illustrates, for example Gustave Doré’s engravings of The Divine Comedy, or in that same tonic, the engraving “The four horsemen of the apocalypse” of Albrecht Dürer, or the placement of African ritual masks in an art museum, outside of its original ritual use. Objects that by their qualities (conceptual, aesthetic, historical, etc.) transcend its original use proposal. The Italian artist, essayist and aesthete Luciano Nanni proposes before this reality, that we should identify the work of art, as an object tout court, a French expression that among its possible translations are: simply, nothing else, simply, bluntly, plainly, etc., in other words: Nanni proposes to conceive the art works as simply objects, whose identity as art will depend on its use as such. This allows us to move away from philosophical theories, and metaphysical of “what must be art”, thus come to the realization of the existence of Aesthetic Pertinences that grounds diverse art understandings, which can be parallel, contrary or just, different. Returning to the question of understanding painting as a conceptual device, we can understand from the above that the problem has two facets:

First, the lack of knowledge of the Aesthetic Pertinence of the institution, the call, and the jury (if it is the same) and the identification of this as the only one valid. Hence, the selection shows a clear conceptual emphasis. As we said, it is not an error in itself, but as it was a Painting Biennial, without further specification, this criterion can be the seed of symptomatic readings. On the other hand, if would have been conceived and specified as a “biennial of contemporary / conceptual / postmodern painting” the criteria would have been only pertinent but also correct, otherwise, this can be perceived as the imposition of a unilateral criterion, although of course, the jury is in all its right, because it is a fact that in all contest, depending on the selection of the jury, the criterion will be form. Like we said the problem here is that the criteria does not correspond to the call.

Second, the continuation of a dichotomy in which different understandings (pertinences) are faced in a context in which it was unnecessary, this is obvious by the conditions in which were the figurative paintings: within a safe distance to the conceptual ones (Cornered and with the lights out: in its own Ghetto). In our study case, we can play with the idea that it would have been much more enriching, even with the same criterion of selection to place the most conceptual pieces together with those that were not, and thus generate a dialogue in the perception of the work itself. Moving away from the simple conception of the Viewer (passive, without criterion: interpasivity) and turning to the one of the Interpreter (who owns a criterion, propositive: interactivity). In other words, the public no longer as a snobbish, uncritical and solemn conglomerate but as a cardinal element in the structure of the artistic phenomenon, a subject that builds meaning of each work and in the hypothetical case we propose, of the relations between the works in the context of a selection of current painting, in other words the individual as a critic (another of Luciano Nanni’s proposals and which we will address in other place).


Perhaps it is time to create awareness of the artist, critic and Institutional aesthetic pertinence. In order not to continue with empty theoretical lucubration of artistic merit, which imposes only one point of view, that will ultimately clash with the rest of reality. Also, to clearly establishing an institutional and jury criteria from the call of a contest will be the most convenient step to avoid symptomatic and fully accusatory readings. But above all, the case study that we have reviewed shows the importance of recognizing the possibilities of painting, if this is understood as the manipulation of light on a given surface, a broader view of the phenomenon is achieved and instead of the imposition of a single point of view, with its apology, its persecution and inquisition of every dissident (which is how much of today art is); We can talk about any pictorial proposal by itself, instead of its relation to the false dichotomy new/old. Let us experience, perceive and create knowledge of any painting whether made with the brush or the pixel.

(1) Alfredo Zalze Contemporary Art Museum (Morelia, Michoacán. México)

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