Article: Mapping Melbourne painting

Mapping Melbourne painting

I recently contacted Dr. Michael Vale at Monash University, interested to hear his perspective on the ‘death of painting’.  We all know that the art of painting suffered some sort of institutional grand mal sometime in the late 20th century – that was what ‘post–modernism’ was all about, right?  Michael’s retort was wry; ‘some say the guitar is dead too.’   

Michael’s map makes it clear – many artists still claim painting as their ‘weapon of choice.’  His chart opens up a complex terrain.  For me the point is not the minutiae of differentiation – Is this practice ‘Hybrid Abstraction’, ‘Appropriation’ or ‘Synthetic Narrative? – Rather it is that that each of these nuanced sub–genres finds a place within Michael’s map.  The idea that any artist has a fixed place on any map might be something of an anathema to many contemporary painters, who often drift between the relational co–ordinates of such a chart, sliding between hot and cool – figuration and abstraction.   Michael’s map makes it clear that Contemporary painting is no longer defined in terms of the reductive aesthetics of formalist minimalism where painting could be once understood as – ‘cool’ or ‘uncool’.  

The territories that contemporary painting continues to expand are largely within the complex multi–valent modes.  Although Michael’s map plots the continued influence of formalist aesthetics, I recognize the impact of post–modern painting – Neo–Expressionism and its sly Pop associate – Appropriation – that is a yearning toward conceptual poetics, often underpinned by socio–political concerns.  Michael’s map identifies a resurgent interest in painting and a drift – from 1960s formalist toward what he calls the ‘Synthetic Narrative’. 

The contemporary painter is no longer a one trick pony.  The ‘Synthetic Narrative’ is contingent upon the painter developing fluency with any number of cultural sub–dialects.  This multi–valent poetics that signifies contemporary painting is not just a virtuosic display of language for its own sake – just like other modes of contemporary art – contemporary painters are concerned with the poetics of subject and often, like other modes of contemporary art, driven by deeper social and political concerns.  However, unlike some modes of public art, painting is not a mass–medium to be instrumentalized as agit–prop by highly politicized funding agencies  –  No  painting retains its independence and remains obstinately the most poetic of tongues.


By Gary Willis

Gary Willis

Gary Willis has been an artist for over 40 years. His post-object work is noted in ‘Performance Art in Australia 1969 – 1992’, his early video work in the global ‘History of Video Art’. For the last 30 years Gary has been a painter. He spent the 1980s teaching painting in Sydney (N.A.S.), the 1990’s in London, painting under the patronage of Arthur Boyd. He completed his M.A. at RMIT, his Ph.D at University of Melbourne. His thesis ‘The Key Issues Concerning Contemporary Art’ is a Google Book. His essay, ’What’s Art Got To Do With It’ is published in James Elkin’s ‘What do artist’s Know.’