Painting is to art as royalty is to democracy; it defensively justifies its own significance while continuing to hold court. There are many reasons why painting continues in this coveted pretense, but perhaps it can be mainly attributed to the limitations of its purpose. Any painter knows that the enchantment of painting lies in its classification. No matter how far the medium is pushed, as long as it can be called a painting it will never not be art. It cannot be mistaken for something utilitarian, like a urinal. In an age where context changes intent, painting remains singular in function—and the result is a lot of group shows on painting.
Painting’s supposed crisis of relevance does not come from the medium itself, but emanates from its practitioners. Painters assume the right to make a piece that can be nothing but an artwork, and the resulting privileged angst could be defined as Painter’s Guilt. The easy way forward is to be unapologetic about it, and this is what Turps Gallery in South East London has done. Birthed from the defunct The Lion and The Lamb Gallery and with the help of the painting magazine Turps Banana, the gallery is the next incarnation of a space devoted exclusively to painting. Tutti Frutti is its inaugural show and brings together a collection of work from fourteen artists. Former Lion & Lamb directors Katrina Blannin, Juan Bolivar, and Caterina Lewis selected the artists and asked each to choose a work to be shown; the only restriction was that it be a painting. In a conversation at the gallery, Ms. Lewis stressed that the show is not curated but organized. As the artists were chosen for what they are stylistically doing in the field, the directors were left to hash out the hang until they were satisfied with the results.
This type of show can break good works. Associations are easily made when works are placed in proximity to each other. But as the works here are stylistically or contextually different from each other, this effect has been minimized. Carla Busuttil‘s It Ended in Houghton (2015) and Richard Wathen‘s Gerda (2010) are both small figurative works with psychologically penetrating subject matter. Busuttil utilizes a coarse, thick brush stroke to paint black and white figures embracing on a beige background. The title refers to the historically progressive and wealthy suburb of Johannesburg, but the celebratory scene feels uneasy in its rough style, as if to illustrate that progress isn’t as candy-coated as history often offers in retrospect. In contrast, Wathen offers a portrait made with smooth, blended brush strokes. The quietly intense figure gazes pensively past the viewer. Tension is built from the background’s muted color planes that meet at a point behind her, paired with her bright orange necklace being pulled taut. Nick Goss’ large and airy Haller’s Azalea (2015) creates some breathing space between the two with its washy blue-grays and soft, dry line quality. Opposite, and pushing further into the ephemeral, is Kaye Donachie’s Untitled (2015). Donachie uses photosensitive cyanotype solution in painterly bands across the canvas to make the most quietly beautiful piece in the show.
Tim Ellis’ Untitled in Different Guises/Backdrop IV/To Live Beyond Ones Usefulness (2014) is undeniably fun and irreverent. Described as “acrylic, varnish, and cotton,” it is actually a painting on a duvet cover attached to the wall by two visible bulldog clips. Its composition has a hard-edged feel, with 1970s brown, ocher, and red colors. However, a closer look reveals the application of paint is far too haphazard, while the original print pattern from the duvet cover has bled thorough the brown outer edge. It also shows the residual marks of storage, having been folded onto itself four times to make sixteen even squares. If the playfulness wasn’t evident enough, the composition is completed with two circles and an oval that make a pareidolic offering, as if to mirror a possible viewer’s facial expression.
It’s not likely that an exhibition selected by fourteen separate people would be palatable. But Tutti Frutti’s organizers have created a tidy show that flows nicely from one piece to the next in a linear pictorial feed; viewers can choose whether to pause or skim over certain works. In doing so, the viewer accepts the current position of painterly privilege, no angst required.
Tutti Frutti is on view at Turps Gallery through May 24, 2015.