Photo-Based Painting 2006

Last year you couldn’t swing a dead cat in New York without hitting a painting based upon a photograph. With work by artists ranging from Luc Tuymans to Christoph Steinmeyer to Wilhelm Sasnal, not to mention tableaux-sized pictures from the studios of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, the projector-based paradigm seemed on the verge of world domination. Scores of graduate students could be seen tracing appropriated imagery onto canvases in apparent imitation of Gerhard Richter or Elizabeth Peyton, prompting Village Voice critic, Jerry Saltz, to issue a public plea for relief from what he saw as a loss of the painterly touch.


As a painter, and one who sometimes uses photographs as source material, I am fascinated by this milieu because of its potential to raise deeper issues about representation. Unfortunately, most photo-based painting strikes me as similar and boring. It’s not the artist’s painterly touch that I miss—in my opinion, a painting need not be expressive in its use of oil paint to be interesting. Rather, it’s that many artists fail to develop original solutions to the problem of relating their paintings to their source imagery.


Photo-based painting should be distinguished from Photorealism, the innovative movement started in the ‘60s and championed by painters such as Richard Estes, Robert Bechtle, Janet Fish, and gallerist Louis Meisel. Photorealism starts with the camera: the way it presents a 3-dimensional scene as a flat image, the distortions from the monocular lens, and the distinctive way it depicts depth and a reduced range of color.


Photo-based work, in contrast, is less about the way a camera “sees” the world and more about the way we see photographs. Rooted in Post-Modernism, artists like Gerhard Richter, Chuck Close, and Malcolm Morley reacted to photorealism by marshalling their painterly techniques to comment upon their photographic subject matter. Richter, for example, used painted motion blurs, lens flares, and his signature squeegee marks as a way of distancing himself and the viewer from the image he reproduced. After 1988, Close began to employ the grid, itself a signal artifact of the Photorealist’s process, to distinguish the part of the painting which is photographic (the composition) from the part which is interpretative (his brushstrokes, fingerprints, etc). Perhaps Morley’s reactionary Race Track (1970, Ludwig Museum, Budapest), a painting that features a bright red X slashed through a hyper-realistically rendered photograph, best exemplifies the significance these artists placed upon the critical interpretation of appropriated imagery.


In 2006, the majority of contemporary photo-based painters continue to imitate their predecessors, using the techniques of painting to proffer their subjective commentary on the underlying image. However, as the innovations of the old become mannered styles of the young, this approach loses much of its critical capacity. Layered beneath painterly marks, or rendered in sensitive brushstrokes, the source photograph is too often left fundamentally unchanged and unchallenged. Perversely, the strategy once used to question the authority of the photograph now imbues it with the auspices of integrity and objectivity. Many contemporary photo-based painters exacerbate this problem by uncritically culling their subject matter from advertising, movies or pornography, referring to the “reality” of our media-saturated experience as if that were the only reality accessible. The combined effect enshrines the source photograph as more real than the artist’s own marks. Most current photo-based work gives the photograph more authority than it deserves.



New Directions


Not every photo-based painter falls into this trap. Richter’s late paintings employ imagery so personal (eg snapshots of his son which he takes himself) that they cannot plausibly pass for objective, much less authoritative. In addition, Richter continues to find convincing ways to disrupt the smooth surface of his photo-based work, implying an analogous disruption of any belief-system that interprets a photograph as real.


Marilyn Minter is an exponent of a very different approach. Her precise paintings of degraded glamour undermine the authoritative and commercializing components of photography by attacking their psychological source: our pathological desire to look. The disturbingly visceral subject matter overpowers the distancing affect usually associated with Photorealism, and her colors—wet and lurid, painted on metal rather than canvas—add to the shock value. Minter’s work is the Feminist antidote to the conventional Photorealistic approach, and provides a historical precedent for younger artists seeking to address sex, gender, and politics in photo-based painting.


Exemplifying a younger generation’s disparate experience of mediated imagery, Eberhard Havekost distorts his source imagery with digital software before rendering it in paint. Starting with low-resolution photos or video stills of post-industrial buildings and dated ‘70s super-heroes, Havekost destroys any vestige of authenticity in the source photograph while simultaneously injecting his paintings with a subtle humor.


Peter Rostovsky deploys his paintings as Conceptual tools for dismantling the photograph and the philosophical idea of seeing through a mediated source. Rostovsky’s past work includes delicately-rendered paintings of stills from horror movies, the shift in context imparting the imagery with philosophical meaning beyond its origin. His most recent paintings include references to the photographic frame and the act of framing. In effect, without visually disrupting the image in order to wrest authority from the source, Rostovsky uses photo-based painting to comment upon itself.


New Thought


Photography has changed dramatically since the advent of both Photorealism and photo-based painting, and it is incumbent upon painters utilizing photographs to keep pace. The issue which first inspired the Photorealists—that a camera sees differently than the human eye—is quickly becoming a quaint anachronism, as the visual hegemony of mechanical film cameras is subsumed by digital imaging, photocollage, and CGI, the computer-generated space of the super-real. The expectation of authenticity with which photography was once burdened is also disappearing. In cyberspace the difference between a real image and a synthetic one is blurred, fundamentally eroding the raison d'etre of paintings that seek to comment upon the authority of a source photograph.


The rise of media culture, wherein each of us is inundated with commercial imagery sun-up to sun-down, continues to affect the way we see in entirely unpredictable ways. A photograph now looks differently than a photograph from 20 years ago, and we interpret it differently. Because of their capacity to contextualize imagery within the rich and thoroughly up-to-date discipline of painting, photo-based painters are in an excellent position to explore these changes. To remain relevant, however, they must expand their practice beyond the comment-and-critique approach of the Post-Modernists—into something new.