“A portrait calls attention to the process of its production”
– Shearer West

It was with some flattered trepidation that I accepted the invitation to take part in the Rendezvous Focus Painting 2011/2012 project. Rendezvous Focus Painting aims to organise a succession of exchange projects between painters from South-Africa, France and Greece. I had not completed a painting in more than a decade, and back then they were miniatures that parodied nineteenth century explorer art depictions of trekboers by Charles Davidson Bell. More daunting than medium however, was the message – what could be said in painting today? More pressingly, what could I say in painting? Somehow I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking and reading about what I couldn’t do. It was while considering the relevance of painting in current day art discourse, that I became interested in the subversive potential of postconceptual painting.

A great article from the Tate Papers archive provided much of the impetus for my final strategy. It argues that painting is conceived of under the conditions that are mediated by Conceptual Art, since it is latter that governs the institution of art today. Conceptual Art marks the turn from modernism, which was conceived as an ideology of painting and sculpture. Conceptual Art represents the antithesis of painting – i.e. if its conceptual it’s ‘about not painting’, and vice versa. Conceptual Art had replaced painting with text. For painting to compete it has to act like text. The textual nature of most contemporary art can be argued as a given, and painting is no different in this regard. In fact, the power of images today lies in their relations with other texts. However there are certain characteristics whereby painting resists the hegemonic doctrines of current Institutional Theory. For one, there are many painting practices and practitioners that fall patently outside the realm of High Art and the constraints of current Institutional Theory. More so, painting has a way of looking like art irrespective of art world consent.

I also decided that the painting should relate to my current body of work and would thus continue the premise of the A verbis ad verbera series. The end result was Swendelaar, a portrait that references a genre of bureaucratic portraits of dead white men. These mug shots that use to line corridors and shrines of power have a way of invoking the bureaucratic machinery that governs their production. I always harboured an innate sense of resentment towards these figures staring smugly from their austere black or other wise opulently gilded frames. Every so often one of these heroes would expose his invisible feet of clay – to great public surprise and disappointment, naturally. In light of this I wanted to make a painting that would illicit feelings of disappointment or resentment.

The work needed to speak of the photographic and the painterly at the same time. I started with the photograph as premise and reference and wondered how paint could destroy its primacy without destroying the image. Mimesis had been the privy of painting, before the invention of photography. Whereas imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, mimesis is the most blatant form of fakery. The French feminist Luce Irigaray argues that mimesis can undermine stereotypes through its imperfect imitation thereof. In Swendelaar a photographic portrait printed on canvas is meticulously over painted, obscuring the original image, except for the background, which remains photographic. This act of over-painting represents an imperfect, obsessive and futile simulacrum in which the image will always be superseded by its intertext. By applying a layer of acrylic paint over wet oil, areas of the surface becomes unstable – the skin literally cracking. This unstable skin was further distressed using boiling water and commercial paint stripper – the traces of destruction still evidenced on the background.

by Catherine Plassart