Cover image of the review
Kate Smith, An Impression of an impression (after Rupert Bunny) 2, 2017, texta biro acrylic and oil on linen, 35.5 x 51cm. Photo credit: Andrew Curtis.

Smallness: Trevelyan Clay & Kate Smith

16 Sep 2017
Trevelyan Clay, Moments Today, Neon Parc | City 31 Aug - 20 Oct 2017 Kate Smith, An Impression of an impression, Sutton Gallery 20 Sep - 20 Oct 2017

I confess to being a sucker for bad painting. Not, that is, for all painting that fails in whatever way to be good, but for the particular style of offhand, deliberately underwhelming sub-expressionist painting most closely associated with a number of artists from Cologne who rose to prominence in the 1980s (Martin Kippenberger, Werner Büttner, and Michael Krebber being some of the most well-known). Shorn of the rock-star theatrics that many of the German artists indulged in, this trend found an echo in the work of some Australian artists, such as the casual-looking abstraction of Elizabeth Newman, who remains an important influence on many of the younger Melbourne artists working in this idiom today.

My own attraction to “bad painting” undoubtedly has something to do with my art-historical education. As an undergrad, I enthusiastically imbibed a rather narrow account of the development of contemporary art, one in which—despite the supposed eclipse of teleological narratives—critical, ‘anti-aesthetic’ tendencies provided the standard for what constituted progressive art and materially-based practices like painting generally appeared as backward and irrelevant. As silly as it sounds, I was genuinely surprised to discover that the standards that seemed to hold in the academic discussion of contemporary art weren’t reflected in the world of Melbourne artists and galleries. Not only were painters still painting, their work was taken seriously as art (including by some of my teachers), and not only in ironically self-reflexive terms. Of course I knew that painting (and the whole ‘aesthetic’ approach to making art that it often represents in the contemporary art world) had never gone away and that certain galleries continued to exhibit their dinosaurs. But the work I was surprised to encounter was mainly made by young hipster artists and shown by young gallerists. And much of it was ‘bad’: casual, offhand, half-way between ‘real’ painting and parody, often accompanied by readymade objects or shoddy assemblages. In its modesty, its presiding sense of smallness, it seemed to have internalised the judgments made against painting since the 1970s and turned them into the central terms of a distinctive aesthetic vocabulary.

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