National College of Art & Design
Fine Art, Painting
PERFORMANCE: The Afterlife: painting
Submitted to the School of Visual Culture in candidacy for the Degree of
Fine Art (Painting) & Visual Culture, 2016
Section I: Traces
i) Photography as Trace
ii) Writing as Trace
iii) Physical Traces
Section II: Material
Section III: Painting
“Performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance.” (Phelan, 1993, p.146)
The traces of performance allude to the fact that a body was present, that a past action has taken place. If representation of performance “becomes something other than performance”, what is this ‘other’? What is the afterlife of performance? There has been much written about performance art which centres the body as material. Roselee Goldberg, Amelia Jones & Peggy Phelan are just a few influential authors whose insights on the body in performance has had significant impact on the understanding of the practice. The concept of the trace is not a new area of exploration either, hugely influential writers such as Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes have written extensively on writing and photography as trace, however, not enough has been written about what is to become of that which is physically left behind. The material within performance has shifted from body to matter, allowing the body to be used as utensil in much of recent contemporary performance since the 90’s.
Phelan states that performance can only happen in the present “reproduction… betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology” (1993, p.146), yet these traces are undeniable and manifest in many forms outside of the literal remnants of material used within performance. This can range from photography to writing, the brief expansion of these two forms of traces will form the bulk of the first section.
What considering the leftovers of performance does is that it ultimately leaves vulnerable what is left of essence of the practice, the live gesture. The now. I am not interested in arguing for a representation of performance through traces in a didactic manner, in which the traces may give a detailed account about the truth of the performance. Instead I am considering a rematerialisation of performance which creates a dialectic. A rematerialisation alludes to the performative body preceding it, yet is still sustained as self-sufficient. This self-sufficiency allows the physical traces to take on characteristics of another form of art practice, that of painting.
I will be directing my research and insights through the work of Nigel Rolfe’s 2015 solo exhibition The Burning Frame at the Green on Red Gallery, Dublin. The photographs exhibited and the writing surrounding it will both be present in my research project. Dominantly the work I will be discussing is Red, a performance which took place within the gallery context. This will act as the focal point for my expansion of physical traces.
The shift from the role of the body as material to the exploration of foreign materials within performance is an important transition to consider when speaking about materiality. Significant explorations of substances within performance art invariably relates to Clement Greenberg’s notions of medium specificity, a practice in which the artist must engage with their medium of choice. In many ways, this exploration of material through the utensil of the body parallels early characteristics of modernist painting. Considering these notions through Rolfe’s use of materials in Red will be the parameters for the second section.
The resembling characteristics of Rolfe’s traces and that of the properties of a painting will frame my final argument. Furthermore, Harold Rosenberg and Allan Kaprow’s insights into painter as performer, or in this case vice versa, as well as the canvas as an event are increasing evidence of the modernist influence that haunt Red. The clashing theories of Greenberg and Rosenberg, including their contemporaneous presence in Red shall all be considered within the third and final section of my argument.
“Performance becomes itself through disappearance.” (Phelan, 1993, p.146), yet the traces which are evident in much of performance practice resist this notion by carrying the characterises of physical objects. There is a plethora of ways a trace can manifest, for the purpose of this section I will be looking at the photograph, writing and ‘physical traces’. It is important to consider alternate forms of trace within performance apart from the physical in order to understand the significance that the physical traces have in terms of their first hand experience to those who encounter them. As well as this, photography and writing are generally a more traditional form of trace which have been considered by several authors and their insights provide important concepts to understanding the physical traces. While ‘representing’ a performance may not be the foremost way in which to consider these traces, alternate considerations of remnants can stand as an object for further discussion of what values the leftovers could hold. If “performance becomes itself through disappearance”, then what is to become of the photographs, the writing, and the physical traces following a performance?
i. Photograph as Trace
Photography, in terms of its ability to trace moments of action, has always been a very prevalent practice pertaining to performance. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that the emergence of performance art in the 1960’s came at a time where photography and portable video cameras were becoming more accessible. Through these technological advancements performance art was able to be more widely circulated and discussed within society. Because of this, performance art may have much to owe to photography, yet it still resisted notions of reproduction. This continued more than thirty years later when in 1993 Phelan continues to argue this resistance as central to performance: “Performance clogs the smooth machinery of reproductive representation necessary to the circulation of capital” (Phelan, p.148). This may have been the case for much of the history of performance, however since then contemporary performance practice has begun embracing, and breaking down ontological barriers between performance and photography. More recently in 2007, Barbara Clausen expresses the inescapable materialisation the photograph has over performance:
“Contrary to its original nature, performance art, has through the historisation of its documentary material become an object and image based art form. As the trace of message, the material not only adds to the image archive of art history, but is also part of the ongoing processes of the cultural canonization of performance art. “(2007, p.7)
Photographs have been materialising performance for decades, it is naive to continue ignoring the profound impact that the photograph has on performance. Practitioners have begun utilising the lens based media into work relating to performance, but also as a photographic work. Nigel Rolfe has been active as a performance artist since 70’s. In his 2015 exhibition The Burning Frame, the artist features photographs spanning from his thirty-year career. While dominantly a performance artist, recently Rolfe has been “moving into photography and video, though nearly always trading in images relating to his performance work, or to specific objects used in his performances” (Clancy, 2008). In this way Rolfe is utilising photography as a part of his practice, trading the two, rather than resisting.
Blood of the Beast is a series of photographs, in which the artist is revisiting the historical conflict within Northern Ireland. It is a subject that the English born artist has returned to on many occasions since his settlement in Ireland.
Within the images of the triptych Blood of the Beast, Rolfe signifies the iconic red hand of Ulster, dripping with blood. Through this simple, yet symbolic performative gesture the artist is addressing the violent history of the region.
“Nigel Rolfe’s artistic practice consistently examines the influence of history on the individual and society. The symbolic actions in this photographic series, inspired by the history of conflict in Northern Ireland, consider questions of violence, freedom and suppression at the hand of man” (Anon, 1991)
This image, while loaded with historical significance, stands as a testament to the appropriate merging of the two practices, both of which holding significant impact to the overall image.
There is a distinction to be made between a photograph such as Blood Hand and a snapshot of a performance event. A carefully considered photograph of a performative gesture, in which the artist themselves has conscious creative influence in the presentation of the image is not to be confused with multiple photographs taken at a performance event. Sozanski refers to Rolfe’s image as “self-contained and quite forceful in the way they frame issues” (1991). The self-contained quality of the image refers to work resembling the characteristics of a painting rather than a photograph. “Paintings invariably sum up; photographs do not. Photographic images are pieces of evidence in an ongoing biography or history. And one photograph, unlike one painting, implies that there will be others” (Sontag, 1978, p. 130). A self-contained work of art implies materiality more than a less thought out, impulsive press of a camera shutter. Nevertheless, a photograph is not a painting. Sontag’s insights to photography clarify the difference.
“…a photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask…a photograph is never less than the registering of an emanation (light waves reflected by objects) – a material vestige of its subject in a way that no painting can be” (Sontag, 1978, p. 120).
Photographs hold a unique form of trace, one which pays homage to its subject matter. The trace is a sort of hallucination in which a moment is confined to the four corners of a photograph, “When we define the Photograph as a motionless image, this does not mean only that the figures it represents do not move; it means that they do not emerge, do not leave: they are anesthetized and fastened down” (Barthes, 1986, p. 57). What is at stake in the merging and embracing of performance and photography is the very ontology of performative practice itself.
ii. Writing as Trace
The absence of the body is of the utmost importance when considering any trace of performance. As the photographs are the visual traces, the written word is the linguistic trace of a performative body. The writing preceding or following a performance work takes many forms, from reviews to journal articles, philosophical and academic script, as well as press-releases to name a select few. Each of these manifestations of writing about a performance carries its own particular form of tracing a performative experience, each articulating an interpretation through its own medium of script. The most prevalent issue in writing as a trace of performance is that each author or critic, describes an alternate way of understanding what they have seen, presenting it as a whole truth. While the point of view of a photographer may be limited to a certain number of camera angles, a writer’s possibilities in recounting the event through language is infinite and changing from author to author. In this way the text may be the most profound way in which to encounter a concluded performance, although not the most accurate.
“To attempt to write about the undocumentable event of performance is to invoke the rules of the written document and thereby alter the event itself…so too must performance (and thus to ‘preserve’ it) is also a labour that fundamentally alters the event” (Phelan, 1993, p.148).
I believe that nothing can fundamentally alter the event of a live performance, only those whom wish to share their experience through their practice of writing or photography can provide insight to a performance work, fundamentally nothing is changed within the performance.
The Burning Frame exhibition was accompanied by a press release in which the performance titled Red was described before its birth to a live audience. In the text the Director writes:
“In live works like Red – to be performed in the gallery on Friday 11 September 2015 - the act of creation is laid bare in unpredictable and poetic intensity. The work is transient. The work is of the moment. The work is now. To watch Rolfe perform flat on the floor… is to view an artist enact and weave poetry that is urgently connected to that place.” (O’Drisceoil, 2015)
To declare words of description such as ‘poetic intensity’ and a weaving of poetry is to materialise performance before it’s dawn. Perhaps this establishment of description before event is an act of ‘performative utterances’, a practice in which words performance an action themselves. According to J.L. Austin performative utterances both describe the world, or event, while also performing an action.
“Austin argued that speech had both a constative element (describing things in the world) and a performative element (to say something is to do or make something) ...performative speech acts refer only to themselves, they enact the activity the speech signifies”. (Phelan, 1993, pg. 149)
Uttering words of prophecy over a performance is capable of providing insight to a performance, yet still enacting self-sufficient characteristics, existing alongside performance.
The textual considering of historians, critics and authors through printed books, journals, magazines and newspapers has become an inescapable way in which performance has again unintentionally reached areas beyond its own ontology. It is through this expanding of performance’s regulations that contemporary performance practice has contained to grow and challenge its own boundaries.
iii. Physical Traces
There are is one characteristic both photographic and linguistic traces share which physical traces do not. Physical traces are experienced first-hand, photography and the written word both happen through a mediating perspective. This is where the difference and significance of the physical traces lie. Physical traces are literal, they occupy real space and time. I define a physical trace as that which had moderate importance to the performance and does not exit with the performer's body. These traces can include blood, e.g. Franko B’s I Miss You (2003), paint, e.g. Janine Antoni Loving Care (1993), sculptural installation structures, e.g. Amanda Coogan I’ll sing you a song from around the town exhibition (2015), bones, e.g. Marina Abramovic Balkan Baroque (1997), water, e.g. Francis Alys Paradox of Praxis (1997), a table, hair, tape, knives, spit, paper, bullets, powder, anything that has been used moderately within the activity of the performance.
In the case of Rolfe’s performance Red (2015), the physical traces include flour, salt, milk, powdered pigment, paper, chair, white shirt, bowls, tape recorder, bucket & utensils. Each of these materials were used in a significant way in the activity of performance within the gallery context. This location allows for a sterile, ideal environment in which the traces are uncontaminated and presented post-performance as part of the exhibition.
The shift between the use of the body as primary material in early performance art, towards a leaning favour of foreign matter being used by the body in the creation of performative work is an important transition in understanding the significance of materiality in contemporary practice. The property and connotations of the material being used is one of the most important considerations facing performance artists. The engagement of substances outside the body, whether that be a body or bowl, along with its paralleling ideas considering medium specificity will act as the borders for this section.
Following World War II, performance emerged as a useful way for artists to explore philosophical and psychological questions about human existence. For this generation, who had witnessed destruction caused by the Holocaust and atomic bomb, the body offered a powerful medium to communicate shared physical and emotional experience… performance art forces viewers to engage with a real person who could feel cold and hunger, fear and pain, excitement and embarrassment – just like them. (Spivey, 2013)
Following WWII the sense of loss, anxiety and questioning within society served as a catalyst for many artists who contributed to emergence of postmodernism, with that the birth of performance art. Artists seemed to have lost faith in traditional media which had preceded it, and began to mirror the fear, anger, frustration, confusion and sense of loss they felt by subjecting their bodies to the same conditions. Chris Burden’s Shoot (1971), Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 5 (1974) and Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964) are just a few examples of the dangerous situations performance artists subjected their body to. This movement was defined by a rejection of traditional art materials such as paint, brushes, canvas, chisel etc., they instead opted for the use of the body as material.” Performance was…heralded… as an alternative form of expression and as a strategy to bypass the traditional means of making art” (Battista, 2013, p.54)
As the years went on postmodernism began to overlap with we call contemporary art. Despite the initial intentions of the movement beginning to fade, the practice did not. However, this change and healing of culture began to manifest in the expanding of the performance art field, shifting the role of the body as material and trading it with an exploration of other materials outside the body. Art will never escape its history and the echoes of these notions are still heard today by those who are attuned to the genesis of the practice. While performance rejected traditional media entirely, there has been a return to traditional media partly through the last major re-emergence of painting of the late 70’s, a seemingly ‘traditional’ practice. While the material of the performance has been consistently shifting between the body and outside matter, the essence of performance still remains, that being the use of the body to communicate to an audience.
A rejection of traditional media no longer defines what performance art has become. Through the use of fabrics, pigments, objects, furniture, structures, tape, soil etc. the performer has the freedom in exploring notions outside of their own bodies, expressing concepts which are most appropriately illustrated through the exploration of material. This material may be more crucial to understanding of the work than the body itself. While the materiality of the body may be limited to its own potentially exhaustive capacity, the infinite opportunities an artist may have with engaging their body and actions with material provided another world of possibilities.
Rolfe has worked intimately with materials for much of his oeuvre. The significance and considerations he has invested in his process of a work such as Red is worth evaluating. The artist is adopting not art materials, but life materials. “It matters to me enormously what things are, they’re not fake they’re real to me. They’re not art materials, if you like, they’re life materials” (Rolfe, 2015).
Red was heavily based on materials the artist had used throughout his forty-year career. Powders were at the forefront of this performance, which included flour, salt, milk and various very pure and highly toxic pigments. The flour he used was reminiscent of young Rolfe who would look up from the edge of the kitchen counter to see his mother dusting out a dough to make a pastry. These subconscious elements within the work makes the materials very personal to the artist. While exploring the material properties of flour he is reminded of this very early memory, connecting the artist to the medium. Salt is of recent interest to Rolfe, attracted by its property and weight. Camden red was the principal colour used in the performance, one of about four to six different reds. A particular red was dug in the town of Roussillon, France and the Prussian blue contains cyanine which gives the colour it’s intensity. These highly specific and hazardous pigments are testament to the artist’s extensive interest and engagement with material. “The artists minimal and austere language is all the more profound and potent in its employment of raw essential elements” (O’Drisceoil, 2015). This committed engagement to the potential dangers of the work echoes the same hazard that was present in early performance art.
Red was inspired by an image of a thief in Haiti shot dead while holding a framed painting. The performance does not set out to make sense of such tragedies, rather he aims to reference contemporary socio- and geo-political events, reminding us “of the vexed edges and the stresses of a world ridden with daily violent border disputes” (O’Drisceoil, 2015). The reference to cyanine within his choice of pigment rings with the horrendous events that shook the world.
“Prussian Blue pigment, an extract of Cyanide, expand his vocabulary in a radical commentary on double standards and the resulting human catastrophe – in the West. There is no moral high ground here but an impassioned commitment always to question and to interrogate and to resist.” (O’Drisceoil, 2015)
“Rolfe follows a set of preordained steps involving carefully selected props, using his body as a tool to make art that is painfully, quietly introverted despite its apparently in-your-face blood-and-guts-approach… wiping his face across pages splattered with explosions of colour to produce a series of crimson works on paper which remain in the gallery, alongside further evidence of the performance” (Hughes, 2015).
Nothing is hidden from the public about the creation of the work, the viewer understands the gesture which it took to create its marks, both during the performance and after. There is a clear dynamic here between the apparatus of the body and the medium of the pigments. The act of swiping his face across pages reveals the priority of materials over the priority of his body. His is engagement in raw materials holds strongly parallels to modernist notions of medium specificity, particularly the ideas of Clement Greenberg who popularised the concept.
Medium specificity refers to a deep understanding and exploration of one’s material of choice, and while Rolfe deals with multiple substantive properties in his practice, the engagement and investment to his materials is equivalent to that of artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Lee Krasner to name a few influential figures.
“It quickly emerged that the unique and proper area of competence of each art coincided with all that was unique in the nature of its medium. The task of self-criticism became to eliminate from the specific effects of each art any and every effect that might conceivably be borrowed from or by the medium of any other art” (Greenberg, 1960).
There is no illusion within Red, every material is present according to its raw properties. Upon being questioned on the similarities of the traces of Red and splatters of blood, Rolfe showed remorse for the confusion stating “It’s not blood it is pigment and it’s very particular pigment, every colour in here is really particular, it’s nothing else, and if it’s got that illusion in a way I’m sorry about it, because I think parts of this work deals with these things” (Rolfe, 2015). When an artist is fully invested in their medium of choice, the natural state of that product becomes a dominant theme, and to relate that to illusion is an unfortunate underestimation of the work.
“The interest in nature sometimes manifests itself as an unwillingness to process materials in the direction of illusion. This is described as a form of realism – that the materials do not represent anything but themselves. This also means that the inherent qualities of materials are presented without too much manipulation” (Abdessemed et al. 2012, p. 96).
Within the very delicate process of performing with meticulously chosen pigment, the artist would hope for the audience to understand the reality about what is happening. Nothing is unauthentic or hidden as the “act of creation is laid bare”. Because of this it is highly comparable to concepts of medium specificity which are inherent in this work.
Painting has become a vague term, one in which almost anything may be considered as such given the right interpretation and critique. In this section I will be looking at the expansion of performance, it’s current state of characteristics and applying them to the traces of Red.
“…there are no dominant art styles these days and to continue searching for a pure language in any visual medium can become a fruitless task.” (Fares). While Rolfe’s use of raw materials may make it seem this way, the artist carries out his performances at the edge of the history of painting, holding strong influence of it yet not carrying one particular idea throughout.
The state of contemporary panting has developed an attitude of ‘anything goes’, asserting that “painting is a philosophical enterprise that doesn’t always involve paint” (Myers, 2011, p. 15). The expansion of the practice has overruled every traditional characteristic of painting, the canvas has been expanded, brushes have been discarded, easels have been destroyed and the material of paint itself may be replaced with anything the artist sees fit. Painting has consistently gone through a cycle of death and re-emergence, each time it rises it disregards another element which was central before it’s last death.
“Painting since the end of the nineteenth century is inextricable from the parallel story of the perpetual cycle of its deaths and rebirths in the face of photography, conceptual art… or plain lack of interest…doubt seems essential to engage with anything to do with paint, now or then” (Myers, 2011, p.12).
Considering contemporary practice, the expansion and attack of definitions of paintings has not simmered. “There is no single identifying characteristic that would disqualify a contemporary painting from critical consideration today” (Yau, 2013). In my view, what is left of painting is the use of a material, manipulated in a gesture through a mediating body. This is not an absolute perfect definition, yet it seems to be what is left of all painting has been robbed of. A continued expansion of the medium does not mean that it has reached a higher state of freedom however, “today’s painting is not necessarily more conscious than modernist painting, but it is conscious of different things”. (Schwabsky, 2002, p. 7).
What this expansion of practice means for Rolfe is not necessarily that the traces of Red are paintings, but they have the possibility to be given the right perception. This is the first step in determining how they may stand. In order to have a better idea of what the traces may be, it is important to realise what they are not. Cancelling out the possibility of the afterlife of performance to be drawings emphasises the painting-like life of the piece.
“Footprints in the snow, breath on the window, vapour trails of a plane across the sky, lines traces by a finger in the sand – we literally draw in and on the material world” (Dexter, 2005, p.1) Upon first reading of this insight into drawing, it would be easy to pull comparisons between this and the actions of Rolfe in Red. To draw is to be human Dexter argues, our daily life of actions and imprints upon the world are the evidence of this. Dexter continues:
“Drawing is part of what it means to be human-indeed, it would be ridiculous to apply this statement to other, more specialised media, such as painting…but somehow applied to the medium of drawing, the idea is easier to grasp.” (2005, p.1).
I am in agreement with Dexter in this regard, and yes the idea would not be as well received when in regards to paintings. At the same time, we have already seen in Section I that Sontag states “Paintings invariably sum up; photographs do not” (1973, p. 130). This is true of painting, there is an overall conscious quality which runs throughout much of what painting is. What Dexter is describing here is a subconscious, ongoing human interaction with the world, this is not what painting has been. Paintings ‘sum up’, they provide intentional gestures as they comment on the world and create images while integrating with their medium, this is not the state of drawing. The footprints of Pollock as he walks around his canvas are his drawing, yet the real substance to where he is going is an intentional mark making, even if his exact aim is not intentional.
This is not the only point of view by which to consider drawing, for Derrida “to draw is to look away, to shift one’s gaze from oneself or the object of one’s gaze to the subject, the task of representation. “(Clausen, 2007, p.5). This method of drawing is one which is intentional, focused in on the action of ‘representation’. The act of representation is always one of drawing, even in the case of using paint as material in which to draw. Paint is engaged in itself, it is self-sufficient. The act of simple representation is not paralleled to that of contemporary painting.
Prior to the birth of performance art, there was abstract expressionism which has greatly influenced the engagement of the body within one’s practice in a very active manner. The consideration of the body within painting was a notion which also changed the parameters for which the artist could work. In channelling the body physically, the area of action needed to increases also. The simple easel and standard canvas sizes became too restrictive for the action painter. “We should not overlook what gives painting its specific importance to art in general-it’s engagement, not so much with the eye as is sometimes thought, but with the body of both the maker and the viewer” (Schwabsky, 2002, p. 7). The traditional notions of the two practices combining was never that simple,
“Performance is often defined as something live, in the present, unlike the art object – the painting or sculpture- which has traditionally been regarded as static. This defining runs the risk of not doing justice to a number of artistic practices. In fact, the boundaries are rarely that clear cut and there is often a performative element in painting, and a painterly element in a performance” (Petersens, 2012, p.93).
The trading of these two practices causes a slippage to occur, a place in which interesting things begin to happen. Rolfe is frustrating the preconceived notions of painting and performance in this way. This is where Red begins to look like a painting. Through the understanding of an expanded filed of painting, a variety of materials, as well as the performative gesture it would not be absurd to assume the traces as paintings. The area in which they sit becomes an uncertain place of paintings. The frame of the canvas which has been getting larger and increasingly undefinable has finally burned in his performance, utilising the floor, air, paper, and gallery as his arena in which to act. The Burning Frame in this way may be seen as relating directly to a concept of the expansion of the frame in painting, rejecting the four cornered idea.
Harold Rosenberg has a unique perspective into what the action painters were doing in the 50’s and 60’s. Contrary to the notions of Greenberg which centred the emphasis of the purity of material above all, Rosenberg saw the canvas became an arena in which to act. The following describes Pollock’s work, however when read in relation to Red, it is equally as appropriate.
“At a certain moment the canvas began to appear …as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyse or “express” an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.
The painter no longer approached his easel with an image in his mind; he went up to it with material in his hand to do something to that other piece of material in front of him. The image would be the result of this encounter.” (Rosenberg, 1952)
It is difficult to define what the ‘image’ of Red to be, rather than being a four-cornered image which speaks volumes about paint and it’s materiality, Rolfe’s ‘image’ is that of an experience, one which one must physically look down to view. Rosenberg defines painting as literal action, not an object. This performance breaks down the object hood of painting, emphasising colour, flatness, experience and material in a unique way. It was traditionally seen that “for the viewer, painting is a noun: the finished object we see. For the painters it can also be a verb: the activity in which they are engaged.” (Schwabsky, 2002, p. 9). Taking this one step further, within the traces of Red, the viewer is engaged, having the same point of view as the artist, in the literal environment of conception. The ‘studio’ is performed, allowing the audience to interact on a more experiential level.
Just like a Pollock painting, you do not enter the traces of Red in just one place, you are struck by the wreckage of an event, a moment in which you quietly wonder around the evidence of what was there. “We do not enter a painting of Pollock in any one place. Anywhere is everywhere... painting ceased to become paintings and became environments” (Kaprow, 1958, p.5,6). The audience is ‘getting inside the canvas’ in a new way, being able to stand where the performer stood, directly in the centre of his work. There is a certain ‘all over method’, a notion Kaprow uses to describe when being faced with a Pollock work, this again can be appropriately used in order to understanding the engagement of the viewing of Red.
I am aware of the contradictory nature of Greenberg and Rosenberg’s views on painting which I have both appropriated to Rolfe’s work. While neither of these theories are absolute in describing his work, they provide valuable insights in how to consider this work as painting and the origins of a movement which continue to inspire today. Greenberg’s views may be considered rigid and outdated from what we know as contemporary art today, an era of making in which painters need not use paint or canvas. Yet his influence and insights, although not entirely relevant today allow for a great understanding of the origins of modernist painting, a movement which influences a plethora of other modern and post-modern practices.
“It is easy to say that Greenberg is no longer as relevant and that formalist theory and its doctrinaire condemnation of subjectivity, subject matter, relational composition, drawing, and spatiality are no longer regarded as dominant, it seems to me that his formulations continue to be a powerful presence in one guise or another” (Yau, 2013).
The merging of aspects of two contradictory theories, that of medium specificity and arena in which to act plays testament to the breaking down of barriers between practices. Kaprow had a valuable insight into the new art that would surface and dominate all we know about art and life, stating:
“Not satisfied with the suggestion through paint of our other sense, we shall utilise the specific substances of sound, movement, people, odours, touch. Objects of every sort are materials for the new art: paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights…and a thousand other things will be discovered by the present generation of artists. Not only will these bold creators show us, as if for the first time, the world we have always had about is but ignored, but they will disclose entirely un-heard of happenings…Young artists of today need no longer say ‘I am a painter’ or ‘a poet’ or ‘a dancer’. They are simply ‘artists’”. (Kaprow, 1958, p.9)
Some 12 years later Nigel Rolfe began his performance practice, fulfilling the words of Kaprow.
Painting has become a vague term, and even if it is the case that something may not be considered painting today, there is a high chance that tomorrow it might be. Through this exploration of the traces of Red as painting, we are presented with an environment which stretches it’s arms out upon the gallery space, paying no attention to futile borders of the frame. Disregarding art materials for life materials, Rolfe’s painting ‘sums up’, it becomes self-sufficient as a work of art, like that of the early Abstract Expressionists, allowing the viewer to understand their methods of working, through brushes and dripping sticks. "Purity" meant self-definition, and the enterprise of self-criticism in the arts became one of self-definition” (Greenberg, 1960), while purity may not be an accurate term in deeming this work as painting, it certainly stands as a rematerilsation of performance through it’s self-sufficient. The afterlife of performance can indeed be that of the life of a painting.
Performance can only happen in the present is an ontological statement that will most likely never be repealed. However, that does not mean disregarding anything surrounding performance is to be passed off as futile.
The traces of performance have been seen to manifest in many ways, even though the ontology of performance itself resists the notions of any sort of reproduction, whether that be photography, writing or the physical traces. Though the complexities and manifestations of these traces are beyond what I can fully cover here, it is clear that the performance has been subject to many forms of an afterlife, despite its resistance.
What I have argued in this text is simply that the afterlife of performance would appropriately stand as a self-contained painting. Paralleling characteristics of performative traces to that of abstract expressionist painters and modernist critics reveal the painting-like traits of Red. The engagement of materials that Nigel Rolfe has committed himself to throughout his career reveals the ideas of Clement Greenberg’s medium specificity, an idea that disregards illusions and makes reality paramount. On top of that, the theories of painting as an arena in which to act by Harold Rosenberg is equally as relevant and forms the basis of my argument for the painting-like characteristics of Red.
Painting serves to prolong the abstract pictorial ‘moment’ in a tangible and visible manner (Riout, 2011, p.13). This is the essence of the rematerialisation of performance as painting, the prolonging of the ‘abstract pictorial moment’, both acknowledging its past and remaining a self-sufficient entity. Performance need not die to the moment, there is an abundance to learn from the gesture of the artist through the afterlife of performance, the afterlife as painting.
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