Gerard Hemsworth

Anthony Reynolds Gallery

Gerard Hemsworth, like Daniel Buren, Olivier Mosset, Steve di Benedetto, and Michael Scott, wants to define painting’s progress as an elaborated investigation of the brute necessities of its materiality. Even though this desire has been described as one of the two great poles of the dialectic of Modernism (the other being an esthetics of transcendence to replenish the spiritual void created by the secularization of society), its spiritual import is roughly the same as that of any other job, but a job that never seems complete.

Theoretically, of course, it is possible to reach completion, since the perfectly self-identical object does exist: God. In the painting-game of the present, however, this can only be the last refuge for those who remain nostalgic for a less secularized world. It still must be admitted that self-reflexive painting can yield an object of immense rhetorical power and intellectual interest. One has simply to note the substantial, and often misguided, proliferation of pious interpretations by critics and artists of abstract painting to appreciate the energy necessary to sublimate this recurrent esthetic sublime. Even Gerhard Richter, considered at one point the arch-cynic of contemporary painting, has remarked that if black in art is only black, then Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square, 1923, would be only a silly coat of paint. Despite the fact that we know better, it seems, echoing Richter, that we hope for more of painting. At the same time, we are embarrassed to give voice to that hope; instead we displace it and generalize it, so it comes out sounding like a rather too-sophisticated complaint about art’s lack of ambition.

Hemsworth’s paintings, in their modesty and directness, raise the question of painting’s place in the world yet again. Paintings, as things made, ought to be susceptible to analysis along the lines of other artifacts; yet as objects claiming to be utterances in some as-yet-to-be-defined dialogic, they appear to resist this crude materialism. If the “pure” painting debate seems an exhausted rhetoric, precisely because of its inability to hold at bay those transcendental pieties of interpretation that will ultimately wreck it, that does not mean that the painting game as a whole is over.

Hemsworth’s current exhibition contains three pictures that thrust us into a particular painting game, the principal elements or boundaries of which are the monochrome, the surface, and decoration. This triumvirate—Seen and Unseen, 1991, Dead or Alive, 1991, and Ascension into Heaven, 1992—is comprised of some of the most basic elements of painting about painting. For Hemsworth these pictures are also signs for something else: the persistent refusal to provide an alienated image, the gnawing doubt that painting must somehow, in the words of Richter, hope to be more. Such a refusal on the part of Hemsworth points to a desire to keep painting forever outside the reach of functionality. This position is not without its social utility; after all, painting as a serious professional activity persists. “It is not possible to believe that the work has no properties of its own,” remarks Hemsworth: no matter how limited we make the field of painting in actual practice, we always need to pretend there is something outside that field. This is not only so that paintings’ obdurate thingness may survive (which is the least one can expect of professional painting), but also so that the promise of some future, unfetishized connection between painting and the world (which is the least one can expect of culture outside spectacle) may persist.

Michael Corris