It’s been a pretty relaxing day so far. Caught up on some emails, reviewed some submissions to the gallery, made a few calls, met artist Joseph O’Neal and saw some of his fantastic new work. Nice for a Friday. Now sat at my desk, a song just came on my iTunes radio that got me thinking. A 90’s singer-songwriter classic from Paula Cole, “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?” Released in 1997, it peaked at No.8 on the Billboard Top 100 and reached No. 15 on the UK charts. This is the chorus:
Where is my John Wayne?
Where is my prairie song?
Where is my happy ending?
Where have all the cowboys gone?
Although the song isn’t really about absent wranglers, the last line of the chorus captured people’s attention and contributed to the song being a hit. It got me today for a different reason.
I recently put out an open call for submissions to the gallery and in evaluating hundreds of entries, I’m startled by the scarcity of paintings. As the opening bars of “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” tootled in my ears, in my mind I heard the line, “Where Have All The Painters Gone?”
Digital art, check. Photography, check, Sculpture, check. Installations, video art, performance art, collages. Check. In fact, I’ve seen so many collages, I’m sure artists are being sponsored Elmers. That or there must be some grant I don’t know about for artists making collages. Anyway, the point is, where are all the paintings? I’ve haven’t done the exact maths but I’d estimate that less than 20% of submissions involve paintbrushes.
I don’t consider myself to be a purist or a traditionalist. I’m drawn to all things contemporary and modern but I miss paintings. My experience isn’t new or even that insightful. The fall from grace of the painting is well documented and has been cited often by art critics, commentators and journalists. The art world has undeniably been moving in new and different directions over the last thirty years. Take the Turner Prize as the perfect illustration of this. Open to visual artists under the age of 50 and awarded for the first time in 1984, it has become the most publicized, well-know (and some might say, controversial) art award in the United Kingdom.
Guess how many times a painting has won the award in the last thirty years? Five….and that’s being a bit generous. Chris Ofili’s winning piece in 1998, ‘No Woman, No Cry’ is a mixed media work comprising acrylic, oil, polyester resin, paper collage, glitter, map pins and elephant dung. After Ofili, another painter wouldn’t win the prize until 2006. That was artist Tomma Abts who was also the first woman to be awarded the prize.
Journalist Tim Cornell of The Scotsman had this to say about Abts’s win,
“After years of unmade beds, pickled sheep and lightbulbs that switch on and off, Britain’s most prestigious art prize was won last night by the most unlikely kind of artist – a painter … Her win comes amid talk of a return to painting in the art world.”
Despite Cornell’s cautious optimism, a painter has only won the award once since then in 2009.
It seems that, at least for now, painting has lost its place as prom queen. No doubt, it will make a comeback as so many cultural markers in our society are cyclical or circular. There is no better example of this than furniture. With its heyday in the 50s, mid century modern design is everywhere today, sixty years later.
Given the role that art plays in reflecting and documenting society and the changes therein, it is no surprise that in a technology age we are seeing so much digital and video art. Just as I believe that advances in the field of psychology, my other interest, will come about because of the interface with technology, I think the same will continue to be true of art forms. I also believe society thrives on and is richer because of diversity so I’m curious and intrigued to see what art medium will win the Turner Prize in 2025, 2035 and 2045. I just hope that at least every now and again, a painting makes an appearance and gets to wear the crown again.
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