Contemporary art is often associated with Tate Britain's younger larger sibling, Tate Modern. Now Tate Britain is coming to the end of an interior modernisation programme, it is once again beginning to showcase a diverse range of works.
If asked to name five painters, I suspect that most people would rattle off a list of Old Masters, many of whom have wall space in Tate Britain. So it is poignant that as the paint dries on the Tate Britain's own refurbished walls, it takes a look at what else is being done with paint these days.
Painting Now: Five Contemporary Artists brings to our attention the work of Tomma Abts, Gillian Carnegie, Simon Lang, Lucy McKenzie and Catherine Story, each of whom, working with paint in their own style, depict a range of subject matter and content. Other than that they are painters and painting now, there is nothing else to link the artists together. The exhibition does not aim to showcase any particular style or issues, simply – a rare thing these days – it exists simply to showcase a snippet of what is happening now. This makes for a refreshingly light exhibition to just enjoy art as it is and to see how paint is being used in different ways today.
Although the curators of the exhibition have stated there is no particular agenda to the exhibition other than to showcase these painters, it is worth noting that in a building filled with Old Masters and in a medium that often portrays women as the subject of art, four out of the five artists displayed is work by women artists, each of whom works in their own style and not obviously in the feminist camp. This alone – without a song and dance being made about it – sends a positive message that the art world is beginning to appreciate the work of women artists on their merit alone. Such quality of work is illustrated by Belgium based Scottish artist Lucy McKenzie and 2006 Turner Prize winner German artist Tomma Abts.
McKenzie is a master at realism and will have visitors leaning in close just to double-check that all the components used on the Quodlibet series are actually painted. McKenzie's seemingly uninteresting subject matter of notice boards not only illustrates her talent in the craft but makes some thought-provoking points: she draws to our attention that notice boards serve first of all, a practical function – to inform. However, like many notice boards used at home, we use them to display images of things we like as well as things to do. Unwittingly, we also express our ideology with our choice of pictures on display, assembling images from commercial sources such as postcards, flyers or magazines. In this instance McKenzie meticulously constructs each notice board to reflect less-than-savoury ideologies, such as Fascism or Nazism. In doing so, it challenges our preconceived ideas of what those ideologies look like by going beyond the political publicity posters to illustrate the domestic reality for individuals in particular historical periods.
At the other end of the painting-style spectrum, and of the gallery, is abstract artist Tomma Abts, who is concerned with not painting any realistic references. All of Abts' work is 48cm x 38cm and titled with a name derived from a dictionary of German first names. A curious method, as this perhaps alludes to Abts being from a generation and movement wishing to distance itself from previous art practices that used figurative and other representational images for political gain. With no representational references Abts creates complex graphic forms guided by her instinctive understanding of composition. Pieces such as Zebe (2010) illustrate Abts' style of weaving together strong forms that are given extra depth by adding shading the contrasting retro colour palette she uses. Creating a strong background, Abts then layers another form on top, creating different spaces and pathways through the work that enhances their 3D effect.
With such diverse examples of painting on display, Painting Now: Five Contemporary Artists provides those who are already perhaps more versed and interested in contemporary art with a great opportunity to see how this old medium is being used today.