Work > Writing

The Fecundity of Painting
By Tim Parsley

In her Pulitzer Prize-winning meditation on the natural world, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard looks out upon a late June and writes, “Things are popping outside. Creatures extrude or vent eggs; larvae fatten, split their shells, and eat them; spores dissolve or explode; root hairs multiply, corn puffs on the stalk, grass yields seed, shoots erupt from the earth turgid and sheathed; mewling and blind; and everywhere watery cells divide and swell, swell and divide.”(1) Her word for this relentless burgeoning of life? Fecundity. Fecundity can be defined as “producing an abundance of new offspring or growth.” It is comparable to fertility. However, something that is fertile seems dependent upon a seed. Fertility is passive. It waits. Fecundity grows––and grows and grows, sometimes uncontrollably. Fecundity is stubborn and invasive.

Painting is fecund. Despite the many death sentences pronounced upon it, painting persists. It expands, grows, digs deep and flourishes. Knock it down; it gets right back up. Trim it back; it spreads its vines through every crack and crevice. Ignore it, and it may go into temporary hibernation, only to re-emerge after a long winter––hungry.

Take painting’s battle with photography, for example. Once seen as the medium’s most viable contender, threatening to replace it entirely, photography’s architecture has been overrun with painting’s vines. As Jerry Saltz writes, “The camera, which was supposed to supplant painting, didn’t. Instead, painting––ever the sponge and always elastic––absorbed it and discovered new realms to explore.”(2) Of course, this is ultimately freeing for photography. No longer destined to fight a battle it never asked for in the first place, photography is free to unfold its own robust and maturing tradition, pursuing paths that make sense for its own specificity as a medium. Painting doesn’t escape quite as clean. Its absorptive tendencies change its nature, opening new terrain to explore even as some within the tradition burrow deeper into what precisely painting is not. The result has not been painting’s demise, but its tested durability.

Still, many artists have not trusted painting’s durability. Confessing her own complicity in the distrust of painting, Cecily Brown reflected at the end of the 1990s: “I was ashamed of my pleasure in painting, my predilection for emotionally charged subjects, and for my love of dead painters. I eventually gave up painting; unable to come up with a good reason to be doing it, or to justify it. I seized up…Now, at last, the art audience, perhaps hungry for authentic experience, appears ready to move on, to stop treating painting as a whipping post.”(3) Unfortunately, many painters know this experience firsthand. At one time or another, most have faced the flame of the unanswerable question, “Why paint?” Unanswerable because when asked, painting is challenged to measure its validity against criteria foreign to its own, as if all created images have the same goal.

Today, painting is perhaps more durable than ever, though it is a hard-earned durability. It’s been a tough century on the tradition. Previously, painting seemed content to reside beyond the canvas’ surface until modernism reached through the rectangle view––grabbing hold of nude women lounging on manicured lawns, sublime landscape vistas, and many bowls of fruit––and dragged them all to the surface, smearing the colors in the process, blurring their recognizable features, flattening them. But the pull from within did not stop at the stretched and primed surface. Postmodernism kept pulling, bringing those flattened colors and gestured slashes off the canvas, expanding the field, locating the image not within or upon a rectangle or through the bristles of a brush––but within the artist’s own post-medium persona. And for a moment, it appeared that painting had reached its diffused and dead end.

But painting persists. It does not die; it absorbs. It gathers and integrates. It takes hits and punches back. It stubbornly produces an abundance of new offspring or growth. And so upon reaching that dead end, painting turns around and heads back, toward the canvas again, even through the canvas, but as it does it drags with it all that it was dragged through. Tougher now, it brings with it the artist, the Concept, the surface, the pigment, the stroke: all of it, tangled in the vines of painting’s fecundity. And now painting is free. Free to traverse and transverse from within, upon and outside the canvas.

Curator Francesco Bonami writes, "Paradoxically, in an age that I would have assumed would have brought painting to its final demise, painting has become a fountain of youth capable of rejuvenating sterile conceptualizations of art."(4) It is with this belief in painting’s rejuvenating force that Manifest proudly presents the works included in our first International Painting Annual.

Since its beginning, Manifest has had the honor of showcasing, through numerous gallery exhibitions and print publications, a wide range of current art-making approaches. From our small corner of the world, we serve as witness to the robust life of painting today. The International Painting Annual is our invitation to be caught up in the fecundity of painting. The works included confirm that paintings being made today are not the remnants of a fading or dead tradition. They are proof of life––some evidencing continued growth within a long-standing discipline, while others producing new offspring altogether. Today’s paintings come from the hands of creators who see themselves primarily as painters as well those who see themselves as artists who happen to paint. Today’s paintings reside on the surface, penetrate through it, leap from it, and gather new materials to create cooperative hybrids that stretch the definition of painting itself. Painting’s plasticity is a sticky elasticity. It stretches and connects all it comes into contact with: growing, swelling, absorbing, multiplying, mutating, expanding, retracting, adapting. Painting is a responsive medium, discovering ever-new ways to relate to the world. It is not enough to say that painting is not dead. Perhaps it is not even enough to say that painting is alive. Rather, it is best to say that painting lives.

Tim Parsley, 2011

(1) Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1974. Print.
(2) Saltz, Jerry. “The Richter Resolution.” Modern Painters April 2005: pp. 28-29. Print.
(3) Brown, Cecily. “Painting Epiphany.” Flash Art 200 May/June 1998, pp. 76-79. Print.
(4) Bonami, Francesco. “Apology of a Painter.” The Mystery of Painting. Ed. Ingvild Goetz and Rainald Schumacher. Munich, Germany: Sammlung Goetz, 2001. 16-19. Print.

The Fecundity of Painting

Originally published as introduction for
International Painting Annual 1
(Manifest Press, 2011)