Following the rise of performance art in the latter half of the twentieth century, paint was no longer simply a medium applied to a fixed canvas. It could be flung at the walls, daubed onto skin, or used to decorate theatrical environments. Tate's bracketing of brush and body opens with two action-packed works from its own collection: one of Jackson Pollock's early dripped and dribbled paintings and David Hockney's 'A Bigger Splash' – both documents of a performance.
Pollock may seem the more obvious inclusion – the 'performative' nature of his flicking and flinging technique having been famously captured by filmmaker Hans Namuth in 1951, seen here in a clip shown alongside Pollock's rhythmic 'Summertime: Number 9A'.
Hockney's langorous image of an LA poolside, however, is actually also a perfect illustration of movement, capturing the forceful displacement of water caused by an unseen diver. It too is accompanied by a short video, from the semi-fictional biopic by Jack Hazan from 1973, which shows just how carefully staged and studious Hockney's recreation of a spontaneous moment really was.
Having set the scene for performance's pairing with paint, the more messy and often explosive (literally in some cases) experimentation into the limits of what painting could be is highlighted by works from the '60s and '70s, such as Niki de Saint Phalle's knobbly, multicoloured painting produced by firing a gun at paint sacks embedded within plaster. The hardcore Viennese Actionists upped the visceral level of live art to the max with their ritualistic, orgiastic performances involving individuals being slathered in not only red paint but a fair amount of animal guts and gore.
Once the paint had dried on these provocative, pigment-fuelled stunts, artists used themselves as canvases in more considered, introspective ways. Cindy Sherman and Bruce Nauman applied make-up or dressing-up as tools to question their identities, although face painting remains a cousin of clowning and cosmetics and only a distant relation to the artistic medium at hand.
Having opened with such a splash, it's a shame that the show doesn't have the stamina to sustain its early levels of high-octane performance. This is especially true of the final few rooms – theatrically painted sets and arenas for action created by contemporary artists – which are crying out for performers to animate them. Still, the message remains that paint should be anything but still.
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