Painting, schmainting. All anyone cares about these days in galleries are immersive installations, video works and conceptual interventions. So a show of just boring old painting is quite a bold move for the Whitechapel Gallery. And here we are, stood in a plain white room with some canvases nailed to the wall. No gimmicks, no schtick, just painting. Eerie.
But it’s not like painting’s ever gone away, it’s just that museums have chosen to look at other mediums over the past few decades. The ten artists here, though, prove that the genre’s been blossoming in the darkness.
There’s some incredible stuff on display. Tala Madani’s works show a series of bald, fat, little men being humiliated and demeaned. Elsewhere she’s depicted a mother made of faeces surrounded by clawing, needy babies. Vicious, brilliant painting. Michael Armitage paints unsettling scenes mined from news, the internet and African myths on to bobbly tree bark canvases. His works shimmer with colour and pulsate with uncomfortable threat.
Upstairs, a man eats his own chest and a couple drifts happily at sea in Dana Schutz’s big-eyed, exaggerated, thick paintings. Nude bodies twist and bend and contort like elasticated Francis Bacon figures in Christina Quarles’s excellent pictures.
But with any show of artists brought together because they use the same medium, you’re going to have stuff you like, and stuff you don’t. Daniel Richter has one good painting and a seemingly infinite amount of bad ones; Sanya Kantarovsky leaves me cold; and I can’t figure out what Cecily Brown’s frazzled, pixelated, cubist magic-eye semi-abstracts are doing in a show about figurative painting.
The thing is, this is just the tip of the contemporary painting iceberg. There are countless artists taking countless different approaches to painting out there. So you end up asking why the Whitechapel chose these ten artists, why these paintings, why these styles? And there’s no real answer to that. It just feels a bit random, a bit pointless.
So, no, it doesn’t work as a proper look at painting in the twenty-first century. But it does work as a show of good contemporary art, and who can complain about that?