Image: Painting is back — is conceptual art doomed?
Lisa Brice, Smoke and Mirrors, 2020. © Lisa Brice
Featured in The Times

Painting is back — is conceptual art doomed?

12 September 2021

By Waldemar Januszczak

It was always going to happen. Art’s oldest method was always going to emerge from the tomb. Having spent many modern decades being deemed old-fashioned and irrelevant by the controlling middlemen of art, the curators, painting was always going to stage a big return. The question was: when?

A nifty new Hayward Gallery survey called Mixing It Up has decided the answer is: now. Showcasing the work of 31 artists, mostly at the start of their careers, but with a few oldies thrown in for ballast, the event argues that painting does things no other medium can do and that, far from being backward or irrelevant, it is the perfect medium with which to explore the fragmentary nature of the modern world.

It’s true, and definitely worth noticing. What is perverse here is that it is the Hayward Gallery, a venue run by Ralph “Mr Semiotics” Rugoff, a curator who has previously appeared allergic to straightforwardness in his tastes, that is making the big claim. Expect other venues to follow.

What’s been going on? Well, for several years now it had become increasingly evident that the art favoured by the curators — let’s call it conceptual art for ease of meaning; all that stuff that uses up tons of space to say nothing much — was no longer a good look. Wasteful, unecological, indirect, conceptual art was serving amuse-bouches to a world that wanted chicken soup for the soul.

So various art world groupings began making a conspicuous return to painting. Chief among them were black artists, whose need to say something powerful about their past was too urgent to have time for the dicking about involved in conceptual art. In the Hayward show about 30 per cent of the exhibitors are black. And, as this column has often had cause to notice, when the world gets real, art gets real.


Of the 31 artists included here, 18 are women with something fiery to get off their chests. For many it is the male domination of art that is the target. The increasingly impressive Lisa Brice, who seems to grow in stature from week to week, marches on to the macho territory of the artist’s “atelier” with a complex and amusing studio scene in which women have taken over all the art roles, and are now creators and models. To give them an immediately independent presence, she has them all smoking like blokes on a building site. Fabulous.

Why have women artists taken so happily to painting? In most cases directness doesn’t seem to be the aim. Rather, it’s the storytelling potential of the medium, its ability to flit nimbly from era to era, event to event, that is the attraction. A large chunk of the show’s feminine produce falls into the category of magic realism, which is to say the creation of fictional scenes in which anything is possible. 
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