The Revolution Will Not Be Shit Painting
The impulse to make images, to communicate visually that which cannot be expressed in words alone, is innate to all humans. As children we all make drawings of some sort; with sticks, stones, crayola or whatever comes to hand. These early marks, gestures and images are one of the first non-verbal means children use to explore, navigate and articulate their unique experience of the world. Whether because of preclusive schooling, economic necessity or our own restrictive self-doubts, for most people these creative impulses are almost fully smothered by the time we reach adulthood. Creativity becomes subdued or else channelled through other activities such as work, bringing up children or hobbies. For those fortunate, brave and/or belligerent enough to pursue these impulses onwards and into an art career the process of image making becomes a highly self-conscious process of creating for, and navigating, a global art market which embodies all the inequalities and pitfalls of the current economic situation.
In the art materials shop where I used to work this (admittedly over-generalised) societal order felt truly pronounced: whilst the staff were all practising artists with degrees in art or design the majority of the customers were hobbyists, sunday painters and/or curious eccentrics. My internalised prejudice would burn through when asked on “which brush do I need to paint circles?” and “what colour blue is the sky?”. My art schooling had taught me a haughty disdain towards the naive hobbyist, and particularly towards anyone with the attitude that you could walk in to an art store and simply purchase the components of a masterpiece.
So when I head that the tiny scraps of paper used by customers to test pens and pencils were being collected and transformed into paintings my another art shops employee, Matt Antoniak, I was originally perplexed. I stopped throwing these insignificant little remnants into the recycling at the end of the day, and I began to regard them with a new curiosity. Slowly nuances in gesture and pattern became more apparent: from unconscious squiggles to deliberate stylised drawings. Recurring themes and motifs would appear: some changing from month to month (there were periods of pot plants, and Newcastle United shirts), whilst others remained constant (eyes, faces, lips, squiggles, phalluses and hearts).
It wasn’t until Antoniak’s exhibition at Workplace, however, that I began to see how his process - of transforming these marginal and ephemeral remnants into monumental artworks - was a double-edged project: in restaging these discarded, everyday materials in the gallery Antoniak both draws attention to the invisible and overlooked in the everyday but also offers a deft challenge to the hierarchical structures and exploitative practices of contemporary art.
A gallery is constructed along laws as rigorous as those for building a medieval church. The outside world must not come in, so windows are usually sealed off. Walls are painted white. The ceiling becomes the source of light.
Brian O’Doherty, Inside The White Cube 1
Upon entering Antoniak’s solo show at Workplace Foundation the clean white gallery space has been usurped by an uncomfortable conflict of vividly coloured walls; to the left a long expanse of Ultramarine 2 is interrupted by a single 6 x 4ft canvas; the far wall and the space surrounding the entrance to the gallery are a washy, scumbled grey interspersed with exposed drill holes and the bare, white marks from sanding blocks; while the right hand wall and most of the wall to the right of the entrance is a deep terracotta. Even before engaging with the paintings themselves this immersive and itinerant approach to the space – employing ‘difficult’ colours instead of whitewash, deliberately revealing the marks of production and display - inserts the first disruption to the preciousness and authority of the commercial gallery.
Comprised of seven canvases, the gaps between them partially filled with something resembling chewing gum, Ton (2018) looms over the viewer as they enter the gallery with the presence of a visceral, yet softly spoken, Frankenstein’s monster. Ton’s seams of thumb-pressed gum (actually epoxy resin) are reminiscent of the underside of school desks with their rows of chewing gum blobs pressed into the corners - an accumulation of tiny, repeated acts of dissention. The eponymous, haphazard writing which slants unsteadily down the picture plane imitates the quality of lines left by a permanent marker: a semi-translucent stain which appears denser and heavier where it overlaps or where it appears more weight has been applied. But this is a clever fiction. Miniature pen marks are lent monumental status only through Antoniak’s painstaking and precise process of recreating them in oil paint.
Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.
Rita Mae Brown
When I studied painting at art school we spent half of our days in museums and galleries copying the paintings of El Greco, Titian and Rembrandt and the other half of our days in the studio recreating these paintings until, eventually, we were allowed to replicate the painterly techniques of the masters through our own choice of subject matter. At the time I didn’t give recognize any merits to this laborious process. I felt stifled and angry to be trapped in a world of dead, white men painting dead white women for other dead, white men. None of it felt real, relevant, or alive. Standing now in Workplace surrounded by Antoniak’s articulate, reflective paintings, I begin to see (possibly for the first time) the value of deeply studying other people’s visual syntax, understanding it from the inside out, and enfolding it into your own practice. In a gentle subversion of painting pedagogy Antoniak has chosen his mentors not from the masters of art history but from a plurality of anonymous ley people passing through an art materials shop in Newcastle upon Tyne. In paintings such as Untitled (2018) and The Mane (2019) the fast, transient marks left by biro and felt tip pen on scraps of paper have been meticulously observed, imitated and then diligently remade in oil paint on canvas. Unlike the easy, disingenuous character of contemporary shit painting there is a real humility to Antoniak’s work: his paintings do not borrow or imitate a naive style as a shortcut to popular notoriety but are themselves deeply thoughtful studies of the matter, subject and doctrine of painting. All the works in the show deliberately hover at the liminal edge of being, each one containing just enough visual information to bring it to life, to hold it together as a painting. These are works of accomplishment, depth and complexity. Rinser (2019) particularly epitomises Antoniak’s fastidious and meticulous process: its smooth surface and repeated motif of the cartoon-like face expunge the painterly gesture from the work all together. It offers a dextrous challenge to the modernist myth of originality and the ‘superior’ register of high art.
Although strategies of appropriation are rife throughout art history, Antoniak’s specific choice of source materials evoke both a quiet kind of poetry and a subdued political resonance. On the one hand, there is a simple kind of magic in being able to draw attention to something overlooked in our everyday experience and find meaning in it. On the other hand, the scribbles, doodles and gestures which Antoniak has assiduously collected, catalogued, studied and reframed also bear witness to their - formal, social, and political – real world contexts. Antoniak’s interest in the art shop and the art space give rise to a thoughtful interrogation of these spaces in the consumption and distribution of artistic resources, knowledge and value. In the end, these paintings are, as much as anything, a study of authority; of where it resides; of who it does and does not belong to; of how it can be bestowed, lent, stolen or abused.
1 Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube, (University of California Press, Expanded edition, 2000), p. 14
2 Actually it’s Ultramarine (Green Shade) – an important distinction for painters and art shop employees alike.