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Mixing It Up: Painting Today

by Maya Fletcher-Smith | 10 September 2021

An ambitious, exciting, yet somewhat perplexing survey of contemporary British painting at the Hayward Gallery.

Sophie von Hellermann, Hope and History, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 190 cm © Sophie von Hellermann (2021). Courtesy, the artist and Pilar Corrias (London), Greene, Naftali (New York), Sies + Höke, (Düsseldorf), Wentrup Gallery (Berlin). Photo: Ollie Harrop

A single broad brushstroke of grey paint renders each wing of the bald eagle in Sophie von Hellermann’s Hope and History. The sheer dynamism of the work is immediately noticeable upon entering the exhibition, with a plume of pastel hues swirling beneath the bird’s beating wings. The central figure demands your gaze. Their expression betrays fear, perhaps at the thick impasto beak hooked possessively over the forehead. Another anguished face screams from the background’s sickly mass of colour. Here, iconography and painterly technique converge to deliver a snapshot of historical social unrest. Mixing It Up: Painting Today urges the viewer to interpret for themselves a selection of strikingly ambiguous paintings from thirty-one contemporary artists whose works – although overwhelmingly eclectic – are united by their compelling use of the medium. The exhibition aims to demonstrate the unique ways in which painting can speak to the moment and respond to pertinent socio-political issues. Above all, the exhibition hints that it’s an exciting time for British painting.

Lisa Brice, Smoke and Mirrors, 2020, in Mixing It Up: Painting Today at Hayward Gallery, 2021. © Lisa Brice 2021. Courtesy of Hayward Gallery. Photo: Rob Harris

The selection of artists is notably diverse, with a majority of women artists – for the first time in the Hayward’s history – and over a third of artists born overseas. This is perhaps a natural, and welcome, outcome of selecting such a varied body of work. It also allows for some critical subject matter: Lisa Brice’s brooding Smoke and Mirrors toys with the male artistic gaze. Some of the women in Brice’s busy studio wear thigh-high stockings, all smoke cigarettes in a fog of nonchalance. A phantasmic blue-black cat slinks through the composition as an assertive feminine presence. Somaya Critchlow’s Figure Holding a Little Teacup addresses serious topics with the comically absurd; its tiny scale requires you to peer closely at the bare-breasted, open-legged subject as voyeur. With figure splayed out comfortably in an ornate Rococo chair, teacup balanced in hand, Critchlow broaches the complexities of female sexuality and taking up space in a Black body. But it’s certainly not all feminism and critical theory. It is inevitable in any exhibition – particularly of such a mixed survey – that some works leave more of an impression than others. However, out of the three generations of painters featured, it is notably the younger artists who play with the medium in the most interesting ways. Mixing It Up argues for the relevancy of painting in an age where we’re bombarded with images, deluged by the digital. Arguably, the work that addresses our modern, technological context supports this argument the most. This doesn’t necessarily have to be so blatant as Lydia Blakey’s exquisite fine-art-come-meme paintings; Gareth Cadwallader’s Shave has an extraordinary, hypnotic richness that would be impossible to deliver through any other medium. By contrast, some works have the overwhelming aura of early modernist abstraction, or the striking crudeness of a Dubuffet: brilliant, but perhaps not as relevant.

Alvaro Barrington, A Rose for Rose, 2021, and Stop Drop, 2021, in Mixing It Up: Painting Today at Hayward Gallery, 2021. © Alvaro Barrington 2021. Courtesy of Hayward Gallery. Photo: Rob Harris

Yes, this is without doubt a fantastic opportunity to see some truly masterful painting, but I’m also left feeling dizzy. It’s a natural impulse to want to draw comparisons across works in an exhibition and gauge an overall statement from their selection. That’s not possible here, and that is a deliberate, albeit frustrating, curatorial decision. Some works are striking because of their hot take on post-internet culture, but sometimes a good-old angsty painting of a man moping by a swimming pool does the trick. Although not a theme across all works, this exhibition also demonstrates how several contemporary British painters are using their medium in dialogue with current critical discussions surrounding colonialism, race, and gender - which alone is something worth seeing. Mixing It Up works from the premise that painting is generally considered a doddery old medium, which is not a view everyone ascribes to in the first place. But if you arrived with that opinion, it would be difficult to hold onto it for very long. Painting was never truly defunct. In fact, painting suddenly got very interesting after the onset of photography. Given what’s on display here, I’m sure it can survive TikTok.


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