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Exhibition - The Painting of Modern Life

The real world in brushstrokes, ‘The Painting of Modern Life’ is not for the escapist at heart, says Maria Fusco

The Painting of Modern Life. Until 30 December 2007, The Hayward Gallery, London SE1.

The Painting of Modern Life’ at the Hayward Gallery, on London’s South Bank, is a bumper eye-fest that invites its audience to reflect on the meaning of contemporary painting and its intrinsic links to photography.

Ordered into themed rooms, such as ‘Social Space’ and ‘Modern Individuals’, the exhibition features a wide and surprisingly diverse range of painting practices, from big daddies of modern art such as Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter and David Hockney, to lesser-known artists like Johanna Kandl and Thomas Eggerer.

The history of recent culture is obvious here, with a shimmering mass of interdisciplinary references visible in each work. As one might expect, many of the works bear close (though not altogether effective) relationships with film, both in terms of content and references. Judith Eisler’s Delon (Girl on a Motorcycle) is a intriguing work, which successfully ‘translates’ a film still of Alain Delon riding a motorbike from the eponymous film into a formalist painting. The work’s surface is so flat and smooth that it is hard to see how the paint has been applied at all. As a viewer, your eye is led across a series of points of light, (visual clues perhaps?) that run from the bottom-left-hand corner of the bike’s handle bars to the top-right-hand corner’s blurred red neon lights. The painting catches the dynamism of Delon’s movement, presciently referring to something that is outside of the frame, something that might be a key moment in the movie, but here is chosen and recontextualised; suggesting that Eisler’s subject is as much about editing, as it is about cinema.

Richard Hamilton’s Swingeing London (sic) is one of the most recognisable works on show, and its inclusion does not disappoint. Based on a 1967 press photograph of Mick Jagger and Robert Fraser (Hamilton’s gallerist at the time) handcuffed together inside a police van, the centre of the painting has a liquid aluminium blob added to it that registers partly as handcuffs and partly as extra-terrestrial metallic spillage. This acts a provocative riposte to paparazzi and popular reportage, in that Hamilton is presenting us with a fairly faithfully rendered, easily recognisable image, but is disrupting the centre of it with an abstract addition, thereby questioning the meaning and veracity of image production, through the introduction of (as design critic Rick Poynor might have it) ‘surface wreckage’.

Running directly contrary to Georges Rouault’s famous comment on his own work: ‘For me, painting is a way to forget life,’ ‘The Painting of Modern Life’ is firmly sited within everyday space and the activities that take place within it; returning us to a reappraisal of quotidian experience, rather than functioning as a way out of it. In a world where the time is always now, this is an intelligent exhibition that allows us to slow down, and to think.

Resume: Warhol the well-known painter / Hockney’s also in this show / and if you haven’t seen it / you only have a week to go

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