The End of Subjectivity? (Bernard Frize)

I wrote this essay after seeing the works of French “process painter”, Bernard Frize. Taken together with my impressions of the first museum show of Rana Begum at the Sainsbury Centre, it’s obvious that art is undergoing a seismic shift which mirrors the changes taking place in contemporary society. The quoted texts are from a fantastic essay by curator Eva Wittocx.

THE ARTIST AS LABOURER: “Frize burst the cult of the artist as a creator. In his view, the artist is not above anyone else: he is merely a ‘labourer’ who produces paintings.

THE REPUDIATION OF SUBJECTIVITY: As opposed to Abstract Expressionists who sought to express a certain emotion, Frize does not use painting as a ‘medium’ to express something. Therefore, the public need not decode the subjective content of a Frize painting. There is none. Rather, Frize’s art is the result of experimenting with process and technique to achieve different visual outcomes.

THE DEMOCRATISATION OF THE ARTISTIC PROCESS: Indeed, “Frize wants the public to be able to deduce every choice the artist makes from the work of art: ‘Every decision of the artist, the public must be able to infer from the painting. The public must be able to find out how the painting has been made, as if it had painted the work itself.” Reasoning logically, tracing the stream of paint, trying to read the combinations of colours, the public is able – without resorting to any frame of reference – to deduce directly how the work was created. To erase any suggestion of subjectivity, Frize moreover applies a glossy layer of resin to the canvas, so that any painterly effects attributable to materiality are eliminated, assuring the complete detachment of his paintings. All this is not to say that Frize’s paintings provoke no emotional or psychological response within the viewer. No, not at all. Simply, the public projects its own subjectivity and longings for expressive content on his artworks.

The ascendancy of artists like Frize and Rana Begum force one to ask, are we entering a new phase of art which prefers technique and effect over the masterful expression of affect? (By the way, the Centre Pompidou will be staging a retrospective of Frize’s work in 2019.) Will we one day regard artworks created to express a subjective idea or emotion as old-fashioned and quaint? That day is not around the corner. But the increasing recognition and popularity of “process art” mean that we badly want art to represent more than a veiled message.

[To see larger images of Frize’s art, see the online galleries of his work at Simon Lee Gallery and Galerie Perrotin.]

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