Order the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Echoes of Laocoön at ILEANA. The publication features an introductory essay to the exhibition, as well as texts on each of the works included in the show.
62 pages, full-colour illustrations
Available early March
Echoes of Laocoön
Laocoön is known for two reasons. He was the Trojan priest who warned his fellow citizens against letting the infamous horse into the city, against the will of the gods. For this he was punished by Athena, who sent giant sea serpents to kill him and his two sons — as narrated by Virgil in his epic poem the Aeneid, in which form it has been retold countless times and lives on till this day. The story also inspired what would become one of the most acclaimed sculptures in history, and was described by the Roman author Pliny as “a work to be preferred to all that the arts of painting and sculpture have produced”.
It was through this sculptural iteration of the ancient myth that Laocoön found himself the subject of a discussion in contemporary art centuries later. But it is worth considering the trajectory from Pliny’s description of the sculpture to Clement Greenberg’s influential account in 1940, since it is surprising how long it has taken for a basic understanding of the subject, which is now known as ‘medium specificity’, to be formulated.
A reproduction of the Laocoön group as illustrated in a 1962 publication of Lessing’s book (before the figure’s outstretched arm was removed)
When Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrote his seminal text Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry in 1767, there had been very little discussion about what differentiated the disciplines of painting and poetry. The informal understanding of the question was still expressed in the words of the Roman poet Horace: ut pictura poesis — as painting, so poetry. In other words, despite the obvious differences they were considered to be more or less the same, at least from a philosophical perspective. This might sound absurd today, but it is worth remembering that up to this point art had always stood in the service of the church or the nobility (and more recently the bourgeoisie). The raison d’être for art was not some philosophical investigation into its own nature, but to communicate the messages of those in power. At a time when the majority of people could not read or write, visualising the teachings of the church and the achievements of the nobility was particularly important. Functionally speaking, whether these stories were told in painting, sculpture or poetry did not make much of a difference.
So limited was the discussion around the different mediums, that Lessing’s essay comparing poetry and painting took the name of a sculpture as its title. Moreover, it was a sculpture he had never seen himself, and knew only through reproduction — so he was effectively talking about a printed reproduction of a sculpture that to him represented the medium of painting, thus further confusing the narrative. In his mind, poetry and painting could be separated into different categories, but painting and sculpture were still the same. Hence the famous sculpture of Laocoön would suffice for a treatise on painting.
Flash forward to 1940, and the argument has changed drastically. Clement Greenberg has painstakingly dissected the mediums and assigned each to its own domain. In his text Towards a Newer Laocoön, he argued not only for an understanding of each medium as a separate entity, but went as far as declaring that a material-based understanding of art was key to its autonomous existence as art:
“The purely plastic or abstract qualities of the work of art are the only ones that count. Emphasise the medium and its difficulties, and at once the purely plastic, the proper, values of visual art come to the fore.”
– Clement Greenberg
Greenberg’s analysis embodies the ethos of modernism, in its attempt to make sense of the present by a linear, progressive account of the past: the enlightenment ideal of progress. Following centuries of submission to external forces, art in the late 19th century declares its autonomy by moving away from its functional and representational past. From Paul Cézanne’s formal reductionism through Cubism’s breakdown of perspective, culminating with the ultimate self-realisation of painting in abstract expressionism. To Greenberg, the completely flattened picture plane best emphasised the plastic and abstract qualities of painting, which made this new generation of American painters the heirs to (and executioners of) European modernism.
There is a lot to criticise in Clement Greenberg’s writings. He focussed solely on a small number of European and American artists and his grand claims have clearly not held up. Abstract expressionism may have marked the culmination of a specific interpretation of art history, but rather than the last painting having been painted (as Ad Reinhardt claimed to be doing), the narrative has shifted — and more importantly, multiplied. In today’s globalised world, it would be impossible to give such a singular and reductive account of art-history.
Despite all its flaws, Greenberg did bring the question of medium specificity into sharp focus, creating space for critical discussions around art’s relationship to its material basis as well as artistic rebellion against such dogmatic theory. Over the eight decades since Greenberg’s essay, but particularly during the last four, artists have increasingly engaged with medium specificity in various ways, either undermining or expanding its scope.
This exhibition, Echoes of Laocoön, brings together eight artists who to some degree engaged with medium specificity issues, even if it may not be the only aspect of their practice. The clearest example might be found in the work of Christopher Wool, whose work is in direct dialogue with the legacy of abstract expressionism, but who approaches the medium differentially (as Rosalind Krauss would put it). Using the mechanical technique of the silkscreen, Wool undermines paintings’ claims to originality and its expressive potential, yet goes to extreme lengths to explore the medium’s continued relevance at the same time. Peter Schuyff’s paintings embody a similarly subversive strategy. His works often use minimalist compositions and are in that sense examples of the kind of ‘plastic and abstract’ art that Greenberg preferred, but the light effects that he creates through the subtle layering of paint are highly illusionistic.
Christopher Wool, Untitled, 2006-07 (detail)
Peter Schuyff, Untitled, 1987 (detail)
Just as Christopher Wool’s practice approaches painting from the perspective of new technologies, so Tim Maguire’s paintings reflect technological advances, although his paintings are not mediated through silkscreen. Rather, the images he paints in his series of Fontana paintings have been mediated through photographic reproduction, as the artist painted his works based on images he found in art history books – therefore embodying the idea of the simulacrum in which representation overtakes reality. Reducing Fontana’s three-dimensional canvas-as-object to an illusionistic suggestion of space on a flat picture plane, these paintings are a reversal from Greenberg’s linear narrative, and one that is highly relevant in today’s image-mediated world. Melissa Gordon also takes on Greenberg’s emphasis on flatness in her painting Ironer, though her work takes on a more humorous tone. Depicting a man who is attempting to flatten an elephant with an iron, she points to the absurdity of striving for flatness within an inherently three-dimensional medium, and turns the momentous ambitions of Frank Stella’s geometric paintings into the decorative print of a shirt.
Tim Maguire, Untitled (94C63), 1994 (detail)
Melissa Gordon, Ironer, 2008 (detail)
A much overlooked artist who has made one of the most original contributions to the medium specificity debate is Edda Renouf. In her work, she focusses on the material support of drawings and paintings, rather than the paint layers on top. By removing some of the threads in her canvases, she emphasises the inherent geometries in the fabric, and points to a material aspect of painting that is often ignored. This should also be seen within the context of 1970s feminist practices, which consciously reacted against the masculine history of conventional oil painting on canvas. Renouf’s works are not dissimilar to Rosemarie Trockel’s knitted ‘paintings’, in that they approach the visual language of painting through a practice that is predominantly concerned with fabrics.
Edda Renouf, Autumn Sounds I, 1978-81 (detail)
Even more overlooked than the canvas in the debates around painting, are all other non-painterly practices. For most of history, medium specificity debates focussed on painting, sculpture and poetry, but the amount of material (and immaterial) possibilities for artists today is vastly larger — photography, video, performance, installations, sound art, land art, internet art, and the list goes on. Whilst the issue of medium specificity might not be relevant at all for many artists, others have consciously picked up the debate within a new context. Photographers especially have had to think about this, as their practice has long had a philosophical stake in its material condition. From the nineteenth century onwards, the supposed indexicality of photography (that is to say, the physical connection between the real world and the image, captured through the camera on light-sensitive paper), was paraded as its defining characteristic, and made it the most truthful medium. Walead Beshty has experimented extensively with photography by approaching it from unorthodox angles. His cyanotypes are the ‘purest’ form of photography in that they are plain light-sensitive paper exposed to light; there is not even a camera involved. And whilst they capture a specific light (the famous sunlight of Los Angeles), the abstract image is completely non-specific and makes photography’s truth-claim redundant.
Walead Beshty, Untitled, 2009 (detail)
Tony Lewis, Untitled (Sissy), 2016 (detail)
In Tony Lewis’ practice, we find another material that had historically never been considered to be a proper medium, but merely used for sketches and studies: graphite. By elevating it to large-scale works on paper, wall-installations and even sculptures, the artist unearths the potential of a material that as a result of ancient hierarchies had for centuries received little attention. The Japanese Gutai artists went even further by introducing distinctly non-art materials into their extremely experimental practice. Takesada Matsutani, for instance, became best known for blowing up pools of glue, which would form strange bubble-like compositions. Although the work in this exhibition is executed in silkscreen (a medium he was forced to work with due to a lack of studio space when living in Paris), it echoes the drip-like shapes of his earlier work.
Whilst Echoes of Laocoön cannot give a complete account of recent artistic engagements with the legacy of medium specificity, this exhibition will hopefully shed some light on an issue that has been a driving factor for contemporary artistic practices outside of Australia for decades.