Essay by Matthew Hearn accompanying 'Redoubling' solo exhibition at Torrance Art Museum, CA.
It would be an easy trap to fall into to begin debating the media specific tendencies of Peter Lamb’s paintings. Arguably it requires a pre-judgement on my own part to outright brand them as such; indeed it is a label Lamb himself is more reticent to conclude. Nevertheless, following on from a series of Painting-led exhibitions I have curated since 2013, each involving Peter Lamb, I will seek to clarify how and why his work speaks foremost of the tropes and conditions of Painting. My aim is thus not to pit one historical tradition off against another, but rather to explore the work presented here in Redoubling in the context of the contemporary mode.
Fundamentally, as wall-based works they can be categorically read as combinations of elements of paint, photography and print media. As a conflation of formats, Lamb’s application does not, I would suggest, preference one process over another. Rather, these influences expand and contract at interval as Lamb is playing with the possibilities of each. Fusing, jostling and absorbing respective tendencies, traits of one medium are correspondingly outputted within the practices of another. Having suggested a lack of hierarchy within the process, as outputs however they exist within what has come to be understood as a broader network of painting — a framework broadly acknowledged by David Joselt in his essay Painting Beside Itself. On these terms, we may reflect on the broader contemporary sphere of painting as a practice caught up in transitive state of being. In other words something that passes from, between and into another state.
Continuing this idea of transitioning, the blurring of boundaries between analogue and digital processes within Lamb’s work alludes to a further blurring of distinctions. Of course the reductive polarisation of these positions has long been cast off as an ill-fitting representation of circumstances, real or virtual. Be it rooted in arguments surrounding the indexing of the artist hand, the representational inflection of the subject, or the material evidence of process — digital and analogue processes do now it seems freely borrow and appropriate tendencies from each other in equal measure. As such Lamb’s paintings are artworks manufactured as much made; crafted as much as they are reproduced. Within their unique multi-temporal reality they are both literal and abstract, pure and synthetic renders as well as being as much physical, as they are immaterial, constructions.
Looking at the select works within the show, there are ghosts of past works to be found re-appearing in the compositions of others. These recognisable indicators forecasting altered states of being stem from Lamb’s creative processes; one which involves a continual recycling, upcycling or self-appropriation of his own imagery. In the exhibition’s title — Redoubling —Lamb is directly drawing reference to this ongoing process of re-tracing, the repeat operation of running back over past pathways, and the additive possibilities enabled through the hybridised process of making. Since 2011 he has been photographing what he has described as ‘the peripheral fall out from painting’. The reality of this has been the appropriation of images of his studio, residual detritus born of the deed of painting and close-up encounters with the raw materials of pigment and medium all captured through the macro-lens of the camera. The present-tense (surface) finish of Lamb’s paintings, are therefore only ever intermediary stages in the technical process of becoming future iterations of the practice.
In the seminal text, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin proposes what he describes as ‘process reproduction’ and accounts for as means by which technology dispenses with the authentic aura of the original. Though foremost Benjamin is talking about representational, photographic practices, this theory appears equally adaptive to the describing the abstract processes of production, post-production and re-production harnessed by Peter Lamb. Where Benjamin may imply a negative aspect of this mechanised re-situating, for Lamb it is a means to keep making the work. As Benjamin proposes:
Process reproduction can bring out those aspects of the original that are [otherwise] unattainable [… ;] technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself.
As rhetorical agents of painting, these reproducible paint samples have in essence become both the subject and material of Lamb’s practice. As an ever expanding cache or repertoire of marks and colour field experiments these formal samplings are literally made into the paintings. Just as the glossary of terms for the virtual darkroom of Photoshop stems from its analogue precursor, Lamb’s toolbox of applications, media and processes run both on, and offline. Having recorded the physical surfaces of floor, canvas or pigment, and imported these onto the virtual canvas of the Adobe platform, subsequent acts of cutting and pasting, stitching and cloning, cropping and rotating, brushing, layering and masking are then applied with equal immediacy, both in a window on a computer screen, or subsequently, on a digitally-printed canvas upon a stretcher.
Of the works presented as part of Redoubling predominantly they are born digital. The workings and re-workings of the image have predominantly been created on-screen. These I shall come back to. In past works however the painterly motifs or structural elements of the painting have been physically post-produced into and onto the composition. They have functioned as semiotic gestures — implanted upon the surface of the printed photograph —in dialogue with the discourses of painting. As with Furrows in which satellites rotate (2016) the constructed surface is built of outtakes of past works punctuated by physical paintmarks. It is an extreme case in point of bricolage; of layering and concealing, in which the slightest, most seemingly incidental transgressive daub of paint-actual becomes instrumental. The painting’s surface thus acts as witness — to gesture — to operations of the artist eye and hand. Another work, In a dead man’s float (2015) employs physically sewn stitches to bring together two canvases. There is an impossible mirroring across the diagonal axis but the cloned, rotated arrangement underneath, enlarged and uncropped, nonetheless indexes the process of its making.
According to Benjamin, technology affords the re-produced artwork a mobility, but this is paid for in a form of depreciation. For Lamb this idea of collapse (and subsequent renewal) is key. Often the resulting artwork is made through pushing the photographs to the limits of their capacity — to the brink of collapse. Through straining the process so, Lamb ensures a form of handmade-ness emanates from the paintings — their surfaces appear physically worked. As a locating of persona in the work, Isabelle Graw has discussed this signature as an equivalence of handwriting: as a sign that ‘insinuate[s] that this absent self is somewhat present in it [and that such] artifices allow for the fabrication of the impression of the author’s quasi-presence as an effect.’
Accordingly, in Blackbirds peck at the lawn (2017) the mechanics of process can be clearly read in the pixilated black silhouettes of the montage. More polished in its patina and heightened palette, the diptych Sphere with 2 Handles (2017) is equally self-evidently made directly through digital means. That the process remains un-hidden, indeed visibly flaunts its agency is of fundamental importance to how we read these images (as paintings). As to why they continue to claim their allegiance to the traditions of the medium, Graw has proposed, contra to Benjamin, that even if ‘manufactured using mechanical procedures’, painting embodies a ‘liveliness’ because of its bonds to physical labour through the ‘imperfections, selected combinations of colour’ or aspects of its formal composition. As such we might read the works digital signature as both the subjective mark of the artist, and as affirming its painterly identity.
Characteristically, within the tropes of photography the mechanics of post-production are intended to be unseen, they undermine the authentic identity of the image. Conversely, within fine art traditions such self-evident workings arguably confer an integrity born of physical labour and the identifiable persona of the artist. According to Graw the essential vitality of painting, comes from this visible, indexical link; from the ‘connection, not to an object but to the one who seemingly left the mark.’ As I have already explained in Peter Lamb’s new series of works, the presence of paint has been foremost contained within the digital render. In terms of work, the labour invested in the manufacture and composition has been on-screen; the physical making of the painting mechanically outsourced. Does this mean they are any less integral or essential as a paintings, any less handmade? Not according to Graw, for her the indexical occurrence does not require the artist ‘to have literally set hand on the picture, or have brandished a brush, or to have thrown paint on it.’
i RIFF/T, BALTIC39, Baltic’s Project Space, Newcastle upon Tyne (2013/2014); unpainting \ / resurfacing, UH Galleries, Hatfield, (2015); Painting Playing the Game of… Painting, Campbell Works, London (2015); A Deceptive Cadence, Exeter Phoenix (2016)
ii David Joselit (2009), ‘Painting Beside Itself’, OCTOBER (No. 130) p. 125
iii Walter Benjamin, ‘Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in Illuminations (1999), London: Pinlico, p. 214
vi Isabelle Graw, ‘The value of Painting: Notes on Unspecicifity, Indexicality and Highly Valuable Quasi-Persons’ in Thinking through Painting: Reflexivity and Agency beyond the Canvas (2012), Berlin: Sternberg Press, p. 51
v Isabelle Graw, ‘The economy of Painting: Notes on the Vitality of a Success Medium and the Value of Liveliness’ in Ammer, viii Hochdörfer and David Joselit (eds.) Painting 2.0: Expression in the Information Age, Munich: Prestel (2015), p. 261
vi Isabelle Graw, ‘The economy of Painting: Notes on the Vitality of a Success Medium and the Value of Liveliness’ in Ammer, Hochdörfer and David Joselit (eds.) Painting 2.0: Expression in the Information Age, Munich: Prestel (2015), p. 260
vii Isabelle Graw, ‘The value of Painting: Notes on Unspecicifity, Indexicality and Highly Valuable Quasi-Persons’ in Thinking through Painting: Reflexivity and Agency beyond the Canvas (2012), Berlin: Sternberg Press, p. 51