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Quantity now wins out over quality

The constant demand by dealers for new work to feed the market has led even the most promising artists to overproduce

by Matthew Collings  |  12 November 2015
Quantity now wins out over quality
Too much, too soon? Shio's Studio on Palms (2015) by Jonas Wood
Overproduction has become art’s new natural mode. Jonas Wood’s show at Gagosian Gallery in London (until 19 December) is an example. It represents a reminder of what’s great about this artist—intensity—and a disappointing dropping-away of the standards set by his own earlier work, in a career spanning around ten years.

Intensity for Wood is a matter of visual surprise, a form being so nicely achieved that the content the form is about, which might be pretty bland—as if the artistic statement is simply: I like these pots, this room, this painting by Picasso—becomes credible. He combines stylised linear representation with a sophisticated colour sense.

As for the latter, it’s hard for anyone to know what it refers to or even means unless they’re involved in doing it: if they’re designers or architects, say, or maybe even artists (although colour achievement or ambition in visual art is not big at the moment). In Wood’s case, it’s a matter of making the whole range work for him—high-contrasting colours and muted ones—and being able to integrate the various registers so that even a muddy range can seem, in the context of the entire painting, to have the electricity of neon.

In the current show, there is no falling-away of his skill with colour. Every painting contains something worth looking at but few are wholly plausible on their own terms. In the past, he has seemed to be sublimely in control of his visual languages and pattern-making, but here we see varieties of pattern-making that don’t cohere. The wrinkl =ed flesh of an elderly potter seems to come from a different painting to the rest of the objects depicted in it, for example.

Where the treatment of the ceiling in a large painting of a studio interior is full of visual excitement, the depiction of empty space isn’t a contrast that allows the painting to breathe, but seems more like an area that the artist hasn’t had quite enough time to deal with adequately. Emptiness generally seems to be an issue that Wood hasn’t had time to work out a solution for­—large paintings of pots demonstrate this
too. This tells the story of a show existing only because the market needs feeding.

Factory favourites

Overproduction is a complicated syndrome. Matisse said that an artist’s worst enemy is his own bad paintings. He and Picasso were overproducers. Is having factory production of art necessarily an overproduction situation? With Courbet, it did turn out that way, but with Andy Warhol not. The factory producers now are Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, Damien Hirst and maybe Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor, Olafur Eliasson and a few others. Even Julian Opie is a small factory.

But these are cases where a successful system has been set up so that works can be produced in a relatively mass way, and what you see tells you that. There is no visual conflict. The model for contemporary art factories is Warhol, but he produced his greatest stuff in overproduction mode and his large volume of weaker stuff in exactly the same way. It might be thought that Rubens is a pre-modern overproducer, but again, that’s more like the Warhol model. Rubens can be weak but not because of mass production as such. He’s great when he’s working with factory methods and occasionally weak using the same methods. (His use of assistants is well known, but it’s not so well known that they were the greatest artists of the town in which he was based, or that their skills were utilised within a process overseen by Rubens at every point.)

Another issue is artists whose mode is overproduction from the start, as with some of the so-called “zombies” now—certainly Oscar Murillo, but also Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, who isn’t a “zombie” but a conceptual artist whose concept, influenced by post-colonial critique, involves painting.

Jonas Wood turning from good to less good or weak because of overproduction is a situation where the work isn’t actually premised on a kind of licensed strategic weakness, which Murillo’s and Yiadom-Boakye’s is.

Wood’s present weakness caused by overproduction is more like Luc Tuymans’s overproduction, where you see a definite decline from whatever the premises used to be, with them all being sustained and pushed, to them being largely dropped, and a mere churning-out of token Tuymanses, or brand-Tuymans objects replacing the former good thing. But adulatory critical comment goes with art produced for no good reason.

Critical irrelevance

The ending of critics having any effect—when they write for a wide readership—is significant in the rise of overproduction. It’s not that they say marvellous things but the public doesn’t get it, or the overproducing artists laugh and give them the finger. A critic saying something true is irrelevant to the new artistic system based on overproduction.  
Overproduction is no mystery. It’s caused by the behaviour of money, by all sorts of financial factors. No artist is going to say: “I won’t take the $50m, thank you; I wish to preserve exquisiteness.”

But critical meaninglessness is to do with new laws of non-hierarchy. No one can know something everyone else doesn’t know. We all comply. If Jonathan Jones, an art critic at the Guardian, doesn’t know that Tracey Emin’s self-portraits are nothing to do with achievements by Dürer or Michelangelo, as he made clear in a recent review of her work (“she’s looking in the mirror and striking a pose, just like the old masters did. She just happens to be naked when she does so… the human figure is just as expressive as the human face. Michelangelo knew that and so does Emin”), or that John Hoyland was already a figure before Damien Hirst exhibited paintings by him, as he has also made clear (“I thought for a moment he’d made John Hoyland up… but no, there really was a John Hoyland”), then so much the better, because we (the public) don’t know
it either.  

The polemics appear to be a strange sort of hyperbole, where it’s not always easy to tell—even for an art insider—where innocence is real or manufactured. The larger part of the readership doesn’t know the difference, and art professionals can be happy when arbitrary thunder is turned on those they’re cross with themselves for whatever insider bitter reason.

• Matthew Collings’s Painting After Painting: a Deskilled Guide to Painting Now will be published by Thames & Hudson next year

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