Home Magazine The inscrutable beauty of Slow Painting

In the midst of Coronavirus crisis, slowing down is the key to approach daily life. Decelerate does not mean standing still, but to stretch or expand time, and therefore space, in order to grasp beautiful, surprising facts in-between. Here, we will take into consideration the concept of “Slow painting” that deserves time - a suspended moment to indulge once in a while - to realize the rich potential and continual inventiveness of painting.

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Martin Herbert, the author of the 2017 collection of essays "Tell Them I Said No" - in which the art critic focuses on the artists who refuse to play the conventional “game”: promote themselves and perform for the press and the media – has recently brought to fruition the catalogue ”Slow Painting” (Hayward Publishing). Self-marketing, or being constantly present, is the antithesis of slowness, that, in relation to recent painting, refers both to the specificity of the medium creation and its understanding by the viewer. “Works that have taken long periods to gestate, and others that engage with spans of time. All of them, though, reward sustained contemplation” (M. Herbert). Slow paintings which admit slow lookers, slow thinking


Michael Armitage, The Chicken Thief,  2019, Oil on Lubugo bark cloth, photo MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) New York, © Michael Armitage


How much time we effectively spend on art, looking at individual works of art? Less than 30 seconds on average. The fall-off of attention, as visitors proceed through a museum or exhibition, depends on a phenomenon called “museum fatigue”. It takes time to mentally sift and dig deep the profound, resonant and powerful from a work of art. Especially, I think, from painting: a practice that can take an incredible amount of time and it is, physically and mentally, a demanding activity, not an easy gesture. “The process of painting is not what most people think it is” (R. Storr). It’s what we don’t see: the materiality of painting - his squishy sound and quantity - the cleaning of tools, the decision making.

Painting offers both an expanse of time (a space of production and contemplation) for the painter and experience of sustained deceleration (pause and breath) for the viewer. Think about Long-term projects, Roman Opalka’s Details, say, a conceptual series of numerical paintings that have introduced the idea of the elaborate project and composition into the realm of slow painting. Or Darren Almond’s paintings and photographs, evocative meditations time-stretched. With "Full Moon series" (2013) - shots were taken in Patagonia and Cape Verde by the light of a full moon, over the course of half an hour, using long exposures, Almond “gives the landscape longer to express itself”. 
The “Slow Painting” catalogue - and its related exhibition (postponed) at Andrew Brownsword Gallery, England - presents a collection of 19 young artists, primarily British and UK-based, whose work explores ideas around the concept of “slowness” and what it means in relation to contemporary painting. The works of Nairobi-born Michael Armitage (b. 1984) fit perfectly into the continuum of art history.


Michael Armitage, Hope, 2017, Oil on Lubugo bark cloth, 220.5 x 170.5 x 4.2 cm, photo White Cube gallery, © Michael Armitage


Gareth Cadwallader, Milk, 2017, Oil on canvas, © the artist and Josh Lilley Gallery


Despite his career’s rapid success, Armitage is a slow storyteller. His large-format, sometimes dreamlike, sometimes nightmarish, oil paintings place themselves after abstraction. In fact, the material on which Armitage’s work is painted, the Lubugo bark cloth - traditionally used as a burial shroud or worn during Buganda tribal ceremonies - would disrupt as soon as he started to paint. The matter comes literally off the brush. This led him to paint with thin layers, slowly building the space within the painting. 

Gareth Cadwallader (b. 1979) is not a quick painter. For him “painting is world-building”, a combination of memory and process. It has taken him almost three years and various stages to finish a group of oil paintings on canvas: super-detailed small gems that are painstakingly executed. What makes them fascinating and romantic, but no less artificial and hallucinatory, is the pattern repetition and juxtaposition. With his alone and quiet figures, Cadwallader celebrates slowness, ambiguity and introversion. 2017 Turner Prize-winning, Lubaina Himid (b. 1954, Zanzibar, Tanzania) - throughout her career as an artist, curator, educator, and a leader of the British Black Arts Movement of the 1980s and 1990s - has been devoted to African Diasporan art. Her latest “Works from Underneath”, at New York’s New Museum, were a slow-rolling wave of meditations on labor in black history. In Six Tailors - a marvellous theatrical tableau of a group of artisanal figurines in traditional African shirts (Himid studied Theatre Design and her mother was a textile designer) -, all details, gradually, lead far.

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Lubaina Himid: Three Architects, part of a diptych with Close Up – Ideas for Development, 2019, © Lubaina Himid/Hollybush Gardens, London


Benjamin Senior, Market Row, 2016, Egg tempera on cotton on plywood, 40 x 30 cm, photo Carl Freedman gallery, © Benjamin Senior

Also, London-based artist Benjamin Senior’s (b. 1982) figurative paintings reveal themselves slowly. Senior typically depicts swimmers, hula-hoppers, gymnasts, commuters quietly engaged in absorbing, fluid and slow exercise. At first glance, the impeccable compositional order and rhythm of his silhouettes invite us to a lascivious contemplation, but as we look further, longer, the easy flow of our vision is disrupted and the magic limb vanishes. We suddenly become aware of the strangeness of our vision. The beauty of “slow painting” cannot be described with words, it remains inscrutable. The more time we spend lingering on the precious details - the cinematic cutting, the emphasis on pattern, the twisted framing, vivid colors, even disproportions - and the more we are dragged into a daydream. A voyage reserved only for those who decide to slow down and enter the “bodily beauty” of the paintings, crossing through the threshold.

Cover image: Lubaina Himid: Six Tailors, part of a diptych with Close Up – Materials for Change, 2019, © Lubaina Himid/Hollybush Gardens, London.
Written by Petra Chiodi

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