For all the expansion of the field of painting, and in spite of the rejection of medium specificity as a formal qualifier, painters like Damien Kurth find themselves returning to the studio, and to paint itself, as a way of working through the problems of image-making and representation. His work draws on the realist tradition of the still life, but its intended effect goes much further than depiction and recognition. Instead, Kurth uses the cliché of the still life on canvas to manifest a new kind of painterly subjectivity – a reflexive way of looking and thinking, which is particular to painting in the present.
Kurth's objects have tended to be domestic: familiar empty vessels. In recent work, his selections have become more self-aware. Jars, lids, brushes, tape; the contents of a million painters' studios. Turning painting back on itself in this way is no new trick, but the frankness of these meta-representations makes them compelling. In juxtaposing the surface effects of a painting (the agency of the painting itself) with objects symbolic of this process of creation, Kurth both presents and represents ‘painting’.
A painting's ability to relate its own value via the labour of its creation – and in doing so, satisfy a viewer's ‘longing for substance in value’, as Isabelle Graw puts it – accounts for a great deal of our interest in painters, and in their practices. Kurth's paintings, showing studio objects, and tape and pencil markers, indulge this voyeuristic longing for a glimpse of the artist at work. However, by making his own activity so self-evident in the finished painting, Kurth implicates the viewer, standing them in his place, forcing his viewpoint upon them.
So, in looking at one of Kurth's paintings, you are invited to occupy the psychic space of both artist and viewer, to consider the technical and aesthetic problems of representation while simultaneously viewing their outcome. Of course, this ‘occupation’ is imperfect. There is a limit to how closely the studio can be reconstructed, and the artist's state invoked. Kurth makes this corollary evident in the fact that none of his reflective metallic or glassware objects ever offer a clear reflection. They are realistically observed, as are the tools and marks of their depiction, but a line is drawn between what is shown on the canvas and what we must imagine lies beyond.
In recent work, Kurth has begun to work in watercolour, a choice which highlights the artist's interest in tying these conceptual concerns with a sincere appreciation of the medium-specific problems of painting (which, his work proposes, are inextricably linked). In watercolour, every action, every decision is evident on the canvas, its consequence irreversible. Control is surrendered, and so too is the unwavering realism of his oil works. Instead, by more fully revealing the gestures of the painting's creation, the viewer is immersed in its production, drawn further away from the passive role of observer and challenged to reconsider the meanings and effects of representation and of painting itself.
Essay by Arron Santry
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