The Open Prize for Video Painting 2010
22-24 July 2010
Nicholls & Clarke Building (London, UK)

Video still from Jasmina Metwaly's Crucifixion (2009).

Back in late-July (yes, I’m still that far behind!), Open Gallery prised open the doors of the abandoned Nicholls & Clarke Building on Bishopsgate to house an inaugural open prize exhibition celebrating the relatively new genre of video painting. A form of video art which owes an unmistakable debt to still-life and landscape painting (as well as various forms of commercial and experimental moving image), video painting – as the term exists in this context – developed from the philosophical theories of Hilary Lawson, and typically utilizes a motionless camera with no sound or editing, all in the hope of escaping the restrictions of narrative closure.

By way of introduction, the show opens with a brief history of video painting and a selection of works by Hilary Lawson and a number of like-minded cohorts. Isabelle Inghilleri’s surreal Nordic landscapes are a particular highlight of this section, as are Gabrille Le Bayon’s excellent Portraits from the Back series (2008-9), which insert human figures into various landscapes with a poetic nod to Casper David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (c. 1818). Le Bayon’s series of video portraits also chips away at our collective notions of viewership (both as citizens and as tourists), as well as highlighting the melancholic insignificance of the individual within a landscape.

Other works, including those of Lawson and scratch-video pioneer George Barber, take a much more kinetic approach to the video painting medium. For Now Revisited Revisited (2009), Lawson mines a humorous conceit by turning the camera onto the audience – a tactic employed to vastly differing effect by Abbas Kiarostami in his experimental feature Shirin (2008) – whilst Barber reinvigorates his previous explorations of colour on video with typically imaginative abandon in Automotive Action Painting (2006).

Drawn from 500 entries for the prize itself, the shortlisted works in this exhibition displayed the full breadth of the video painting medium, from highly stylised, heavily choreographed affairs such as Olwen Coughlan’s Acedia (2009) – a kind of cyber-punk drive-in, where we watch four television screens through a car windscreen on a rainy night – to deceptively simple, yet gloriously beautiful static compositions such as Jasmina Metwaly’s Crucifixion (2009), which took out the inaugural prize with a stunning portrait of the Sinai Peninsula, where modern power lines criss-cross ancient landscapes.

Matwaly’s work was indeed a worthy winner, but particular highlights came in the form of Alexander Bates’ Simmer (2009), a work whose impact truly depends on the viewer entering the space – as I did – at the beginning of its cycle. Confronted with what seems to be a completely blank white screen, you begin to wonder if something has gone wrong with the projector until brief glimpses of bubbles eventually give way to a viscous skin, and you realise you are actually watching milk boil. Curiously, Bates’ film also hint at certain traits of formalist or structural filmmaking, with the bubbles occasionally resembling celluloid which has been physically altered, scratched or burned for aesthetic effect.

Michael Lightborne’s Elevator (2009) is another highlight, taking two of Le Bayon’s solitary, still figures and placing them in an elevator, face-to-face – a surrealist staring contest under cold lights. A simple, yet effective piece, Elevator riffs on the impersonality and awkward confinement of modern, urban life.

As a designated creative genre with a clear philosophical and aesthetic lineage, video painting is largely presented here as something entirely new and self-contained. There are, of course, a number of quietly acknowledged precedents, from Brian Eno’s 1980s video work to the ‘ambient’ DVD genre, all fishtanks and open fireplaces. Another interesting angle on video painting, however, came from my mother who likened the works on show in the Open Prize to the looped sequences screened at my Grandmother’s nursing home, a soothing reassurance that the world outside continues to exist. Indeed, just as those images are created to stand in for real landscapes for individuals who are unable to leave their chairs or beds, much video painting seems to exist, in part, as a way for us to experience unusual or inaccessible landscapes at a point in modern society where simple oils, watercolours and even photography simply don’t suffice.

And whilst I’m sure that, for many people, much of this work sounds about as interesting as watching paint dry (or, more aptly, watching milk boil), that is partly the point. The aesthetic of most video painting is to use moving images to elicit a similar reaction to the very finest works committed to canvas. Whilst some of the works are inherently hypnotic, the sheer lack of narrative requires the viewer – in much the same way was the still image – to make up their own narrative, or to simply admire the aesthetic beauty of stillness in motion.

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