For a while now I’ve been interested in the idea of painting as a project, that is, in the idea that an individual art object, such as a painting, cannot ultimately be regarded as an end in itself—that the fundamental unit of ‘work’ that as viewers, as critics, as art lovers we seek to know, judge, and interpret is one of which the individual painting is typically just a segment. ‘Project’ is the name I give to this larger unit. When I go to an exhibition by Gerhard Richter, for instance, and start to wonder what it means that he juxtaposes abstract paintings with representational ones derived from photographs, I am wondering what his underlying project is—even wondering whether it is right to think of him as having a single project. And that means that, as remarkable as any one of Richter’s works is likely to be, and as much as I like to think I would admire any one of them were I to have come across it knowing nothing at all about Richter, it seems inevitable to me that I look at any of his paintings, knowing about the other ones, very differently than if I just knew the one painting in isolation. In general, I understand his representational paintings very differently because I know about the abstract ones, and vice versa.

It’s not necessarily the multiplicity of an artist’s output that puts the emphasis on a sense that one has to look to an underlying project to fully appreciate it. The consistency or uniformity of an artist’s oeuvre has the same effect. Consider Agnes Martin, a painter whose work notoriously developed only very slowly, and whose paintings tend to look very similar to one another, so that to look at her work involves noticing subtle distinctions between one and another. Again in this case, it is not simply the individual painting that carries the point, but the relationship between paintings. The similarity among her works carries as much meaning as the disparity among the works does in Richter’s case.

As such examples show, the notion of a project in this sense tends to become very close to those of ‘author’ or ‘artist’—not that they become synonymous but that we tend to assume that there is a one-to-one relationship involved, that for every artist there is a project and for every project there is an artist. To a great extent this is the case because most art production is oriented toward the individual artist, but it need not necessarily be so. Collective and collaborative efforts can be understood in terms of projects as well. Gilbert and George have a project that has been unfolding for some 40 years now; the Boyle Family continues the project initiated by its founder, Mark Boyle, even following his death. Such examples suggest that a certain temporal continuity is necessary if an artistic project is to be constituted, or at least if a public is to be able to perceive its contours. A recent London exhibition, 84 Paintings at Wilkinson Gallery (20 March–16 May) raised some interesting questions about the idea of an artistic project precisely by the highly delimited nature of the collaboration involved in it. The work was done at Wiels in Brussels in late 2009, not in the first instance with the idea of an exhibition in mind. Fiona Mackay was on a residency at Wiels at the time; since its project space was available for residents’ use, presumably for exhibitions. Although for her own reasons Mackay was not keen on making an exhibition at the time, she invited Morag Keil and Manuela Gernedel (the three had all been students together at the Glasgow School of Art) to join her using the project space as a site of production, as what might be called a workshop rather than, exactly, a studio. Mackay proposed that they each make two paintings a day for two weeks (2–16 November), thus 84 paintings in all. The nominal identity of the project space as an exhibition venue was maintained by stipulating the work in progress could be viewed upon request. According to the three artists, the requests were rather few. But what one would have seen there, it can be safely imagined (and I can only imagine: photographs of the ‘workshop’ exist but, curiously, Mackay declined to show them to me) would have looked nothing like an exhibition.

What I saw when I walked through the door at Wilkinson didn’t look entirely like an exhibition either. One might have thought it was an installation in progress, or to be more precise, not even in progress, but in preparation. Only the fact that the scene was all too tidy for that ruled out the possibility. The 84 small paintings were displayed neatly at floor level, leaning against the gallery wall, as if the decision as to where to hang them had yet to be made. There was no overlapping, and a consistent distance of about 6.5 cm was maintained between each painting and the next, whereby they filled the entirety of the bottom of the room’s wall space. The presentation had a feeling of informality, while at the same time it appeared quite carefully considered.

The overall impression was of an infectious ebullience—an energy that was effervescent but not strident. A range of style and mood was evident in these paintings that included both abstract and representational works but not to the extent that they could not coexist; they differ among themselves without contradicting each other. Almost all of them shared a loose, quick, spontaneous facture that never threatened to heat up to the extent of affecting the hectic intensity of neo-expressionism (by which term I intend not only the style that was popular in the 1980s but also the variant that began to crop up again in the last decade, in the work of artists like Tal R or Armen Eloyan) but neither still did ever chill out so far that one could ever have confused it with the demotivated slackerism cultivated by Michael Krebber and his followers. Although the paintings did not necessarily look like the work of one artist, the whole group somehow had the consistency of a single work. At least at first, one tended to take the room in as a whole, focussing now and again on individual panels almost the way one might from time to time focus on a particular brushstroke in looking at a single painting. I think the placement of the panels, so much lower than one is used to looking at them added to this deindividuation; the unexpected, somewhat uncomfortable angle of vision was not the head-on, face-to-face way we are used to encountering individuals (and the individual artwork is arguably a stand-in for an individual person); it encouraged a perception of them as parts of a single phenomenon.

Still, knowing that this was the work of three different artists, and even though I was not familiar with any of their previous work, I could not resist the parlour game of connoisseurship: trying to pick out similarities and differences from painting to painting so that I could begin to hypothesise, not which of the three artists had made them, but anyway which paintings were made by the same artist. Tracing recurrent imagery was the first thing that occurred to me, but that didn’t give me any information I felt confidence in—after all, it’s the easiest and most obvious thing to copy. Looking for stylistic tics didn’t help either. Nineteenth-century connoisseurs like Giovanni Morelli claimed to distinguish one master from another by identifying characteristic, distinctive shorthand ways of handling nearly unnoticeable minor details; because no one gave much thought to how to depict, say, an earlobe, each painter would have one characteristic and more or less unconscious way of adumbrating it. But such methods are of little use in contemporary painting, for its subjects (and nonsubjects) are so farflung that there is no comparable set of recurrent elements to examine in this way. I soon gave up on my effort to distinguish the three hands at work in these 84 paintings. But my curiosity about their individual authorship had not been in vain. It had drawn me to look more closely at the individual paintings despite my initial sense that the installation should be taken in as a whole.

And yet the individual paintings kept referring me back to the ensemble. Not because of repeated motifs or forms, though there are plenty of those to create little subsets within the group, but because of the fact that no motif or form was given special emphasis. Yes, certain things somehow fascinated me more than others – the musical G-clefs in a couple of the paintings, say, or a geometricised clock face that reminded me of Philip Guston, or certain nameless atmospheric effects of wet-into-wet brushwork; finally, none of those things amounted to anything that promised any sort of key to the project as a whole, just some subjective preference or projection of my own. Or, I could pick out certain paintings as better than others, more fully achieved—and strangely enough this seemed a slightly less arbitrary undertaking. Even still, I couldn’t say that the grouping as a whole would have been stronger without its weaker members. They all contributed something to the totality. At the same time, I could easily have imagined many of them, perhaps the majority, being separated out from the group and exhibited as individual paintings. The paintings gained something from being seen as part of the project as a whole; but most of them would have gained something different—an individuality I’d have thought was more important but which I now realise is also more familiar—by being exhibited as self-contained, autonomous works.

Somehow, then, these 84 paintings by three young painters I’d never heard of before were telling me something about this idea of the project that I’ve been brooding over for so long. They’d put that idea under a microscope. And like any true artwork, what they were telling me was something I could not exactly put into words—something about the dialectic between the individual object and the overarching project, between the isolated moment and the flow. Looking for words, I did what art critics always do—I went to the artists. Well, I told you that the notion of a project tends to become very close to that of the artist. And it was enlightening to hear their reflections, and to note their differences of opinion about the project they’d shared as well as what they were in accord on. I want to end with some of their words, and just as the paintings are not assigned to any one of them, the same will be true of their words as I quote them:

‘Immediately I thought, great, it’ll be good to be together working again. Only later did I realise it might be difficult.’

‘There weren’t any rules on what a painting was or when it was finished – but it had to be finished in the day.’

‘The rule became a subject of discussion – but it wasn’t broken.’

‘The day ends when you go to sleep.’

‘It was interesting to see what would come of this kind of energy where you might almost burn yourself out.’

‘We discussed whether you lose style or enhance it.’

‘If you picked imagery, it somehow had not to matter – it was just painting’

‘I started out by making paintings about the other two; it felt like you couldn’t really bring something into that space from outside but had to work with what was in front of you.’

‘We knew each other so well that if a painting wasn’t going well you couldn’t just leave it that way because the other two would know you weren’t following through on your commitment.’

‘We are still quite secretive, precious over our identities. ‘I’m still borrowing from them now; the door isn’t closed on that.’

‘I felt like I was more passive to the experience than I should have been.’

‘It reaffirmed the difficulty of painting or difficulty of justifying it.’

‘I’m still not sure what I think of painting nor sure I ever need to know.’

‘You do something that works, then realise you can’t do that again.’

‘In the end I found that the pace of production doesn’t mean anything, the quantity doesn’t mean anything. The intensity was nice but I wouldn’t want to carry on under such conditions.’

‘The way I painted didn’t change but my attitude to the project did.’

‘These are not paintings that should be seen as an exhibition but also not as remnants of a performance. ‘By the end I was finally prepared for it.’

‘I guess now it’s a piece rather than a project, which is strange.’

Barry Schwabsky is a writer based in London
Wilkinson Gallery, London, 20 March-16 May 2010