That I cannot remember the first time I saw Gillian Carnegie’s Black Square is a testament to its creeping, subtle complexity. It is a simple painting to describe: a monochrome black square of canvas just under two meters. Hidden in the black is a landscape delineated only by variations in brushwork, which means it is an extremely difficult painting to photograph. The first time I saw Black Square was in a photograph, a jpeg on the internet, and it wasn’t until this past summer that I was able to see it on a wall, in the flesh, at the Tate in London during their ‘Looking at the View’ exhibition (2013).
From across the room, Black Square stands out, stark, minimal, a black hole amidst other more classically representational examples of landscape. As I approach it I realise almost immediately why a photograph does not suffice to translate this work. The paint is thicker than you would imagine, cake-icing thick, thicker, it is oil paint sculpted into relief not only with brushes but also most certainly with palette knives and modelling tools. The paint is applied so heavy, I wonder that the canvas can support the weight (in all likelihood the canvas is probably mounted on a board, its strength bolstered by some means other than simply stretching). The landscape it depicts is no longer so hidden; its presence undeniably there in a way that the homogenous 2D of a photograph or the slick glass and LCD screen of a mobile device cannot yet render. This landscape of tree trunks, scratchy twigs and scribbles of undergrowth, reveals itself as you move in relation to the painting and light reflects off the topographical variations of the painting’s structure (structure seems more appropriate here than surface).
And that’s all there is to look at – we can move on or we can stay a while – I never know how long to look at paintings. As if looking longer will reveal more than is already there, sometimes this is the case, as with a landscape by Breughel or Bosch, sometimes not, as with a monochrome, but once you have seen all that is presented to you, when is enough, enough?
There are a few more paintings in this Black Square series that began, Carnegie says, with a desire to depict a night view. But monochrome black strikes at first as rather a blunt instrument for such a task; a heavy handed way of saying, “It’s night”, like a child might denote “night” by a black band across the top of a composition and a crescent moon floating underneath. But everything else, in between the sky and the line that represents the ground: the trees, the figures, whatever else, are just as clearly delineated as if it were day and that black band was sky blue and the sun a smiling yellow ball of radial lines.
An interesting study could perhaps be made of a history of techniques of depicting night in paintings. Light makes forms visible and to render a three-dimensional form in two requires representing the way light reflects off that form. Of course an object can also be represented in perspective to give a sense of three dimensions but night paintings tend to show a single light source by which all of its contents are illuminated and the rest slip into darkness or silhouette.
Generally medieval painting tends to show night scenes rendered as if in daylight, except swapping the sky for indigo with a pattern of stars strewn across its expanse –not dissimilar in concept to the iconic pictorial vocabulary of a child’s drawing; The occasional forward-thinking exception where the artist has more carefully observed from nature and employed dark blues and muted greys to depict the figures and landscape underneath the darkened sky. Around the 17th c. things start to shift with Caravaggio, Rembrandt and de La Tour being exceptional examples. In the 18th the early Romantics show an unprecedented affection for moonlight (Turner, Fuseli) that carries on into the 19th (Caspar David Freidrich, Samuel Palmer, Blakelock and Albert Pynkham Ryder, not forgetting Whistler and of course Van Gogh’s tripped out nocturnal visions). In the 20th c. Remington, the odd one out in this list, mostly for his remove from the European art historical tradition, shows an incredible eye for the subtleties of night-light.
But think about how much our methods of perception shift after nightfall, especially away from artificial light sources and the task becomes more complex. What Carnegie does that’s different is conceptually shift the way we think about images depicting night views. If our modes of perception shift at night and rely more on other senses – sounds, air movement, the little light that is available to us and reveals forms in unexpected ways – then with Black Square Carnegie shifts the way we expect a painting of a night scene to look. Her painting doesn’t depict the dim reflections of light on objects in a darkened space, instead it gives us those objects and it requires an external light source in order to create the reflections by which they can be viewed. Like shining a flashlight into a thicket of brush, the gallery lights are required to make visible what this painting hides.
You might at this point argue that all paintings require light to be viewed, and that all sculptures for example, because they require external illumination, could just as well be considered night scenes, yes I concede that, but it is not my point. In Carnegie’s case, a painter very much engaged with the history of painting, it is interesting to consider Black Square as a response to the tradition of pictorial realism and rather than depicting a night view she weaves together subject and execution so tight that they are inseparable from each other.
George Bataille says of Édouard Manet that he was the first to have assembled a new form of art in which the manner of execution was as important as the subject. Most art historians I suppose now take this for granted – that Manet was the first. Although it might seem a stretch to go from Manet to Duchamp to Conceptualism, the thread is there, and this line of reasoning – the importance of concept and execution over subject and representation – slowly worked to undermine the relevance of representational painting in an attempt to kill it and establish new modes of representing our ideas about the world. And it was Kasemir Malevich who as far back as 1915 proclaimed the death of painting with his very own monochrome Black Square. It didn’t work of course, artists are still painting, indeed the very fact that an artist used painting to assert the death of painting should have established a few doubts, but the idea, like moonlight for the Romantics, lost none of its potency when, for instance, in 1963 Ad Reinhardt claimed to have made the “ultimate” painting with his black square remix: Abstract Painting, a square grid of nine squares of almost imperceptibly different shades of black.
I suppose it wasn’t representational painting as such that early twentieth century avant garde artists took issue with, it was perhaps more the tradition they understood it to represent, and a lack of confidence – or perhaps simply disinterest – in the ability of painting to represent the modern world. And Modernism in art has itself become a kind of stagnating force – we cannot seem to escape the influence of the sixties – a tradition to be replaced like the one it sought to replace almost a century ago.
But perhaps there’s no longer a coherent conversation to follow. Modes and motivations are shifting so much and so rapidly, and have been for quite some time. So as contemporary art goes Carnegie’s Black Square is getting on. The first in this series of black paintings was Honer painted in 2000. Its successor, Black Square, was painted in 2005; another Black Square in 2008. Within Carnegie’s practice these pictures signalled a desire to move away from a reliance on photography, which was a big thing in the 90s, paintings based on photographs, Doig, Tuymans, Dumas, all dealt in this purgatory of mediated imagery. However Carnegie’s Black Square paintings, like her previous work, were based on photos, photos she took, in this case, in the wood lands of London’s Hampstead Heath. Except, here she began working to subvert the reliance of painting on photography. Painting them in monochrome black in order to align the difficulty of representing a night view with the difficulty of actually seeing it. The difficulty of photographing these works might be seen as evidence of their conceptual success.
These black painting’s effortless threading of so many complex ideas that trace a line through the history of painting may not be the kind of work that historians look back on and say, “That was the beginning of something”, they could be seen as more of an answer to the problem: “What does one paint now?” But they are exquisite, and her gesture all the more potent for its unassuming, creeping – spreading out and sinking in – importance. It’s just ever so slight of a tweak on Malevich’s Square as if to say, “nice thought”, but to completely undermine it with soft-spoken effortlessness and elegance.
Carmen Juliá (2009) “Black Square.” London: Tate Britain. [Internet] Available from: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/carnegie-black-square-t12935/text-summary [Accessed September 2013]
Ben Tufnell (2003) “Gillian Carnegie.” “Days Like These.” Exhibition catalogue. London: Tate Britain. pp.48–53.
Polly Staple (2002) “The Finishing Touch.” Frieze, Number 64, January–February. pp.72–5.