A Bigger Splash at Tate Modern

Stretched out on a long canvas, dribbled and daubed in paint, Jackson Pollock’s Summertime is the embodiment of the intricate movements of a painter around his canvas. It is haphazard, messy, but at the same time, graceful and energetic. Shown alongside Hans Namuth’s video documenting Pollock creating the piece, immediately we are inducted into an artistic space that extends far beyond a simple flick of the wrist with a paintbrush. Here, the act, the movement, the physicality of painting is not part of the process, it is part of the work itself.

Perhaps one of the most iconic works of the ’60s pop-art movement, and the titular work of the exhibition, David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash dominates the first room. Squared with the hard lines of the concrete building beside parallel palm trees at almost perfect right angles with the pool edge, this is an ordered and measured scene, static and clinical. That is until the eye moves to the foreground to see the explosion of movement and chaos – a splash in the perfect blue. Taking Hockney two weeks to capture a moment that took mere seconds, A Bigger Splash sets the scene for the artist’s ability to capture the performances of life. Supported by the addition of the director’s chair, this is painting where the artist can watch, but he can also direct and edit, controlling the movement and thus creation of his art.

A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance celebrates just this, the ‘dynamic relationship between painting and performance’, but also the ways in which performance itself opened a new world of possibilities and inspirations for painting.

The ’50s and ’60s have long been associated with ‘action’, be it political or in the case of the post-war ‘action painters’, the canvas became a place to channel the anger and violence that surrounded them into more positive creations. Niki de Saint Phalle’s Triage utilises the explosive power of an air rifle by shooting paint filled balloons while Yves Klein rejected brushes entirely, opting for a more corporeal approach to the canvas using naked female models.

Moving to the ’70s, performance and painting became inextricably linked with artists opting for performance installations where the body was painted. In Stuart Brisley’s Marvels of Decision/Indecision, a series of black and white photographs present a flick-book snapshot into his visceral, violent and exhausting installation where paint (and anything else he can get his hands on) is smeared onto the canvas. In Yayoi Kusama’s’ Flower Orgy, writhing bodies of naked men and women are the canvas, dotted with colourful polka dots. The canvas is simply not enough and so the artist must physically intervene with his art.

Inspired by the most common of performance arts, the application of make-up, Cindy Sherman, Bruce Nauman and Sanja Ivekovic expose us to the transformations we see every day – and take part in – where painting the face becomes painting the personality or painting our politics, drawing from feminism and queer politics.

The second part of the exhibition is a selection of rooms that revel in the theatricality of their art. Edward Krasinski’s Untitled makes the viewer essential to the performance, in allowing their image to be reflected in the 12 hanging mirrors, we become the object and the subject of the work. In Karen Kilimnik’s atmospheric Swan Lake, the frenzy and behind-the-scenes chaos of the ballet is paused, suspended in a haze of dry ice and dim lights that illuminate the central swan crib. What makes the piece so affecting is the clear absence of movement that still echoes throughout the installation, littered with rogue feathers, creating a dream-like and almost anticipatory moment in Kilimnik’s art.

From the smallest Polaroid to the grandest installation, A Bigger Splash champions the intricate choreography of creation that exploded the brush-to-canvas mentality. Life is too much of a performance for us to be satisfied with anything the humble paintbrush could capture.

A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance is open until 1 April 2013 at:

Tate Modern

Image: David Hockney, ‘A Bigger Splash’, 1967. Tate. Purchased 1981© David Hockney

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