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Detail "Raft", 50"X38", 2015

by Constance Mallinson

 Constance Mallinson interviewing Larissa Nickel, artist and community activist.

 Constance Mallinson interviewing artist/teacher Julie McManus.

Photo: Todd Gray

Free Painting

July 23, 2016

by Constance Mallinson


It was painting that led the Modernist charge in challenging bourgeois values with radical aesthetic shifts nearly every decade. In the current market driven art climate, it is difficult to imagine the outrage that artists from Impressionism to Abstract Expressionism once provoked. The dissident, uncompromising, and subversive nature that once characterized Modernist art has been abandoned in favor of the thriving speculative, neo liberal $64 billion economy of the contemporary art world. Traditionally identified with “luxury objects,” painting is particularly implicated in schemes of global wealth accumulation as demonstrated in 2010 when a 1932 Picasso sold for a record breaking $106.5 million while a 2014 sale of Andy Warhol’s Eight Elvises (1962) topped $100 million. 


Critics bemoan the marginality of their role with the consensus that few qualitative choices are made outside the dealer/collector system. From Robert Hughes’ Art and Money, Julian Stallabrass’s Art Incorporated, and Raphael Rubenstein’s compendium of essays, Critical Mess, to Robert Morgan’s The End of the Art World, writers have denounced the market’s hegemony with its lack of critical significance. In the 1980’s, during the uptick in the art market, critics like Douglas Crimp condemned paintings as fetishized commodities incapable of promoting societal change as readily as photography, video, or installations. Painters seemed unconcerned with this perceived loss of socially relevant content as the most marketed and successful among them, often their art school professors, soared to previously unimagined prices thereby serving as role models for younger hopefuls. Today, with exorbitant student loans, the high cost of maintaining a studio in any large urban area, and the Darwinian state of competition for exhibitions, a near total acquiescence to art market forces seems inevitable for painting.


As a painter with a 40 year practice that began with Minimalism and Feminist art — both movements wedded to the belief that critical art discourse was paramount to accessing new art and that a long, thoughtful, and committed career was sought and respected — I question the symbiosis between painting and the art market and its distorting control over the perception and placement of painting without the preliminary, often slow, rigorous analysis of an artwork’s meaning or effect, its context or history. To examine this relationship, I conducted an experimental project at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena in the fall of 2105 with curator Sinead Finnerty Pyne. Entitled “Free Painting”, the multi-disciplinary project involved an exhibition, performance, and archival video with the stated aim of validating painting and assigning ownership outside the current market or gallery systems. We hoped questions might be posed about the possibility of assessing a painting’s value by looking intensely at the work and then discussing why and how it was conceived, what it meant to the specific viewer, and why and for whom he/she desired it. The conversations would explore what criteria are used to qualify painting and how that discourse is framed, whether private ownership should be the only form of distribution for painting and what alternatives — such as collective ownership in a classroom — could arise.  Lacking embeddedness with market values, could such changes and exchanges encourage and engage unforeseen content and critical issues. Would the intentions of the artist carry more or less weight? Would diverse placements and focused dialog expand the possibilities for interpretation and relevance to viewers? Is it even realistic or desirable to abandon the current system in favor of the alienating characteristics that defined Modernist avant gardism? What would be accomplished?


For the first two weeks of the project, the Armory exhibited my painting, Raft, in an intimate and serene space with comfortable chairs where viewers could contemplate the detailed, colorful composition of small discarded consumer fragments, objects, and natural detritus collected from neighborhood streets on my daily walks. The tone of the painting veers toward the post-apocalyptic and suggests critical topics such as environmental decay and waste, consumer ethics, definitions of beauty, and the collapse of Modernist progressive narratives.  After viewing the painting, visitors were invited to describe their interest in acquiring the painting in an online questionnaire. The curator and artist selected ten individuals from 36 applicants on the merit of their statements and in consideration of diversity. The group included several well-regarded contemporary artists, one of whom wanted to form a “lending library” with the painting. Also applying were a judge who wanted her two young children to live with images that counter consumer society, a high school arts teacher who wanted exposure to actual contemporary art in her classroom, an artist who worked with a community group helping veterans with PTSD and others, an architect, a beginning art collector, and a renowned breast cancer doctor who was raising money for research.  


Each applicant agreed to a fifteen-minute taped interview in front of the painting with the dialog directed to ascertaining the nature of the imagery and why each participant desired the piece. For example, four of the applicants felt that the painting was a catalyst for examining environmental issues but also, according to teacher Julie McManus, the painting permanently displayed in her classroom would be “the teaching tool that would not stop” and could be an invaluable support for students in developing their own voices. In debating acquiring the painting as a means to heal the Iraq vet with PTSD, artist interviewee Larissa Nickel spontaneously conceived of a project that could circulate art throughout her community and the bonds that would be created as these artworks traveled through a culture. The doctor wishing to auction off the work to raise money for research was asked if she was responding to the content inherent in the painting or, more in line with a market based appreciation, was simply seeing it as a means to raise money. During the course of our conversation, she shifted her proposition to presenting the painting as a gift to her patients who had undergone so many challenges in their treatments. The collector interviewee was asked if this means of acquisition devalued the artwork and/or if the competitive interview process made the painting more desirable.  With each possible recipient, we discussed whether constant exposure to the critical subject matter in the painting could or should affect the final decision of ownership.


Following the interviews, a panel consisting of a successful contemporary artist, a renowned critic, an art historian, a gallerist, an attorney, and an arts specialist, met and vigorously debated appropriate ownership of the painting. This part of the experiment was crucial because it illuminated and questioned many of the assumptions and boundaries of art professionals — such as the need for a collector/museum structure in order to preserve a painting. In the end, the panelists decided to assign the painting to the private collector, a surprise given that awarding the painting to an unconventional venue or individual would have neatly fulfilled the premise of the project to challenge the dealer/ collector system. The panelists, though, recognized that ownership of a painting is far more complicated than initially thought. Critic Colin Gardner felt that, although it had been awarded to a collector, the painting could act in a subversive way, like a ”Trojan virus.” The fact that the painting had no stated monetary value meant that it could not ultimately be seen as an expensive acquisition but rather could encourage a dialog about painting and a wide range of observations about the painting’s content and aesthetic merits and ultimately the Free Painting project itself.


Although many of the above questions were posed during the project, by replacing painting’s commodity exchange value with a more personal, authentic, and meaningful experience, Free Painting produced a lively discourse around painting as a means to heal, educate, promote activism, and to participate in a sharing community. One outcome is my founding the Free Painting Project in 2016, a project that will duplicate the original one on a yearly basis with invited artists. Because any institution or individual will be able to apply and interview for a free artwork, the distribution and circulation of cultural products can widen and provide opportunities for artists without the imprimatur of Whitney Biennials or wealthy collectors. It is not a passive or privileged activity but entails responsibilities and risks for all parties. The more access gained—and the potential venues are limitless—the greater the chances for painting to stay relevant and free to enact its unique and ever evolving forms of expression.


Constance Mallinson has exhibited widely throughout California and is included in many private and public collections including the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art and the San Jose Museum. Her most recent solo exhibitions include Pomona College, UC Riverside, The Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, and Angles Gallery in Los Angeles. She was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship as well as a City of Los Angeles Artist grant and has attended a number of artist residencies most notably the Santa Fe Art Institute and the Djerassi Foundation. Her commission of twenty four permanent artworks for the EXPO Line MTA Bergamot Station will open in 2016. In addition to her studio practice she is a critic and curator whose writing has appeared in major art publications such as Art In America and Xtra, the Times Quotidian and many exhibition catalogues for university art galleries. She has curated a number of important exhibitions for the Los Angeles Fellows of Contemporary Art (Variations II, Decomposition), private gallery exhibitions, and currently, an exhibition entitled Urbanature for Art Center College and an exhibition of five painters for the Pasadena Museum of California Art. She has also taught every aspect of art at all the major universities and colleges in Southern California including UCLA, Otis Art Institute, California State Long Beach, and Claremont Graduate University.  

Since 2009 Mallinson’s paintings have focused on decay, ruination, and the interconnectivity between humans and the natural world.



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