Arts: Is the writing on the wall?

Has painting a future? With 60 paintings by 60 artists `Examining Pictures" at the Whitechapel Gallery thinks it does. Tom Lubbock reluctantly begs to differ
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The Independent Culture
Painting. Death. Of. Well, I'm sorry. I'm sorry to put those three words in such ominous, such tedious proximity. But I'm afraid that this week we're not going to be able to avoid it. The "Is painting dead?" debate is back. Bad luck.

Of course, the odd thing about this debate is that it's very hard to say what the arguments are one way or the other. How would we prove it? What would be evidence? And this suggests that what we're dealing with isn't really a matter of argument, more a question of faith and loss of faith; or again - another area where argument is powerless - a matter of fashion.

Another odd thing is that it's very unclear what the stakes are. If painting faded out, why should we care? When people say from time to time, "Look, painting's back!", why do they want it? For auld lang syne? On spec?

And a further odd thing is that it's only partly a dispute between painting and non-painting. It's also between one sort of painting and another, both ongoing, but one (allegedly) dead and the other (shall we say) undead. And the most recent claims that painting is back haven't been trumpeting heirs and successors to Picasso, Matisse and Pollock, but have identified an alternative field as being where the action is. It's a field that's got busy in the 1990s, but it has long antecedents too.

Under undead painting one can include the following things. Painting that's consciously naive, cack-handed, casual or feeble. Painting that employs a meticulously impersonal execution, that is photo-realistic or copies photos. Painting that's diagrammatic or does type-face lettering. Painting that involves minimal touch and handiwork, where the paint is poured, spread, wiped etc. Painting that pastiches or quotes other styles, or mixes different styles together, or copies earlier paintings, or imitates cartoons, adverts, kitsch images etc.

The manifestations are diverse. What unites them is what's avoided - namely the personal style and signature, the accomplished and expressive hand. And whether it's really a sign of life, rather than of suspended animation, or a post-mortem effect, is obviously moot. So: undead. But the phenomenon is clearly up and running. There was an exhibition of its contemporary British version at MOMA in Oxford a couple of years ago. It overlapped with much of the painting shown in Sensation. Equally clearly, one can think of its forebears - Pop painting, Dada painting, elements of Cubism, Surrealism, various sorts of raw and wild painting. But something, some sort of sensibility shift, has happened quite recently.

Well, I think it has - and I think so partly because I realise, rather reluctantly, that it's happened to me. Other, more direct, immediate, candid sorts of painting being done now have started to feel slightly embarrassing. And by that I mean anyone who just sits down to paint a figurative or an abstract painting, however strongly or sensitively (School of London, St Ives folk, Glasgow Boys and Girls).

As I say, this change of feeling is reluctant. I think a lot of the undead stuff is really boring and futile, smart, slight, stupid (though some of it, too, strangely delightful). Of course sometimes you can't quite tell what's what, what's faux-crap and what's real crap. And I certainly don't know whether this change of feeling is permanent or a fad. But it's there, and I suppose it's fairly widespread, and should be recognised.

So I had hopes of Examining Pictures at the Whitechapel Gallery. It's a co-production between the Whitechapel and the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. It shows alternative tendencies in painting, and does them internationally and historically. It has 60 paintings by 60 artists, European and North American, some famous, some not, from the last four decades. And if you already know the score, you can see roughly what it's trying to do. But as a substantiation of an important shift, as a demonstration that exciting and different things have been happening, it's quite hopeless. Choice of work: dispiriting. Sustaining ideas: nil. The title itself gives a clue why perhaps.

Examining Pictures. It would be hard to think of a less inviting form of words. They might as well have added - Basil Fawlty style - "no riff- raff". That is actually the idea, I think. The wall caption at the exhibition's entrance announces it as "a discussion". It's a show for insiders. It's basically for artists and art students, who will already be familiar with the terms of the discussion and the work of the artists displayed, will appreciate surprising inclusions and omissions, pick up on the various connections hinted at, and have their own ideas.

In other words, this is a show that knows and anticipates its audience. It knows it doesn't have to explain itself. It knows too that this audience - like any expert audience - is probably not going to be impressed anyway. And I suppose this is the reason why the selection is so patchy. So many possible candidates. Never going to please. May as well just be a talking shop. It's a "why bother?", "why not?" and "why not just be provocative?" sort of exhibition.

There are a few fine things. The Philip Guston, the Sigmar Polke, the Ilya Kabakov, the Gary Hume each hit an elusive spot which is somewhere between funny and forlorn (that's a tone which, when it works, this sort of painting is very good at). But I mean, was that really the best Gerhard Richter they could find? The best Peter Doig? The best Marlene Dumas? And isn't it clear that Ian Davenport's work is now corporate-foyer abstraction going nowhere? And that New York painting of the 1980s (Sherry Levine, Peter Halle) was an episode of deeply pointless knowingness? And don't the doodly-cartoony pictures of Joanne Greenbaum and Caroll Dunham take lively casualness into negligible silliness?

But in the circumstances, this sort of hit-miss criticism feels rather pointless. Examining Pictures is, after all, a manifesto exhibition. It's not primarily a show of individual works. It's a show of instances and examples, pointing to something larger. And its real failure is that it can't come up with an even half-plausible manifesto - something that explains roughly what's in and what's out, and makes its sound vaguely interesting and desirable.

God knows, contemporary art curators are not the brightest people in the world, but the catalogue essay to Examining Pictures is a truly pathetic document, a rambling sequence of nearly meaningless waffle that sounds like it's been put together by a PR outfit who haven't grasped what the product is they're meant to be promoting, or why it's supposed to be good.

Here's a bit: "...If paintings function with reference to a collective knowledge, a sort of conventional wisdom, confirming what we know yet surprising us, the idea of painting today continues to raise as many questions as expectations. In times of ever-increasing density (with population explosion and information overload), the rarified space of the painting fulfils no real social necessity. Yet still people want to look at paintings, to examine pictures - why? We don't believe that this show delivers the answer. Rather the intention is to advance a new series of questions that could articulate both the obsolescence of the old technology of painting and its continued usefulness, in the global, digital age..."

It's like that all through, in tone and content, never arriving at a definite statement or argument of any sort, trying to sound promising while promising nothing - New Labour all over - just loosely intimating that it would be kind of nice if painting went on somehow, and maybe it will, or perhaps not. Air-headed rubbish. The tepidity of it is the oddest thing: the lack of the remotest clue why one might wish painting to continue, or of any flicker of enthusiasm for the cause. I really don't know what it was meant to be, but it's the strongest case for certain death that I've seen to date.

Examining Pictures: Whitechapel Art Gallery, Whitechapel High Street, London E1; until 27 June; admission pounds 3, concs pounds 1