CARNIVALESCA - What painting might be, installation view, Kunstverein in Hamburg, 2021, Photo: Fred Dott


What Painting might be

Participating artists: Firelei Báez, Semiha Berksoy, Anna Betbeze, Anna Boghiguian, Hugo Canoilas, Beatriz González, El Hadji Sy, Donna Huanca, Helen Johnson, Lee Kit, Victor Man, Thao Nguyen Phan, Khalil Rabah and Raphaela Vogel


Curator’s Guided Tour

Raphaela Vogel in conversation with Nicholas Tammens

Raphaela Vogel in conversation with Nicholas Tammens

Anna Betbeze in conversation with Bettina Steinbrügge

Andrée Sfeir-Semler in conversation with Bettina Steinbrügge

Helen Johnson in conversation with Nicholas Tammens

Hugo Canoilas in conversation with Bettina Steinbrügge

“It is only through art that we can escape from ourselves and know how another person sees a universe which is not the same as our own and whose landscapes would otherwise have remained as unknown as any there may be on the moon.” (Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, 1913)

With Carnivalesca we want to create a dialogue with a traditional art form: painting.For this approach, we have looked to the meaning of carnival, because it evokes exuberance, delight and, underneath it all, a certain uncertainty or even melancholy. While the phenomenon of carnival is generally associated with a Western Christian festive season, it has antecedents in antiquity and has undergone innumerable syncretic cultural transformations around the world. Interpretations of carnival present it as a social institution that degrades the higher functions of thought and the sacred realm of the soul by translating them onto the bodily and the grotesque, ultimately, to renew society and the world in which it appears. This may also be seen as a site to release the impulses that threaten the social order and the norms it regulates; and as a place where divergent social groups can focus their conflicts and incongruities. This exhibition aims to transfer this meaning onto a discussion about contemporary painting and its discourses.

Painting in the Western world seems to be governed by a number of unspoken rules that limit the impact it could have in our discursive environment. Famously, influential modernist art critic Clement Greenberg produced a rigid understanding of aesthetic experience and its autonomy which became the paradigm for Western painting after WWII, and which latently persists to date. To put it concisely, Greenberg’s theory inherently rejected the social role of art. Such an aesthetics of autonomy—what Benjamin H. D. Buchloh called Greenberg's "conservative formalism" 1—heavily affected how the purpose of painting was seen and received, and the effects of this shaped key features of the art market that we still see today.

When it comes to the discourse of painting, a reductionist conception seems to persist in the Western context. Painting is reduced to how it has been canonized in Western art history, and the concept of art that upholds this is overwhelmingly based on Western notions of the subject. Reduction is perhaps the oldest conceptual obsession of the Western world, it is both central to the centuries-old processes of individualization that center in on the anthropocentric and Eurocentric subject; and the cultural production that results from societies where such subjects are given central importance. We can oppose this with pluralism: ideas that foreground diversity of experience; with multiplicity in society and its social structures; and—with special regard to the arts in particular—with the idea of individual experiences in the multitude, community traits that are "hybrid, fluid, deterritorialized, and constantly moving"—as developed in the political thought of Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri as well as philosopher Paolo Virno.2 In short, with ideas that make room for an unstable subject: a multifaceted, polymorphic, pluri-discursive subject that takes shape at multiplied intersections, paving the way for a new intersubjective politics of seeing and experiencing painting.


1 Benjamin H. D. Buchloh: Allegorical Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in Contemporary Art, in: ARTFORUM international vol. 21 / 1, September 1982, pp. 43–56, p. 47. Reprinted in id., Formalism and historicity. Models and Methods in Twentieth-Century Art, Cambridge/Mass. et al.: MIT Press 2015.

2 On the idea of multitude in the arts, see e.g. Pascal Gielen: The Murmuring of the Artistic Multitude. Global Arts, Politics and Post-Fordism, third, revised & extended edition, Amsterdam: Valiz 2015.

As the title Carnivalesca suggests, this exhibition widens the scope to take a fresh look at painting, and to open up a discussion on a number of aspects commonly associated with the sphere of painting and the actions of the subjects we call “painters”. It aims to broaden views on painting to point out central, highly influential international artists and developments in the medium from the postwar period up to the present day; to highlight important advancements across generations of artists that that have stretched the boundaries of what painting can be, beyond its mere frame and canvas ground, pushing it into its social and political engagements; and to show the scene of contemporary international painting in the full light of its variety of artistic approaches, its diversity of discursive engagement with the medium, and the ways in which it gives shape to a multiplicity of individual expressions across cultures.

On a first basic level, this means to challenge the artistic legacy of what has been, in the past, canonized as early Modernist painting – works by artists who were predominantly, if not to say almost exclusively, white men from North America and Western Europe. Today we acknowledge that such a view of painting has been significantly decentered by art from many women and men of all cultures, and in all parts of the world. Their actions sum up to not one, but many art histories that have challenged for quite a while hegemonic ideas of art and its production. Artists from many different countries, cultures and traditions today show their work internationally. That old perception central to the Western art world, fetishized by a certain academic discourse, has no place in any valid narrative of what painting was and is.

Secondly, many artists working in painting nowadays concern themselves with real social and political issues – the kind that anyone could relate to. The human body, its sensations and all kinds of our fears attached to it are once again at the center of attention of many artists and much painting made today, challenging, from this vantage point, dominant principles of abstraction and aesthetic autonomy that perhaps are as strong today as they were in the days of high modernism. Contemporary art echoes the problems we face in our daily lives: how to act, how to think, what to believe. Contra to Greenberg, art is social for both artists and viewers, and the particular medium of painting is a critical form that can function as a means for socio-political commentary.

Lastly, it becomes clear that the story of painting must be told as a series of conflicts, arguments and contradicting developments, many of which remain potently unresolved until this day. Any attempt at understanding what painting might be has to account for this complexity of both historical and contemporary nature. This exhibition thus highlights the very different levels of engagement in painterly practices on equal footing, in the spirit of the Carnival, where any hierarchies are brought into question and a plural set of positions are present. We propose that painting is not a neat nor ordered discourse: Rather, what constitutes such a “medium” or “discipline” in today’s non-disciplinary field of art is a Carnivalesque space. One where performativity, bodies, artist-subjects and their gestures, as well as their plural, global histories of signification, are formally equal.