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Is slow painting gathering steam?

26 September 2022

From the October 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

Critics love inventing categories – it’s how we pretend we’re influential. Some years ago, we invented one called ‘slow painting’. That ‘slow’ referred not to the painting’s execution, but to the time demanded for its appreciation. The term was applied to less yielding works; ‘slow-looking painting’ might have been more accurate, if hardly catchy.

Slow painting entered the conversation as the impact of Instagram was felt in the art world. Quite early in the Insta era I was put smartly in my place by the curator of a private collection when I asked which art magazines she favoured. She told me she never read reviews, had cancelled her magazine subscriptions and now followed the art world through social media. The smartphone had become both magazine and mall: a silicon-slickened stream of the new. Works with immediate appeal translate well on to a 14 by 7cm screen. Slow painting was imagined as a resistance to accelerated image culture: it was work you couldn’t consume as you scrolled.

In 2019, when the critic Martin Herbert curated the Hayward Touring exhibition ‘Slow Painting’, I chaired a conversation with artists in the show. Allison Katz opened by objecting: painting was free from duration. ‘You don’t necessarily know how it was made, or why, or how long it took.’ She had ‘a problem with the label of “slow” because it privileges slow over fast as a value, and that seems like something painting deliberately sets out to complicate.’ Surely the only meaningful distinction was between good painting and bad painting, the other artists agreed: who were we to say that slow painting was superior? Fair point. I’m all on board for cheap (or fast) thrills. Ditto one-shot works so restrained that they teeter at the edge of their own collapse.

Milk Gareth Cadwallader

Milk (2017), Gareth Cadwallader. Photo: Benjamin Westoby; courtesy the artist and Josh Lilley, London; © Gareth Cadwallader

There was a subgroup among them whose paintings not only required slow looking, but who were, in a literal sense, slow painters. Among them was Gareth Cadwallader, whose charged, uncanny paintings take cues from both the pensive domestic stillness of Vermeer and Mantegna’s freaky, vivacious landscapes. In the depths of Cadwallader’s small paintings is charted disintegration: planes and familiar forms fall into mannered patterns, as though every non-human aspect was part of a decorative artifice. His work is, to put it mildly, ill served by the tiny screen.

These truly slow painters finish only a few works each year. They live with paintings in progress for up to a decade (maybe longer). What becomes clear in private conversations with such painters is how different their experience of the art world is from their quicker contemporaries.

As we move towards Frieze London, and the global art carnival rolls into town, I have been thinking back over my conversations with slow painters. They remind me of the partial view that art fairs provide, and the less obvious ways the market-stimulated hunger for the new changes the art we show and the art we value.

In bald terms, a slow painter shows less and earns less because they make less. If a painter requires many years to build up a body of work for a show, they will probably not be among those artists a gallery chooses to fill their booth at an art fair. For a solo fair presentation, a gallery will look to an artist who can offer a booth’s worth of new work at a few months’ notice. Any painter who suddenly seems omnipresent, with new exhibitions happening across multiple territories in a short time, will be working extraordinarily hard; but they will also, in relative terms, be painting quickly. Within the milieu of international art fairs – for many collectors, the first stop to see new art beyond the screen – the slow painter will be largely invisible.

Ceila Paul My Little Mother

My Little Mother (2000–14), Celia Paul. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro; © Celia Paul

They may be in demand for survey shows in public galleries, but there will seldom be new works for a slow painter to offer. Instead, they may have to borrow paintings back from collectors, who may turn snappish if a favourite piece is constantly out on loan. Thus there is also a risk that they fade from view at an institutional level. Scarcity, of course, can generate desire, which will help them retain devoted collectors, prepared to wait for a small gallery show to come round every three or four years, but until they are old enough to have a substantial back catalogue of work, public visibility will be limited.

In her autobiography Self-Portrait (2019), Celia Paul writes of painting’s particular relationship to time: she judges quick paintings and slow paintings to have different energies. The former, she likens to a newly decorated room: ‘the air is fresh, empty and echoing.’ The latter, to ‘a room that has been quietly lived in: it acquires a mysterious stillness.’ Paul, a painter who draws all of life’s rich heartache from long study of family members and a few familiar views, is decidedly of the ‘mysterious stillness’ camp.

I have no wish to pit quick painters against slow painters, but it’s always good to ponder the things less seen, particularly if art fairs and iPhone screens are where we do most of our looking. Back at the ‘Slow Painting’ round table, I remember the artists describing the need for constant vigilance lest they fell easily into habits. To make good work, they needed to keep surprising, testing, pushing themselves away from whatever came most easily. We might do well to follow suit.

From the October 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.