Alex Katz and The Penzance Convention

Earlier this year Simon Bayliss journeyed to Cornwall to attend The Penzance Convention which coincided with the opening of Alex Katz: Give me Tomorrow at Tate St Ives. This is his enquiry into the disparate worlds of painting and social art practice.

As a painter obsessed with painting, I also foster a perverse fascination with ‘the other’; the estranged realm of socially engaged art.  Thus, I joined The Penzance Convention as a voyeur, but not as a sceptic.

International artists, curators, writers, scientists, historians, philosophers, as well as mining experts and fishermen, gathered earlier this year at The Exchange in Penzance, Cornwall.  Why? To participate in a three day event conceived by independent curator Teresa Gleadowe, convened as an interdisciplinary approach to art practice and research.  The theme of The Penzance Convention[1] was ‘extraction’; chosen predominantly to highlight one of the region’s most topical issues, emphasising the social and environmental impact of Cornwall’s extractive industries: mining, farming and fishing in particular. Also interwoven were testaments to the way artists ‘extract’ ideas from history, place, people, and politics, in order to raise awareness of important contemporary themes. As well as being an arena for ideas, activity and discussion, the convention showcased a number of artworks, some within the gallery setting, and others out in the ‘real world’.

At The Penzance Convention, inside The Exchange
At The Penzance Convention, inside The Exchange, image courtesy Abigail Reynolds

As scheduled, after the first day of The Penzance Convention, buses shuttled delegates six miles across the peninsula – from the sheltered harbours of the south to the rugged north coast – to Tate St Ives to join the opening of the Alex Katz painting exhibition: Give Me Tomorrow.  Although unrelated (the show was planned before the idea of the convention) this coincidental convergence appeared to me, to spell the collision of two diametrically opposed forces. The Katz show embodied the antithesis of the ethos of the conference. While the convention had all the traits of a powerhouse of social art practice, Alex Katz: Give me Tomorrow pledged a retrospective of pictures, by a painter who has honed a life-time of craft, unapologetically bourgeois in subject and honouring many of the traditional nuances of painterly practice.

Blurred boundaries

Unlike Alex Katz, many of today’s artists are working beyond the studio and gallery walls, devoted to an interdisciplinary practice reaching far beyond the traditions of ‘object-based’ art.  No longer relevant is the romantic archetype of the lone artisan whittling away in a ramshackle studio, anticipating long awaited prestige. Instead artists today are increasingly concerned about their role in society – their role in the ‘ordinary’. The medium of painting has limited effect here. Human relationships: to one another, to surroundings, and to the structures which govern lives are at the core of social art practice.  As highlighted by The Penzance Convention, artists now often navigate across other disciplines, working in collaboration with specialists from different fields such as science, ecology, anthropology, politics or industry – seeking to address topical issues.

The blurred boundaries between art and the public sphere were evident from the start of The Penzance Convention. The keynote speech by social historian Ian Boal, introducing the theme of extractive industry in the region, was delivered following an organ recital from the pulpit of Penzance Methodist Church. Undoubtedly this was choreographed to evoke the preaching of John Wesley; social activist and widely credited founder of the Methodist Movement, distinctly popular amongst Cornish miners, farmers and fishermen for his socially inclusive doctrines.

But the social art core of The Penzance Convention, introduced as an ‘interdisciplinary approach’, was a choice of several field trips. Two offered the opportunity of experiencing the underground workings of derelict Cornish mines, whilst another visited the Newlyn Fish Auction followed by a day spotlighting the local fishing community.  The collaborative artists FIELDCLUB traced the history of agriculture through the Cornish landscape, from iron-age field systems to a modern daffodil farm, presenting their research into ecological land use and food production. I chose the only trip which had any obvious link to traditional art practice; ‘extracting creativity’ a workshop with artist Andrew Lanyon (whose St Ives born father Peter Lanyon was one of my first painting heroes) which focused on the nature of creativity. For everyone on board the field trips delivered food for thought; the raw ingredients to facilitate further art practice, critical thinking, and discussion. Most intriguingly however, they also provided the experience of participation in works of social sculpture; participatory artworks in their own right.

‘Coast to Coast’ field trip led by artist Billy Wynter and National Trust Countryside Manager John Brooks
‘Coast to Coast’ field trip led by artist Billy Wynter and National Trust Countryside Manager John Brooks, image courtesy Jane Robinson

Clashing narratives

It was a calm orange and pink sky as dusk closed over gently rolling surf at Porthmeor beach; the vista clearly visible from the great curved window of Tate St Ives at the opening night of Alex Katz: Give me Tomorrow.  The scene teeming with trendy people socialising in a crisp white space, was mirrored by Alex Katz’s paintings of family and friends at leisure on the beach, hanging alongside vast sun-glistening seascapes, and magnified studies of flowers and flora.

Katz maintains a traditional focus on the three longest-standing genres in painting: portraiture, landscape and still life. These he conveys with a stylish contemporary aesthetic: enveloping scale, stilted compositions, vivid colours, and passages of hard abstraction; all elements which propel the paintings far beyond a typically domestic approach. But for me and for others, Katz’s subject matter is problematic. It is not the old-fashioned working methodology which raises questions about his intentions and responsibilities as an artist, but the lifestyle he endorses through his pictures. In Katz’s world the sun is always shining, the flowers are in full bloom, and the beautiful women are without wrinkles. The show presented work painted from his summer seaside retreat in Maine, and was curated to reflect the gallery’s location overlooking one of Cornwall’s picturesque sandy beaches. But the howling gales and stormy seas, which regularly batter this coastline, were unimaginable within the walls of Give me Tomorrow.

At the private view of Alex Katz: Give me Tomorrow, Tate St Ives (in the background: Alex Katz Eleuthera (detail)
At the private view of Alex Katz: Give me Tomorrow, Tate St Ives (in the background: Alex Katz Eleuthera (detail), 1984), © TATE

Whilst The Penzance Convention was in the midst of narrating the lives of impoverished miners and fishermen, and tackling the fundamental issues of redundant industry in Cornwall, Katz’s work celebrates a life of leisure, fashion, and natural splendour, reflecting the aspirations and superficial tastes of the upper-echelons of society. As these two events converged for this one night, the force of the conflicting subject matters was palpable. Narratives clashed: abandoned quarries and thriving marinas.

Like the hordes of second home owners who have simultaneously damaged communities but also brought much needed tourism and wealth into the region, the effects of Katz’s paintings are similarly complex. Although his folk are often at leisure and fashionably dressed, and his cinematic nature scenes uninterruptedly idyllic, the thoughts of extraction – the 1985 tin price crash… mine closures… exhaustible commodities… capitalism… the geological composition of granite… radiation sickness – all eventually became side-lined, put on hold by luxurious swathes of paint. Although it is easy to criticise the paintings for their bourgeois subject matter, this preliminary association, the first impression, is too hasty. Katz’s paintings are undeniably compelling. And this is to do with the paint itself.

Black Hat (Bettina) is a large picture of a glamorously aloof, thin-faced woman, wearing impenetrable shades and a large black floppy-brimmed hat. With tightly pursed lips and the tilt of her head gesturing into the distance she is unengageable; probably far too fabulous to set eyes on a grubby miner.  But like all Katz’s work, the picture is neither complacent nor condescending. Instead there is something ungainly about her cricked elongated neck, with straight sides and a flat constructivist shadow beneath her chin. Her face feels unstable on its awkwardly abstract support. Her sunglasses, which look about to fall off her disappearing nose – perhaps after too much surgery – reflect a desolate lunar landscape.  And after a while, her black hat – UFO shaped and rigidly abstract, – along with the stark yellow background, becomes as flat and ominous as a Robert Motherwell painting, with the fashionista’s face clamped within. These unsettling, intriguing, fascinating painterly attributes gather momentum the longer one looks, adding a force of resistance to urges of dismissal on grounds of its subject.

Alex Katz, Black Hat (Bettina)
Alex Katz, Black Hat (Bettina) 2010, Oil on linen, 152.4 x 213.4 cm, Private Collection, London, © Alex Katz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, Image courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris – Salzburg

Art for the ‘real world’

As well as the opposing terrain covered by Alex Katz and The Penzance Convention, the contrasting mediums of communication were also incompatible. Whereas Katz’s work caters for all those seeking echoes of the famous St Ives modernist movement, and unwitting tourists drifting in from the beach, The Penzance Convention dealt in the experimental and the Avant-guard. Gazing in contemplation at a painting is one of the traditional forms of art encounter, and is universally accepted as such.  Conversely, socially engaged art practice offers alternative experiences to basking in the presence of art-objects.  Encounters which are dependent on the involvement of others are key to relational art practices. Its history is rooted in conceptual, environmental, and performative art, as well as social movements, and in order to engage with people – whether they are gallery visitors or public participants – artists are making work which permeates or cohabits the ‘real world’.  Social art therefore borrows languages and forms from any variety of non-art fields, which in this case included academic seminars, event planning, guided tours, and environmental activism; in a bid to engage audiences in innovative and relevant ways.  With society and people at the core, it is normal now for artists to look for ways to not only renounce object-making but also authorship over work altogether.

At The Penzance Convention Lecture on Nesting for example, was a collaborative presentation by artist Andy Holden and his father, RSPB Ornithologist Peter Holden.  The piece was an educational lecture on how birds extract from their environment, laced with subtle but intentional Freudian dynamics. The duo stood either side of a screen and a table of nest examples, passing commentaries back and forth. The father talked, from the perspective of a scientist, about courtship and nesting behaviour, whereas his son enthused from the angle of a sculptor, about the materials and processes used in constructing these quasi-objects. The piece, billed as a performance, had none of the hall-marks of traditional art practice. It was both pedagogical and participatory, had no emphasis on the artist’s talent or personality, and used the everyday medium of a PowerPoint presentation as its vehicle.

Mastery of materials

Katz on the other hand, honours the grand tradition of painting. Appointed to curate the Tate Collection Display, he selected work by George Stubbs, Soutine, Mondrian, Sickert, as well as contemporary figures such as Gary Hume, Marlene Dumas, Luc Tuymans and Howard Hodgkin to hang concurrently with his retrospective.  What Katz and his chosen artists share is a life devoted to practice involving the same framework, and engaging in the same activity that has been in place since the history of Western pictorial painting began.

As mastery of materials and authorship over work is being increasingly rejected, social practitioners are free to dip into an array of knowledge and expertise in order to negotiate within specific sites or contexts.  During a lecture painter and Katz expert Merlin James contested that in pursuing an interdisciplinary approach “deep communion with individual art forms might never take place”.[2]  To be a painter requires great commitment to the medium, and the act of painting must become instilled over years of practice. It is clear that when comparing Katz’s recent works to his paintings from the 1950’s, a calligraphic confidence shines over early scuffling. The freshest surfaces are luscious and alive; made with a concise economy of marks. The clean expanses of paint, and a sheer single minded approach to his latest loose and intuitive compositions, are evidence that Katz is a master of his practice.

Alex Katz, Penobscot
Alex Katz, Penobscot, 1999, Oil on board, 23 x 30.5 cm, Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008, © Alex Katz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Art for art’s sake

Within cultural institutions painting has an advantage over other artforms. The currently prevailing construct of the ‘white cube’ gallery – a legacy of high-modernism and the Bauhaus era – is ideal for presenting painting, but not for art which requires a social setting for hospitality, exchange and encounter.  Overcoming this problem artist Abigail Reynolds was commissioned to transform The Exchange into a suitable environment for the conference component of The Penzance Convention. The installation of tiered stalls made from reclaimed wood and pallets, referenced local amphitheatres of the Minack Theatre, and Gwennap pit where John Wesley famously preached.

But relocating art within the gallery which originated in the public realm and involving the participation of others is notably problematic for social art.  There may be a divide in interest and understanding for instance, between the initial participants and the art audience. Often a project which may not be contextualised until it reaches the gallery will be regaled in the form of research or documentation, or even as fable, to promote the legacy of its happening. Interpretive information is heavily relied upon in many cases to retranslate a work’s original occurrence.  A month after The Penzance Convention for example, The Exchange held an exhibition which chronicled our field trips through photographic slideshows and short films; providing a gallery setting for a record of the live-art component of the convention.

Participants at Newlyn Fish Auction
Participants at Newlyn Fish Auction, image courtesy Chris Jones

The power of art

Katz’s paintings on the contrary are self-sufficient artworks, which do not require accompanying spiel, and like most painting in the Western tradition they hang magnificently on a gallery wall.  Nevertheless they are neither pedagogical nor participatory, and they do not infiltrate the social sphere. The traits of a painting are outmoded today. Socially engaged art not only promotes new ways of making and thinking about art, it reconsiders the power of art in changing the world. Painting is no longer suited to this task. Unlike most social practitioners, who surefootedly seek to address and even reform political issues, Katz like many painters is content with a material-based practice; deducing his subject matter to suit his temperament.[3]

During the conference in The Exchange, presentations proceeded from geological and philosophical debates around industry and the environment, into the topic of ‘Art and Extraction: History and Site’ which examined where and how artists locate and unearth ideas. Polish artist Miroslaw Balka, for example, described a collaborative project he initiated in his native town of Otwock, in which artists are commissioned to produce work in connection with the location. For this project Lara Almarcegui documented the slowly disappearing regional-style architecture in the city. A detailed account of the demolition of a house was published along with photographs, by the artist in the local newspaper. Balka suggested that by working in this way – amalgamating artwork and place – exposes the social and political agendas of the land, and redefines the role of art beyond cultural institutions.

Sally Tallant, director of the Liverpool Biennale, similarly proposed that today an artist’s role was not to actively pursue regeneration, but to rethink the challenges and possibilities within society, and identify models for change.  During her talk, Tallant listed the artists she was commissioning to promote ‘new understandings of hospitality for our increasingly globalised and complex times’.[4] The notion of hospitality evokes social responsibility and there were unsurprisingly no painters mentioned. Since then however, Turner Prize nominee George Shaw has been added, who’s highly traditional approach to painting nevertheless frames an acute sensitivity to our gritty reality. His detailed renditions of council houses and – to quote a title – Landscape with Dog Shit Bin may not be socially engaging per se, but they are certainly politically aware.

Teresa Gleadowe leading a discussion
Teresa Gleadowe leading a discussion, image courtesy Abigail Reynolds

The communicative power of painting today is limited however, and its practice lacks flexibility. There is no task for painting now; no responsibilities, and no strategies. The pursuit of ‘art for art’s sake’ is standard practice. It seems that although painting mostly continues to fetishize the art-object and indulge in the pursuit of aesthetics, social artforms have taken on a role within the cogs of society. An interdisciplinary approach is undoubtedly the most logical today, giving artists the capacity to deal with worldly issues using the very fabric and languages which frame them. Painting it seems is predominantly stuck in a rectangle.

Why painting?

The Penzance Convention revealed itself to be a multi-faceted and boundless campaign, stimulating encounters with relational art, insight into the processes behind interdisciplinary practice, as well as offering a contemporary topic on which to ruminate. But for me, the science and social history of Cornish industry is unlikely to form the basis of any new work. I also do not intend to begin navigating within specific sites or social contexts, or in participation with other people. Instead my attendance as a voyeur into another world, prompted essential reflection on my choice, my position, and my practice as a painter.

To choose the medium-based practice of painting is a politically loaded, and in many ways absurd decision. Like a conscientious objector, the painter is a few steps back from society, and for the most part, removed from battle on the front line. But like many others my reason for painting is not because I want an effective way of communicating in today’s globalised world, but because I want to spend my time (probably the rest of my life) working with the curious and tangible medium of paint.  We can forgive Katz for pursuing style over social responsibility because his subject matter becomes intrinsically part of the paintings themselves. The manner in which the work is painted – the humming colours, and luscious and seductive surfaces traversed by zen-like brush marks – consolidates the image. Their rectangular self-containment displaces any narratives referring to fashion magazines or yachting holidays, and draws the viewer away from the ‘real world’ into the world of painting.

As a painter today, although I am anxious about my medium and its capabilities, like many I am deeply committed to practising its slow and complex pursuit. As painting doggedly endures the boundaries imposed by the edges of the canvas, penned within a rectangle by its physical limitations, it is encircled by an ever expanding contemporary art vortex. Boundaries between art and real-life are coalescing, cross-fertilisation with other disciplines is rife, and use of experimental mediums is standard.  Taking this into consideration, I am secure knowing that painting has borders. A metaphor for the edge of the canvas is the edge of the world, within which there is total freedom to explore and to cultivate within a designated terrain, albeit with its own unique atmosphere, gravity and chemistry. As Merlin James suggests, painting is “a world of material meaning unto itself, of course not divorced from the wider realities around it, … but nevertheless painting has a reality with its own culture, its own history, tradition, conventions, genres. Its own ways. Its own ways of being”.[5]

Within the traditional framework of painting, I am aware that my medium is outmoded. And I am powerless to expose and transform society from within, as social art practice endeavours. But although painting cannot adapt its delivery to suit the ‘real world’, as Katz demonstrates it can still progress, informed but uninhibited, within its own flat world.

Installation view, Alex Katz: Give me Tomorrow
Installation view, Alex Katz: Give me Tomorrow, Tate St Ives, © TATE


[2] Merlin James, ‘Painting per se’, lecture as Alex Katz Chair in Painting, Cooper Union, New York, 2002

[3] Inside New York’s Art World: Alex Katz, interviewed by Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, 1978


[5]  Merlin James, ‘Painting per se’, lecture as Alex Katz Chair in Painting, Cooper Union, New York, 2002

Simon Bayliss is an emerging artist and critic based in Southwest England. He holds an MFA from Burren College of Art/ NUI Galway, Ireland, and BA (Hons) in Fine Art from Falmouth College of Art. As well as regularly exhibiting and contributing to The Painting Imperative, Bayliss has written for Nom de Strip – arts journal, and works for KARST – artist-led exhibition space in Plymouth.