While it has never been possible to separate painting and photography, it is equally true to say they are impossible to combine. This paradox is more apparent now that photography is ubiquitous across the arts. While painting and photography are drawn together by related processes, subjects and compositions, they inevitably spring apart into the irreconcilable difference of medium and disciplinary formation. That is, when photography and painting borrow from each other there is always something of the borrowed medium that cannot be carried over to the other medium– something untranslatable and idiomatic.
Louise Forthun makes the idiom of painting apparent when she takes the processes and appearances of photography into painting while maintaining its out-of-place-ness, its lack of fit. This is particularly so in her paintings of cities produced through an unusual combination of stencilling and painting. Since the mid 1980s, Forthun has used this process in addressing the city as subject. It is an effective means for making a bridge between painting and photography and one that opens up a number of complex and productive comparisons across mediums that make these works all the more affecting in their immediacy.
These paintings register the trace–the founding principle of photography. They begin in photographs of great cities or mundane urban life. These images are cut into stencils and then marked out onto a canvas already prepared with paint. This ground of painting is expressive and spontaneous, even explosively gestural unlike photographs and in stark contrast to the controlled form of the stencil. Yet, while Forthun’s painted ground is insistently painterly it is overlaid with signs of the mechanical and technological. Through this process the positive/negative relations inherent to photography as medium are emphasised at the same time that they are translated into painting and overwritten by its weight as substance. The ground takes this photographic double trace of photograph and stencil but as paint applied to canvas, the painting as trace, also asserts itself. Its substance as physical stuff on canvas takes over the image at the same time as maintaining and emphasising the photographic effect.
Forthun extends this cross-mediality still further in her use of the colour, more particularly the colour of photography. This is not however the colour of naturalistic photographic verisimilitude but rather the confronting separated high tones of primary red, yellow, blue–the colours behind the naturalism of photography that we only see in colour matching strips and print separations. We might say that the energy of these paintings as based in colour is borrowed from the technical palette of new media and yet delivered by the older, low-tech medium of painting in an immediacy that is perhaps only found in a substance that suggests the direct gestural expression of the artist.
Our expectations of photography and painting are also inverted when Forthun’s paintings slow the time of the photograph–supposedly the instant–through the considerable labour of making the stencil image. Isolating positive and negative she cuts huge sheets by hand over long hours, making them more and more fragile and further away from the robustness and cohesion of seemless photography with each cut. This crafting of the photographic image makes the painting all the more speeded up by comparison. Splashes, rapid brush marks, and haphazard dribbles give form to immediacy and spontaneity. This is painted form as an instant in time, like and unlike the instantaneousness of the photograph.
Even as Forthun insists on real places as her subject, the refusal of these images to coalesce into a single coherent surface or subject opens the space between painting and photography. We know Melbourne or Brisbane, Rome and Tokyo quite differently when they are charged by the immediacy of both painting and photography, their drawing together and springing apart.
Dr Rosemary Hawker
Senior Lecturer in Art Theory
Queensland College of Art