Vitamin P3: Taking the Pulse of Painting

In his introduction to the new French edition of Vitamine P3 : Nouvelles perspectives en peinture [Vitamin P3: New Perspectives on Painting in English], critic Barry Schwabsky writes, “When the Vitamin P series began in 2002, what seemed most noteworthy to me was the dispute over whether . . . a painter’s work . . . could be indicated by the word ‘painting’ or whether it had to be framed in terms of the broader category ‘art’.”

It quickly becomes clear in this book, however, that painting has begun to take back its rightful place as a key contemporary art practice. Whether part of an installation, or as a standalone medium, painting is finding new favour as a means of expressing complex ideas.

As in the previous two iterations in the Vitamin P series, P3 looks at recent paintings from all parts of the world, and a wide variety of artistic traditions and practices. Selected by a worldwide panel of curators, gallerists, critics and artists, the book features works by artists from countries that include Australia, Botswana, Brazil, Canada, China, Columbia, England, Ireland, Nigeria, Peru and the United States. Figural works sit cheek-by-jowl with abstracts. Overt political statements face off against more subtle cultural commentary. Vibrant colours and bold forms share space with quiet monochromatic studies.

Nor are the artists all young up-and-comers. The first artist in the book, for example, is Etel Adnan, born in Lebanon in 1925. A writer as well as an artist, Adnan generally paints in a pared-down style reminiscent of collage. As author-professor Kaelen Wilson-Goldie writes, they are also works of “pure beauty, landscapes so emptied of everyday agitation that they become a modular vocabulary.”

Etel Adnan, Untitled

Etel Adnan, Untitled, 2015, oil on canvas, 33 x 24 cm. © Etel Adnan, Courtesy the artist and Galerie Lelong, Paris. (page 14)

 

At what might be considered the opposite end of the scale, the tableaux created by Japanese artist Masaya Chiba feel almost hectic. In Turtle’s life #3 (2013), for example, a lion sits with a camera on its head, sharing a table with a terrarium, assorted plants, a computer screen, a bottle of pills, a turtle, a Polaroid snap, and a trowel. Deliberately painted in a hyper-realistic style, Chiba’s works, writes curator-writer Louise Elderton, “are like lucid dreams, somewhere between waking and sleeping, where everything is recognizable but something doesn’t feel quite right.”

 Many of the artists look to paintings of the past, reinventing them for a Post-Modern world. American artist Leidy Churchman’s Rousseau (2015), for example, is a spot-on rendition of a work by the eponymous artist. However, lest people think she is simply a talented copyist, the book also includes works such as the eerie Pelagic Ocean Sunfish (2015) and the candy-coloured Tallest Residential Tower in the Western Hemisphere (2015).

Leidy Churchman, Tallest Residential Tower in the Western Hemisphere

Leidy Churchman, Tallest Residential Tower in the Western Hemisphere, 2015, oil on linen, 167.7 × 213.4 cm. © Leidy Churchman, Courtesy Murray Guy, New York (page 63)

 

The work of Russian artist Sanya Kantarovsky also reflects an earlier style. Unlike the conventional 20th-century illustrations his work evokes, however, the people he paints seem depressed and anxious. The colours range between moody and garish and, as curator Jens Hoffmann writes, the artist’s figures “come off as playful yet dark, burdened and mischievous.”

 

Sanya Kantarovsky, Sky Alliance

Sanya Kantarovsky, Sky Alliance, 2015, Oil, pastel, watercolour and oil stick on linen, 119.4 × 88.9 cm © Sanya Kantarovsky, Courtesy the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York. Photo: Adam Reich (page 151)

 

Among the most fascinating works in the book are those by Irish artist Genieve Figgis. Her reimaginings of classic Academy-style paintings of the past two or three centuries transform the originals into strange grotesques. Simpering smiles turn into gaping maws, eyes look gouged out, and once-elegant figures end up with stick-like legs and misshapen heads. The effect owes much to the artist’s unusual technique. As art historian Kathleen Madden describes Figgis’ aesthetic, “It is as if a sudden cold front had arrived and the paintings were abandoned in the garden, left to be ravaged by the elements.”

 

Genieve Figgis, The Swing after Fragonard

Genieve Figgis, The Swing after Fragonard, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 80 x 59.7 cm © Genieve Figgis, Courtesy the artist and Half Gallery, New York (page 105)

 

Many of the paintings in the book involve similar invention. Australian artist Daniel Boyd, for example, borrows from Central Australian Aboriginal dot painting to create compelling works evoking a post-colonial reality. Nigerian artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby combines painting, drawing, printmaking, collage, Xerox transfer and even marble dust in her complex, multilayered canvases. Equally mesmerizing are works by Swiss artist Louisa Gagliardi, involving digital distortion of snapshots and other visuals, which are then reproduced in ink and latex on vinyl.

 

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Nwantinti

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Nwantinti, 2012, acrylic, coloured pencil and transfers on paper, 169.8 × 200.1 cm © Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London. Photo: Marc Bernier (page 73)

 

There are three Canadian artists in the book: Sascha Braunig, Julia Dault, and Elizabeth McIntosh. McIntosh’s work can be found in the National Gallery of Canada collection, and is represented in Vitamin P3 by a trio of light-filled abstracts. Often painting from a collaged drawing, McIntosh has also created collage installations, in which she tacks patterns of coloured paper to the walls of a gallery.

As befits a book on painting, this is a beautiful publication. The reproductions are generous in size, and thoughtfully laid out. Even the cover is a delight, embossed with raised “blobs” of paint, each containing a section of one of the paintings featured within. For anyone interested in a snapshot of painting over the past few years, this is definitely a volume worth having.

In this latest edition of the outstanding Vitamin P series, paintings by artists from across the globe showcase not only the contemporary state of the art, but also the willingness of painters to embrace the past, give it a unique twist, and unleash something entirely new.

Vitamine P3 : Nouvelles perspectives en peinture was published in 2017 by Phaidon. An English edition was published in 2016. For more information, please click here. For more information on this title, or to place an order, please contact us by e-mail (ngcbook@gallery.ca), or call us toll-free at 1-855-202-4568.

About the Author