Artists Use the Photograph as Canvas in “Overpainting”

The works in “Overpainting”—an exhibition at London’s Repetto Gallery that celebrates the rise of hand-altered photography in the late 20th century—transform existing images by adding ink or paint, sometimes as a flourish or addition, and other times as an obscuring feature or censor. The artists surveyed here are some of the most prominent of recent years—Anselm Kiefer, Shirin Neshat, and Mario Schifano among them—and in each of these works, the artist’s additions recontextualize the original photos, resulting in different constructions and deconstructions of reality and time.

Painted photography began in the 19th century as a way to infuse life and verisimilitude into banal black-and-white images before the advent of color photography. When it’s used now, the process actually makes photographs less realistic, in the sense that the image drifts further and further away from the idea of the photograph as an objective document. The paint imparts tactility and subjectivity onto the fixed image, while altering notions of time and narrative. 

Luigi Ontani produces hand-colored photographs featuring himself as different historical and literary characters. Sepia-tone photographs are painted with rich washes of color, like the taffy pinks in Amor sacro, Amor profanny (1993) or the honey yellows in Annunciazione Industana (1993). Ontani is able to weave himself into history using these faux antiques, images drawing on an amalgamation of motifs from the past. Youssef Nabil’s painted photographs work similarly. Before becoming a photographer he aspired to be a filmmaker, “inspired by the retro glamor of Egyptian cinema’s golden age.” In a series of painted self-portraits, he recreates cinematic moments starring himself.

Peter Beard’s painted photographs feel deeply personal, as if extracted from an intimate scrapbook or journal. He paints the edges messily, creating an imperfect frame around the images that is unmistakably human. He also scribbles notes onto each photo, often within the frame but sometimes right onto the picture, like in Carole Bouquet (1975).

Arnulf Rainer vandalizes photos with mark-making that seems to come from his subconscious. He adds aggressively, as seen in the frenzied paint smears covering the black and white nude in Frauensprachezyklus 1 (1977). It’s as if he doesn’t want us to see what’s behind—the heaviest paint blotches cover the places where the subject’s breasts and genitals would be. In Self portrait (1972-1973) he roughly cuts himself in half with black, yellow, and green paint.

Gerhard Richter’s piece, 23 February 01 (2001), shows the contrast between the flat objectiveness of a photo and the tactility of paint applied by the artist’s hand. The photo’s origins have disappeared:, we can’t tell when the photo is from or where it might have been taken. It is almost entirely covered by rippled green and pink gradient, and only in the corner can we see a slice of what it represents: a body of water, a chain, a green structure of some kind, and part of a person’s shoulder. Presumably the photo is taken from a boat, the paint mimicking the water it covers. Here, the paint turns the photograph into an abstract piece, and the details we naturally look for in a photo, such as time or place, are totally obscured. We have to understand it differently.

M.A. Wholey

Overpainting” is on view at Repetto Gallery, London, Feb. 5–Mar. 20, 2015.

Follow Repetto Gallery on Artsy.

Share article