In an earlier post I said I’d talk about realism in painting and why I became a realist painter. I’d like to thank the California Art Club and Maria Hall Brown at PBS Socal for the chance to conduct an interview which motivated me to pick up this subject again of “why I decided to practice realism in my painting”. I’d also like to thank Beverly Chang for calling me today to encourage me to recall my words on the subject, which made me remember my notes and decide to post them on my website.
So much of our culture has been forward thinking, the future is where we place our optimism. We like to leave the past behind.
I started my love of art though with the classics, through fairytale illustrations from the 20s, to opera classics to the impressionists paintings at the Chicago Art Institute and then later worked my way back to the Baroque and the Renaissance. There was a sense of wonder that I felt when looking at this kind of artwork. It seemed almost magical because no one seemed to be able or know how to do it today. It only made sense to go back and try and dig up the past to understand how it was done.
I think a lot representational art today is misunderstood as a desire to escape back to an earlier time period but this isn’t true. I am looking backwards in the same way that an anthropologist or scientist might to understand how something was made. There is very little written on the subject and the technical training for this kind of work has long since disappeared due to the lack of industry in the field. Inevitably artists would take it upon themselves to perform their own experiments to try and arrive at the right conclusion.
Also, I hear sometimes that art by contemporary artists that looks “academic” and “classical” is not valued because it lacks insightful reflection or perspective about our life and culture today. But I believe that art is more than what people take at surface value. The efforts of artists who do look backwards into the past and embrace that aspect in their work believe that there is something valuable there that they wish to revive or continue as part of the long evolution of visual creativity. It is something they have identified as inspirational or lacking in their present condition and hope to realize an aspect of it through their work in painting. It is temporary field work; a trip back in the time machine to recover something precious that was lost, not a permanent return to the past.
There is an aspect of representation in visual arts that disturbs many people because of the dominance of the photograph in visual communication today. Even as early as the turn of the late 19th century, artists used photographs as visual aids to help them make their paintings. Today, photographs and film have taken over to the point that the medium alone represents the factual evidence of a thing or event existing. As a visual artist and as a participant in popular culture, I am completely immersed in the world of photographic and cinematic images. Of course they influence my artwork and have been a defining standard in the level of realism that I try and achieve. I have tried in the past to paint up to the level of realism in a photograph. It is an inevitable challenge that many a representational artist takes on. But ultimately the goal of my work is explore, understand and question these great influences, not to attain the same standards that they set.
Abstract art could be seen itself as a great escape from the dominant culture of representational realism around us. I find it a bit odd that abstract artists go to such lengths to avoid the presence and influence of representationalism in their work as it’s something that is impossible to deny in the real world. My guess is that it is a reactionary and extreme way of posing alternatives. It is dramatic but it lacks a kind of personal dimension.
I arrive at where I am in my work by asking questions. The path of those questions has led me to where I am today. One of the first questions I asked as a painter was why can’t I paint up to the level of realism that I expect to see in the photographs, tv and movies that I enjoy and take for granted every day? What is lacking or deficient about my ability or this kind of art? Why can’t I draw and paint to the level of enjoyment and appreciation that I see in beautifully illustrated historical books and great paintings in the museums? Shouldn’t a good painter expect to be able to paint like this?
I find more than anything, that the study and practice of visual representation makes you more aware of the choices that people, businesses, agencies make to express their ideas and communication. You start to question why they make those choices and what that means about how we want to see ourselves and how we want others to see us. It is inquiry into the way we visually express our identity and our values.
Perhaps many people look at an artist these days and wonder what kind of lack of common sense would make them devote their life to a pursuit that a machine seems to be so much better suited to do? You could say though that there are many occupations today that are being taken over by machines and that is one of the defining struggles that many people face in our times. I’ve always believed that there is something more that I have to express in painting than what I could achieve through photography, otherwise it seems obvious that I would have chosen photography as my medium. I feel that I’m still in the woods though with this pursuit and have not arrived yet at the answer or the point in which I’m satisfied with my efforts.
Also though, I am aware that this pursuit seems somewhat absurd and luxurious in nature, like a kind of navel gazing. Our values right now reflect an urgency we feel to fix the wastefulness that we see spoiling our environment and the uncertainty of experiencing great changes in our economy. What does art have in common with these concerns? I see the opportunity that I’ve been given to do this work as a gift given from our past times and culture, something that our parents and ancestors believed was important, or else it would not exist now as a possibility. Essentially it is the chance to spend time in search of answers to questions and have the freedom to make choices that are not based on necessity.
It is becoming more difficult with each passing year in the US to sustain this kind of luxurious pursuit. I still believe though that “the meaning of our lives” may be directed by the amount of optimism that we put into our pursuits and that is something that we have always celebrated about our humanity- the part that embraces the difficult or nonsensical despite its departure from the practical perspective. We are lucky to still have both options to choose from.