Get Real

Eric Fischl, a Senior Critic at the Academy, recommends this article. Eric is a Trustee and long-time champion of the school, and was recently honored at last year's annual Take Home a Nude. Eric's paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints have been the subject of numerous international solo and major group exhibitions as well as publications. He is the founder, president and lead curator behind America: Now and Here. Thanks for the recommendation, Eric!

Get Real: Can painting the world as it is go stale?
by Roger White

I appreciate a really good painting of a nude, some fruit, a judge, or a bridge, just as anybody does. I follow portrait competitions with enthusiasm and marvel at the inhuman discipline required to paint the creases in someone’s khakis in oil on canvas with a double-0 sable brush in an age when we don’t even print out our photographs anymore. Yet I must not be alone in my tendency to keep this interest private, because realist painting is grossly underrepresented in art criticism.

Josh Sonsini's Byron, 2009. Oil on canvas, 72x60 in.
Courtesy Robert Wedemeyer
How can this be? Although in the past 15 years we’ve seen an incredible resurgence in figurative painting — from the genre games of archstylists like John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage, and Kurt Kauper, to the Pop-inflected Expressionism of Dana Schutz and Jules de Balincourt, to the sociopolitical photo-painting of Luc Tuymans and Marlene Dumas — realism per se is still outside of, or perhaps beneath, the discussion of painting in most contemporary-art spheres. When Currin paints a Thanksgiving turkey, we don’t imagine that he’s addressing the same perceptual issues that occupy Philip Pearlstein, no matter how convincingly he renders the plucked, naked carcass. Realism in painting is permissible, provided it serves as the bedrock for more complicated pursuits.

This idea — that the problems of observation and representation occupy a lowly place on the scale of artistic concerns — has much to do with the structure of art education. Most training in the visual arts, regardless of whether the students end up earnest still-life painters or jet-setting curators, begins in the same place: drawing and painting from life. So as they progress through the ranks, trading foundational work for more ambitious projects, charcoal for digital video, this basic engagement with looking and making can remind them uncomfortably of their awkward school days. And in a classic ontogeny-phylogeny mix-up, they mistake their personal progress from basic drawing to critical issues with an evolutionary progression from the naïveté of empiricism to the sophistication of second-order critical reflections.

Gillian Carnegie's Thirteen, 2006. Oil on board.
29 1/2 x 23 in. 
Courtesy Gillian Carnegie and Andrea Rosen,
New York, 
and Cabinet Gallery, London
It doesn’t help that proponents of pure realism — painting from life and meaning it, without any of this postmodern guff — sometimes praise the practice only to bash contemporary art over the head with its virtues. Realism is humble, accessible, rigorous, humanist, they might say, while the rest of contemporary art is self-aggrandizing, obscurantist, flaccid, and soulless. James Panero, writing in The New Criterion in praise of the "classical realism" espoused by the New York artist and teacher Jacob Collins, positions the movement as a bastion of quality within "the ruinous state of contemporary art." Donald Kuspit, whose insightful readings of underknown painters like David Bierk and Robert Schwartz do much to further humanist art criticism, often descends to jeremiads on the weightlessness of most contemporary-art production coupled with ardent defenses of hard-to-like artists like kitschmeister Odd Nerdrum. Advocating for realist painting as a vital component of contemporary painting can feel like crossing into a parallel dimension of art history in which the rise of postmodernism is a tragedy of the first order but, paradoxically, one not only can but should paint like Thomas Eakins. Artists who work in the style but wish to participate in a broader cultural conversation face an identity crisis: How do they signal that they are realist painters but also contemporary artists? More important: Why should this distinction exist in the first place?

Ellen Altfest's Penis, 2006. Oil on canvas,
11x12 in. 
Courtesy Cary Whittier and 
Ellen Altfest/White Cube, London
Lately we’ve seen some interesting attempts to fuse this most traditional of painterly ideas — looking at something and making a picture of it — with the critical concerns of contemporary art. In John Sonsini’s portraits of young Latino day laborers, the financial transaction between painter and model takes on an added political significance. Gillian Carnegie’s deadpan academic paintings of flowers, trees, and nudes exhibit such a degree of self-consciousness that they come off more like abstractions. Ellen Altfest brings a painstaking objectivity to loaded subjects, rendering penises, pumpkins, and tree trunks with the same aggressive yet detached attention. For these artists victory lies in making sure that the very different possible meanings of their works maintain a productive relationship, conceptual freight neither overshadowing nor disappearing beneath formal concerns.

Catherine Murphy's Hand Mirror, 2008. Oil/canvas, 46x54 1/2 in.
Courtesy Catherine Murphy and Knoedler & Company, New York
If we take a half step back, it becomes clear that realism in postwar American painting has always kept up this relationship with the avant-garde, waging similar critical battles within a different arena. Two artists in particular, Catherine Murphy and Rackstraw Downes, are exemplary of the productive marginality of observational painting. Both came of age in the 1960s, broke with abstract painting early on, and have been steadfastly pursuing practices that don’t quite make sense within the discussion of "pure" realist painting but also fall just outside the comfort zone of many contemporary-art participants.

Murphy has become the preeminent American painter of the close-up, scrutinizing an ever-growing catalogue of domestic objects and situations with a fierce and exacting eye. Pictures from her 2008 exhibition at Knoedler & Company gallery, in New York, depict Christmas lights framing a window at night, four cutout magazine pages pinned to a wall, a woman lying under a striped comforter, and a golden crucifix hanging between a woman’s breasts. In each case, the image is at once instantly recognizable and unexpectedly bizarre, as if the artist had first exhaustively imagined and then excluded every conventional way of depicting the scene and then proceeded with what was left. A series of small paintings executed in 2009 and 2010 show every knothole in the upstate New York house shared by Murphy and her husband, the sculptor Harry Roseman. One can easily imagine such a documentary project, with its dryly Conceptualist tone, resulting in a suite of photographs; realizing it through observational painting is an unexpected achievement.

In the way that the pioneering American observational painter Fairfield Porter viewed his surroundings through the work of Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard, Murphy organizes paintings of everyday life within the resonant structures of postwar abstract art. Ad Reinhart-esque crosses, Jackson Pollock-like tangles, and Barnett Newman-ian zips abound, concretized as window frames, garden hoses, and the space between two sheets hung out to dry. But beyond this simply morphological relationship to nonobjective artworks, Murphy’s pictures suggest that even the most faithful representations can engender moments of abstract vision, when things "lose their names," as she puts it, and we glimpse the world afresh.

Catherine Murphy's Moiré Chair, 1991. Oil on canvas, 40 x 46 in.
Courtesy Catherine Murphy and Knoedler & Company, New York
For Murphy, the return to figuration in American art in the early 1960s was a reaction as much to the first rumblings of that decade’s revolutionary atmosphere as to the hegemony of abstract painting in the art world. So when artists began kicking around the idea that observational painting — by then as passé as Picasso — could be a viable alternative to abstraction, she felt that more was at stake than just one manner versus another. "I was idealistic. I believed I could achieve universal objectivity," she says, noting that the desire to achieve a styleless mode of representational painting — as methodically freed of art-historical preconceptions as abstract art had been under Clement Greenberg’s instruction — had an egalitarian intent. Realism could communicate the most advanced ideas of vanguard art in an idiom that reached more people than did high modernism’s sometimes hermetic discourse.

But first some housecleaning was necessary. Observational realism adopted the starkly reductive, ascetic mood of post-painterly abstraction and the phenomenological concerns of Minimalist sculpture. The result was a way of neatly registering the experience of sight and space while emptying the artwork of the hidebound humanist conventions of the style. Philip Pearlstein’s cold nudes, in which, the artist says in a 1972 statement, the human figure is "saved from its tormented agonized condition given it by Expressionistic artists," play out the formal dramas of abstract painting using academic life models as actors and the studio as a set. Sylvia Plimack Mangold’s interiors reduce the everyday sphere to geometric arrangements of planes and reflections stripped of any vestige of intimist charm.

Painting meticulously and only from life imposes on the artist a set of exacting conditions that precludes many possibilities. If you have to be there to paint something and it takes you a long time to paint it, then that thing has to sit still and not change very much over time. Murphy has gone to great and sometimes perverse lengths to finish paintings: freezing food items in between painting sessions over the course of months, propping up fallen trees with pulley systems, commissioning taxidermied wildlife. Elements of the close at hand also have to stand in for the faraway, and the meaning of an artwork must be generated from precisely this quotidian stuff. In the years since the stripped-down, formalist revival of figuration in the 1960s, Murphy has embraced a more full-bodied idea of content precisely through her adherence to the dictates of patient observation. As much as her paintings are concerned with breaking down the everyday into its abstract components, they also reassemble this world into ad hoc symbolic arrangements. "Hand Mirror," 2008, casts a stuffed bird reflected in the titular mirror, which is resting in someone’s lap, as the Holy Ghost in an oddly intimate Annunciation. Explaining the relationship between such heavy iconography and the apparent naturalism of her painterly universe, the artist says, "I would never set out to paint an Annunciation." However, what happens between the impulse to observe something without prejudice and the reemergence of the symbolic forms through which we process our world is precisely the phenomenon that Murphy explores.

Rackstraw Downes's Under the Westside Highway at 145th Street: The Bike Path, No. 1,
2009. Oil on canvas, 19 x 65 1/2 in.

Courtesy Rackstraw Downes and Betty Cunningham Gallery, New York

If Catherine Murphy is the painter of the macro lens, her close contemporary Rackstraw Downes is undoubtedly dedicated to the fish-eye. His signature works are extreme horizontal-format depictions of unlovely industrial sites in which traditional perspective is bent to replicate the painter’s constantly shifting sight lines. Downes participated in the same revival of figuration as did Murphy, jumping abruptly in the mid 1960s from geometric abstraction, pursued under the tutelage of Al Held, into a realist practice. Although his paintings present a landscape of unquestionable, solid physicality, the abstract undergirding of planes and lines is easy to see.

Like Murphy, Downes paints from life, never from a photograph. He sometimes documents the day-to-day struggles of his practice in journals. At a recent exhibition at the Aldrich Museum, in Connecticut, viewers could take in a cycle of paintings made under the West Side Highway in Manhattan along with the artist’s writings and a legion of preparatory drawings. Together these elements reveal the temporality of Downes’s work. The paintings show scenes of apparently seamless unity and coherence: Shadows fall crisply across fields of patchy grass, logical lighting conditions obtain across the long expanse of the canvas, and the ephemeral elements of the landscape — the parked cars, puddles of waste water, folded lengths of temporary construction fencing, even the occasional bicyclist or jogger — exist in a state of arrested flux. Yet Downes’s process is cumulative. He captures an image of a moment through months or years of arduous, repetitive construction. An excerpt from his journal cited in the exhibition catalogue details the days spent waiting for a red Mini Cooper to return to the scene so he could finish painting it.

Although Downes’s images bear a superficial resemblance to the congested photorealist cityscapes of Richard Estes, the two artists’ work couldn’t tell more divergent stories about our relationship to landscape. Estes’ scenes are built around and for the viewer, and the world is transformed into a play of reflections and vantage points. In contrast, Downes seems to choose a place from which to observe precisely because it’s unlikely that anyone would choose to stand there for a minute, much less for the months required to complete a painting. It is no coincidence that the sites Downes often portrays — waste-treatment plants, water-monitoring stations, the understructures of bridges — have to do with the unseen support systems for human habitation rather than the manicured environments in which we go about the business of our lives.

John Dubrow's World Trade Center, View of Manhattan, 1996. Oil on canvas, 90 x 96 in.
Courtesy John Dubrow and Lori Bookstein Fine Art, New York
Despite its sprawling, usually maligned pluralism, contemporary art is unified by its preoccupation with the emerging over the established, with new forms, new ways of being in the world. Because of this impulse, contemporary art gravitates toward the most salient emblems and loci of rapid change. In the West these have lately been found in the area of technology: the delirious possibilities of digital reproduction and distribution, the teeming multiverse of Internet life, the involutions of media culture. All this is to say that with respect to the drive to be contemporary, the realist painter can seem as ill equipped to participate in the discussion as a lyric poet at a programmers convention. What’s more, trends in contemporary art emerge, peak, and fall out of fashion, art stars are minted and discarded, in less time than it takes to finish a single laborious painting. There’s nothing less like watching the latest Pixar film, or rethinking immaterial labor while socially networking, than looking at realist art.

The strength of realist art is that, as all ambitious art used to do, it calls us out of our habits and asks us to entertain a different set of rules or ask a different set of questions, for art and for living. In this case, the counterfactual situation we’re being asked to imagine is nothing more or less than the experience of everyday life minus the signature experiences of the zeitgeist that contemporary art tries to reflect. Should realist painting then have a larger role in contemporary art? Well, why does it need one?

White, Roger, "Get Real." ARTINFO. February 12, 2011., Copyright © 2011, Louise Blouin Media. All rights reserved.

1 comment: