My relationship with representational painting must be a common one: drawn in, as a child, by the painted illustrations in books about dinosaurs, in particular. Who hasn’t been awed by the “gee whiz!” factor of an impressive piece of realism? As much as we are taught that photography is a form of abstration from reality, “It looks just like a photo!” remains synonymous in common usage with looking like reality.
Howard Ikemoto is famous for the anecdote in which, after telling his daughter that he teaches people to draw, she replies, “You mean they forget?” It’s adorable, and certainly there is something to be said for the childlike sense of wonder that comes from drawing without fear, without self-consciousness, but drawing for the pure pleasure of it. Thinking back, maybe when I was very young I had this. I still have a few of my early drawings, almost all of prehistoric life: “a caveman daddy building a fire,” a prehistoric whale I knew as Zeuglodon (since I learned of it in the early 1980s, its name has reverted to Basilosaurus, a name dating to when it was mistakenly believed to be a reptile, but proper according to taxonomic rules), and an Apatosaurus guarding a nest of eggs.
I was inspired in this early drawings by the magical ability of paleoartists, through their paintings, to bring extinct animals back to life. The realism of the paintings made, in a very literal sense, their subjects real. Without life restorations, who would really believe in dinosaurs, and who would care about them?
In early adolescence I felt a precursor of John Berger’s notion (from Ways of Seeing) that to possess a painting of a thing was to possess in effigy the thing itself. I built an army, an empire, by drawing warriors and their weapons. My archetypes here were defined by the illustrations in Martin Windrow’s Soldier Through The Ages series, and by the airbrushed sihlouettes of airplanes in the works of Bill Gunston and others.
This interest in military history and technology led, through an interest in medieval combat, to an interest in fantasy. I bought Dungeons and Dragons sourcebooks, not to play the game, but to look at the illustrations. Keith Parkinson and especially Larry Elmore were my heroes. As with my early interest in paleoart, I admired their ability to drag, by brush and pen, unreal worlds into reality. Related to the illustrations in this role-playing sourcebooks are the work of other fantasy illustrators, among them Boris Vallejo, Wayne Barlowe, and Tim Bradstreet. These artists formed the core of my artistic interest in my mid teens.
The recurring theme with the representational painters and drawers whom I admired in my childhood and adolescence was that they were all illustrators. One doesn’t imagine Vallejo and Elmore debating semiotics. Questions of meaning, of significance, of the role of their work in society, simply do not come up. The artists content themselves with honing their craft, with creating original compositions which tell the story that they want, or were hired, to tell.
There is nothing new about this. Medieval and Rennaissance painters working for the church weren’t expected nor allowed to take liberties with the Biblical narrative. It wasn’t part of their job to provide a new perspective on religion. Later artists working as hired portraitists were similarly expected to play it straight, though in some cases, such as Goya’s painting of the royal family, they may have slipped in some subtle criticism.
In technical terms, prior to the invention of the camera (Vermeer’s camera obscura notwithstanding), realistic painting reached its zenith in the Baroque era paintings of Rembrandt. In the years after Rembrandt, representational painting slipped into a state of what could be called decadence. Braoque became Rococo, and Fragonard took the place of Rembrandt. About two hundred years went by before anything new truly appeared under the sun.
As Monet and the Impressionists were changing our understanding of what art was and of what it could be, the sort of art beloved by the Academy (which has in hindsight become maligned as a backwards, short-sighted, atavistic institution) continued to be made, and beloved by the public. In particular Bouguereau is known for his playful scenes of frolicsome nudes. There was no Salon de Refuses for Bouguereau; his work sold exceptionally well throughout his life, and while intellectuals in Paris might have rooted for the underdog of Impressonism, collectors loved to adorn their walls with Bouguereau’s tits and ass.
It was this fork that consigned realism to the ghetto where it now finds itself: for decades, criticality become synonymous with the apparently unstoppable march towards formalism. The purity of abstraction was seen as a prophesied messiah, an inevitable goal towards which art had always, unknowingly, been striving. Artists who rejected this direction, who failed to march in lock step in Greenberg’s army, found themselves marginalized. Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish (whom Rockwell described as “my idol”), and the aforementioned Bourgereau achieved commercial success but have been pushed to the margins of art history.
The idea of the abstract expressionists that one could find God through painting may in hindsight seem painfully naïve, but for those caught up in its fervor it must have felt very real. What those its sway should have seen coming, but of course never do, is that like any movement, abstraction was doomed to hit a high water mark, to buoy up a generation of painters and then break on the shoals of something new. Pop art carried us through a couple of decades, but it was the last of the major -isms, and it was followed by the new pluralism within which we now find ourselves. One might bemoan this pluralism as constituting a lack of direction, but in this openness is infinite opportunity. As they say in Fight Club, “It is only after we’ve lost everything, that we’re free to do anything.”
Abstract expressionism had been a might castle, and Pop art had assaulted it by mining under its walls. When the supports were burned away, the mine and wall collapsed, leaving a great breach, into which rushed a vast army of would-be successors. Figurative representation counted itself among these, and in several forms.
“Photorealism” is what many in the laity say when referring to any work of particularly accurate representation, but in saying so they generally miss what is most obvious. As revealed by the name itself, Photorealism isn’t a direct representation of reality: it’s a representation of a photograph of reality. The differences between how the eye sees and how the camera sees are inherent to Photorealism. This is not to say that the camera does not remain a valid and powerful tool for the representational painter. Working from source images offers many advantages over direct observation, as well as many disadvantages. These concerns are entirely separate from the practice of Photorealism, which focuses on these process artifacts, rather than working around them.
If figurative representation had a rock star of the 20th Century, it was undeniably Lucien Freud. Freud’s earliest known work dates from 1940, but he really hit his stride in the 1990s, expanding his distinctive style of impasto figuration. Freud’s influences (acknowledged and otherwise) include Medieval Flemish painting, German Expressionism, and his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries in the mid-20th Century. In auction at 2008, his 1995 painting Benefits Supervisor Sleeping set a world record price for a work by a living artist, selling for $33.6 million. Freud died in 2011. Other representational painters who have cut their way into the heart of the contemporary art world include Eric Fischl and Neo Rausch.
Odd Nerdrum, born in 1944, was the next generation figurative realist darling. Represented by Forum Gallery in New York, collected by museums the world over, Nerdrum is hardly ignored by the art world, but his reception has always been mixed. Defining himself as a painter rather than as an artist, his manifesto On Kitsch was a response to his feeling of weariness at seeing a Rauschemburg combine including a goat and a spare tire. Unlike Freud (and other painters like Eric Fischl), Nerdrum seems to have intentionally positioned himself in an adversarial relationship with the art world. When he says, “If I were an artist I would not paint,” it is less a declaration of intent, and more a tautology: if, as Nerdrum believes, artists don’t paint anymore, then if he paints, he is not an artist, and conversely, if he were an artist, he wouldn’t paint.
Nerdrum was a pivotal figure in my education in painting. In school, we learned that realistic representation wasn’t cool anymore (though there were many of us who stubbornly persisted in doing it), but Odd Nerdrum gave us hope. He showed us that there was at least one person out there in the art world, with a gallery and a monograph and everything, who was still using the realistic painting techniques of Rembrandt and his kin to tell stories. Nerdrum was better for us than Freud, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Freud was of an older enough generation that we always sort of suspected that his figuration was a kind of legacy. Secondly, Freud’s imagery was pointedly mundane: a woman on a couch, a man in bed with a dog, etc. Nerdrum’s apocalyptic landscapes reminded us, or at least me, of the sort of fantasy illustration that had drawn us into painting in the first place.
In graduate school, our knuckles were bruised as we were taught that no, Nerdrum wasn’t a good artist, wasn’t someone to emulate. The problems were never clearly elucidated to us, but in hindsight I think they were twofold. In both cases, what we loved best about Nerdrum was exactly what was wrong with him.
Firstly, Nerdrum’s technique was too well-established. Even Freud seemed to innovate technically, beginning in the 1950s with a sort of retro-Flemish, sable-brush pointillism, and moving by the 1990s towards a knife-thick impasto. Nerdrum’s technique seemed to say, “Rembrandt nailed it; why look for silver if you’ve got gold?”
More importantly, though, Nerdrum’s theatrical melodramas clove too closely to the illustrative fantasy end of the representation spectrum. While Freud and Fischl, like Leipzig painter Neo Rausch, painted people in open-ended environments loaded with psychological tension, Nerdrum’s scenes approached the same objective but created too specifically literal of an alternate reality. This, again, is part of what we loved about Nerdrum: that he had created a plausible world, a bleak apocalyptica in which we could imagine each painting being just over the horizon from the next. But in the era of semiotics and theory and all that, it was too close to the lowbrow world of comic books and role playing game covers.
Jenny Saville’s recent work (judging from the advertisement in ArtForum for her upcoming show) seems to have drifted away from her earlier, meaty depictions of surgery and obesity, and towards Cecily Brown’s drippy, linear, erotic cartoons. Saville’s adaptation is indicative of the sort of change figurative realists are adopting in order to survive in today’s “cult of the new” art world. Another example can be found in Walton Ford, who has continued for decades now to paint Audubon-style depictions of wildlife enacting human dramas. Saville and Ford provide us with examples of how figurative realism can remain relevant.
Chicago’s art scene is as pluralistic as any, but in between the queer performances, feminist videos, conceptual abstraction, and sound art (just to name a few), traditional techniques of representational painting endure. Laurie Hogin, Stephen Cephalo, Julia Haw, and Rory Coyne are just a handful who leap immediately to the forefront of my mind. Each strikes their own unique niche in the spectrum of figurative representation, showing that realistic depictions of people, animals, and spaces remains a potent force for expression.
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