Thursday, October 3, 2013

Contemporary Realism Enslaved by Photography: Inert Literalism.

"Zagi"  Euan Uglow

Uglow's paintings combine exquisite draftsmanship with a contemporary sensibility. They are not the slavish renderings of an a academic painter.
 It could have only been done in the late 20th century and not by a camera. Notwithstanding  the neo- classicical revivalists, there is few  other figurative painters that I know of, since Manet that has been able to combine skill, beauty and their own unique point of view. The only other one would be Steven Assael

Mike Barr, an understandably frustrated Australian painter, contacted me recently about the deplorable state of art in  his country, mainly the celebration of the trivial, ugly, crude insanity that is The Archibald Prize-  their well funded annual portrait bash of silly cartoon art  and over rendered photo noodling. It reflects the state of art in America as well, which goes to show how far pollution can be carried by the oceans. I want to thank Mike for informing me of this article.

In a brilliant critique, Christopher Allen writes in the Australian:
There is a subtler lesson here, too, for a couple of artists - I am thinking particularly of Marcus Callum and Joshua McPherson - who are worthy of consideration because they are manifestly working from nature and are not lacking in feeling. The trouble with artists such as this is that they have internalised a certain photographic sensibility, a kind of inert literalism that is the bane of all the contemporary neo-traditional schools of realist painting. Working from nature and relearning traditional skills are intrinsically admirable goals, but a deeper self-critique and knowledge of art history are required to free oneself from a vision deformed by the habits of photography.

This afflicts me as well. I find I have to go back to study the work of the artists who painted before photography to refresh my vision. I am referring to artists, to name a few, like Velasquez, Rembrandt, Watteau and Titian. Even though photography was quite established in the mid 19th century,  Manet, was able to escape it's homogenizing effects. It is s a rare painter who can combine both color and form like Manet. 

The artists from BP Awards in the UK, The Outwin-Boochever at the National Gallery in Washing DC and the Archibald Prize in Australia are interchangeable- they are virtually indistinguishable in terms of approach and style,  international clones. They all suffer from big headitis- huge tightly rendered paintings traced from photographic blowups.

Mr Allen mentions two artists who work from life, Marcus Callum and Joshua McPherson. We have similar new classical realists working in the US, following the lead of Jacob Collins. Although Collins is an estimable painter, few of these painters are presenting anything that could not be said just as well by a decent photographer.

On the positive side, they are creating an increased awareness and place for the renewal of craftsmanship and skills. However we have to somehow extend the visual language of beauty without slavishly recreating the past- many of the new revivalists paintings  look much alike, drowned in the brown penumbrae and portentousness of the French Academy. There are other colors besides orange, brown and black. That is not to say that I appreciate painterly uglification or distortions just to say something new and clever. That is cheap and common stuff indeed.

Recently I was asked who I thought were the greatest contemporary figurative artists, I thought of artist after 
artist and placed them on an imaginary museum  wall next to a Velasquez or a Manet. I came up with Euan Uglow . I have found more now that I am on Instagram- what a wonderful tool

The late sorely missed critic Robert Hughes has this to say about contemporary figurative art in The Australlian:

Hughes has a broad theory that art in general doesn't improve over time and doesn't necessarily get worse, either. But he also feels that our time is not a great time for good art. "Suppose you come up with the name of a (contemporary) figurative painter whose work is as sublimely impressive as, let us say, Velazquez. I think you'd be really hard put to," he says.
"There are a couple of really great figurative painters around: there's Antonio Lopez in Spain and, of course, Lucian Freud in England. But I don't think you could say that either of these guys were the mirror equivalent of a Velazquez or a Rembrandt. There are times when art, the medium, just isn't producing exceptional stuff."

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