Saturday, April 2, 2011

Realism: Legacy and the Gene Pool

I look around at all the schools of realism today and marvel at the diversity of styles and viewpoints that are emerging out of the teaching of highly respected artists. To name a few off the top of my head, there are the Putney Painters, the Water Street Atelier artists, the Novo-Realists, and here in Philadelphia, the Studio Incamminati artists and the "Direct Painting" heritage at PAFA. Of course there are many more. All of them have different approaches, and the artists emerging from them are doing exciting work.

I've noticed that these groups tend to stay together and show together often, for obvious reasons. The artists share a common teacher, of course, and they know each other very well from learning and painting together. Sometimes there is a painter whose style jumps out from the group as markedly different, but more often the uniqueness is consistent but more subtle. It's easy for these painters to get a show together because just the distinction of belonging to a school of realism is in itself a valid reason for a show.

But what if we mixed things up a little? What if artists, galleries and curators organized more themed shows that reached across these different schools of realism and invited artists from all kinds of different backgrounds?

There is a lot to be said for the "legacy" that is passed down from one artist to another. The legacy idea is not really stylistic, although artists may be initially drawn to study with an artist (or one who studied with that artist) because they are attracted by the style of the work. The legacy has more to do with learning that artist's way of seeing, methods of working, and putting conceptual understanding into practice. The best "masters" (I use that word although it has a slight cringe factor for me) are those who would not want students to copy their style, who would help students become the kind of artists they are meant to be. So if "masters" do not want artists to copy them, that's all the more reason for artists to look beyond their own inner circles and appreciate, even embrace, what other artists are doing.

Then there are all the artists--myself included--who do not belong to a specific school. There are so many realists working today who add fuel to the fire of the realist art movement. We need more and different shows. We need to widen the gene pool a bit, shake up the mix, and try new combinations. I can think of so many people I'd like to show with--and the list varies with the themes that I come up with in my head. And I'm also thinking of all the wonderful accomplished artists I know who do not have the advantage of belonging to a group, but have the strength of their own artistic voice. Just think if we all raised our voices together in a single group that transcended our various allegiances!

A few years ago, I was asked by the director of a local center to help organize a portrait and figure show of Pennsylvania artists. I wanted a variety, so I suggested artists from across the board stylistically. At the time, I didn't know any artists from Studio Incamminati. For some reason, I thought of that school as separate from the rest of the Philadelphia art scene. Right after the show was over, I started meeting some of these really exceptional artists, and I wished I could have turned back time and included them in the portrait show.

But fortunately there are always new opportunities. Last year I served on the exhibit committee, helping to put together the "Inspiring Figures" show at the Butler Institute, in which some of these artists participated.

If realism is to thrive, we can't just stay within our safety zones. We can make a much greater impact on the art world in general if we hang together and help each other. We are working toward a common goal to see representational art, in all its traditional and contemporary permutations, achieve widespread acceptance and validity.


MCG said...

Nice post Alexandra!
I would be curious to learn exactly what some of the groups you mentioned actually stand for beyond technical painting craft. While there seem to be differences between the groups, do they really extend beyond differences in style? They seem to all share as a mutual philosophy "if it doesn't look "real" (to some degree or another), it isn't 'art'" and should therefore not be considered or ingested from any perspective. From an art historical viewpoint, this seems a limiting and self-defeating idea. If my perception of this is wrong, I'd like to have it wholly corrected so I can really understand the "intent of Art' that any of these groups really champions. I don't really see a strong Classical philosophy from most, or even a strong Realist philosophy, in the art-scholarly sense; more a mish-mashed amalgamation of prior thinking supported by a call for "Beauty". I've been trying this last year to uncover a solid philosophy from any group that isn't somehow built on a negative, meaning the damnation of the contemporary art scene. Is that really all that figurative painting stands for these days? Perhaps it's this "rediscovery" phase that has people enamored. Nostalgia is fun, but ultimately it's only fashion. Maybe when we've moved beyond this rebound phase people will start to think again about what purpose these skills they've acquired can serve beyond some cobbled up MTV sound-bite for Beauty. I suppose what I am saying is I see this gene pool not only in little puddles within Realism, but as an apt description for a lot of 21st century "Realist" effort itself(including probably ALL of anything I've painted to date.) I'd suggest if Realism is ultimately to thrive in a recognizably meaningful and honored state of relevance for people of this era, it can benefit from a little gene mixing with the efforts of artists from the 20th century, as well as todays contemporary art scene itself. In a couple of decades will we have great technical painters working within a narrow and limited philosophical aesthetic, empty inside and feeling the exact opposite from some 20th century predecessor such as an MFA who can think, but can't paint?

Alexandra Tyng said...

I couldn't agree more, Michael.