Contemporary Painting

“Although the art world reveres the unconventional, it is rife with conformity. Artists make work that "looks like art" and behave in ways that enhance stereotypes. Curators pander to the expectations of their peers and their museum boards. Collectors run in herds to buy work by a handful of fashionable painters. Critics stick their finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing so as to "get it right". Originality is not always rewarded, but some people take real risks and innovate, which gives a raison d'être to the rest.” ― Sarah Thornton, Seven Days in the Art World

Since having left school, I have been confronted by questions regarding the direction my art should take. I have been trained in a traditional manner. I was taught to work from life and to draw my subject matter also from life. I have been urged to avoid photographs and techniques that hint towards illustration and graphic styles. At the same time, my training has not been entirely classical either. Realism for the sake of realism has never been a end for its own sake and though I was taught to observe, I was also encouraged to interpret. I was to listen as well as compose.

I love to paint representational work. Still life, landscape and portraiture are universal subject matter in my mind. They are culled from the reality around us. Compared to the work of conceptual and abstract artists, the subject matter is considered dated and archaic. Contemporary art is filled with weirdness, novel originality, social relevance. The list goes on. One could write an entire essay describing in loquacious detail the things contemporary art is meant to say. Often, they have to.

Unfortunately for me, where does that leave the work I feel compelled to produce. After all, one cannot go back to the 18th century and simply produce works of realism. Hyper detailed scenes and moral parables that boarder on illustration derive from a world where the eyes were just opening to the wonders of the natural world. The same still life, landscape and portraiture that depicts nature is so simply replicated and enjoyed in photography.

"This work cannot be wrought by turning back, or away, from what has been accomplished by the modern revolution; for the problem is nothing if not that of rendering the modern world spiritually significant"
- Joseph Campbell "Hero with a Thousand Faces"

And yet, the work championed by art schools and critics and that sells at the auction houses for record sums does not speak to me either. How can it render the "modern world spiritually significant" when the work itself is unrelated to the living, breathing world of the senses; when painting is reduced to dots and subject is reduced to a concept printed on a plaque besides the piece.

"Schism in the soul, schism in the body social, will not be resolved by any scheme of return to the good old days (archaism), or by programs guaranteed to render an ideal projected future (futurism),"
- Joseph Campbell, "Hero with a Thousand Faces"

Now do not misunderstand me. I do not deny that conceptual art is art, nor do I deny that it is even good art. The question is, is it good painting? Furthermore, how does one create work that is spiritually significant and not simply intellectually interesting? Conceptual art, as a development is certainly art. Its makers are certainly artists. They create concepts, situations and performance, immersing their audience and forcing people to see another vision. That is certainly an art just as drama and music are arts. Painting, however, is a discipline of the senses and a good painting is a product created for the eyes. The product is paramount and the stimuli travels first through the eyes, the sense organs, through the body and lastly into the mind. Painting, both viewing and making, is sensual. The feeling and the reaction act before the intellect can engage the piece consciously and thus, painting is an inherently spiritual art form (perhaps like music) even when the subject matter is no longer overtly religious.

“Those [things] that we encounter for the first time immediately have a spiritual effect upon us. A child, for whom every object is new, experiences the world in this way: it sees light, is attracted by it, wants to grasp it, burns its finger in the process, and thus learns fear and respect for the flame. ”
― Wassily Kandinsky

I still believe representational work is the answer for the painter. Drawing from the surrounding world ensures the work is rooted in the living and breathing reality of the people who view it. To infuse it with spirit, the artist must interpret the objects observed through the subjects of associations and connotation that make up the artist him(herself). The painting, as a product, is the spiritual bridge between the observable reality and its organic inner roots.

"In our time there are many artists who do something because it is new; they see their value and their justification in this newness. They are deceiving themselves..".
-Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

(Lautrec said made that statement over a century ago. How much do things really change?)

How does one avoid the pitfall of technical objectivity on one side and the wasteland of intellectual abstraction the other? Like the feeling of great music, it is the duty of the painter to create spiritual work fed to us through the eyes. It is not enough to be merely interesting, work must be beautiful as well. Great work must transcend the barrier of conscious ego and exist in a place of pure experience. Aesthetic Arrest; a state where the the Ego, constantly feeding thoughts into the conscious mind, is frozen by the wonder of immediate experience.

"“… lend your ears to music, open your eyes to painting, and … stop thinking! Just ask yourself whether the work has enabled you to “walk about” into a hitherto unknown world. If the answer is yes, what more do you want?”
― Wassily Kandinsky"

*Cover Image - 26A Black and White by Jackson Pollock

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