March 26, 2013

Letter to a Young Painter

Administrator’s Note: The following excerpt is from an email I recently sent to the daughter of a friend. My critical evaluations of her representational paintings touched on the history of painting and its continued 20th Century development. I am posting it here (with some details edited for privacy) in the hope that it may be of interest to other young artists.

[ . . . ] 
The initial aspects of the history of painting, as it relates to your work, have to address the evolving theoretical issues concerning representation. Painting has steadily eliminated most of the formal elements of art, beginning with the Impressionists who rejected the traditional need for art to represent reality as seen, to instead champion their subjective interpretations of what they felt about reality. Thus, Georges Seurat’s pointillist paintings give an “impression” of light, with his visual ideas influenced by his passion for scientific knowledge.

Eventually, representational painting was negated (temporarily) and abstraction of various forms and styles arose around 1900. While there were random painters here and there that “returned” to representational and/or figurative work, the majority of painters during the first half of the 20th century focused more about the “why” of art than the “how.” Malevich developed his theory of Suprematism and introduced a severe reductive visuality that culminated in his iconic “Black Square” of 1915. The Constructivist Alexander Rodchenko also engaged these reductivist theories with his “Red, Yellow, Blue” paintings in 1921.

A rupture in this trajectory toward the minimal was Pop Art in the late 1950’s. Suddenly the “real” returned to painting with a vengeance, yet now the image of an artwork itself was less important than the theory behind it; think of Warhol’s “Marilyn’s.” Ideas about images as signs, and how we read them, were introduced to painting and representation gained new theoretical footholds with various styles ebbing and flowing – in Italy, Germany and New York a “new” or “neo” expressionism returned with Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Georges Baselitz, David Salle and Julian Schnabel. [I wrote an essay on my blog several years ago that might give you some ideas about what these painters have done with representation: Figuratively Speaking.]

Throughout the last years of the 20th Century and into the beginning years of this century we have see a continuance of all kinds of styles of painting; this Pluralism seems to validate the idea that there are different kinds of art for different tastes. This may be so but what I'm trying to convey to you is an idea about representational paintings – paintings that have recognizable imagery – that they are either about semiotics (the study of signs) and/or about the history of representation itself.

Because ideas about representation as another language was supported by a group of French philosophers, linguists and critical theorists (Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault) it became vastly more interesting to artists in the late 20th Century. These contemporary painters use visual ideas to explore representation not as a means of imitating something but as a way to open a discourse about cognition, perception and meaning.

That is why I believe your paintings (drawings?) show promise. In your pieces, particularly the ones that show full figures as cut-outs in exterior urban environments, intellectually engage the viewer in thoughts about the “planes of existence.” What does it mean to use a cut-out figure? They are actually like holes into another reality that cut through the picture plane to reveal a transparency; not only of reality but also of the picture plane itself. That is to say, in my view, either consciously or not, you are questioning both the reality of our everyday existence and the futility of trying to convey the three-dimensional on a “two-dimensional” surface.

My questions for you: Are you attempting to only depict a fantasy, or imaginative narrative? Do you see a way to regard representation as your subject matter? If you can see that representation itself might be what you could become visually concerned with as a painter – to question representation’s validity, it’s privileged position in art – then it's a question of how to visually demonstrate that questioning.

And that's a very powerful thing. Because merely to reproduce the world – to make a beautiful picture of the world – is less intellectually engaging for those who are familiar with the history of painting and critical theory. Art theories about the falsehood or fragility of trying to represent anything visually, and what that “means,” are visual explorations and challenges that can take you far into the 21st century. I think that you could be well on your way in terms of working with these yellow cut-out transparent figures.
[ . . . ]
I wish you all the best.

IMAGE: Untitled (Lens Painting) by Sigmar Polke; 2007; © Copyright by Sigmar Polke Estate.

1 comment:

Michael Howell said...

At first I thought that the image was the painting by your friend's daughter that you were critiquing. And I thought that it looked like Sigmar Polke with a touch of Cheech and Chong. Than I read the article and realized that 'oh it really is a Sigmar Polke painting'. It's been awhile since I've studied my art history - graduated in 93.