Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Expressionism vs. Realism

"The man who deals with originality is desperately needed, but seldom wanted. For along with his promise of victory he lets loose the shadows of chaos."

David Hare writing about Jackson Pollock

This week I have just returned from beautiful Bryce Canyon, Utah - and I am working on several new paintings including a new Pueblo and a New Mexico landscape derived from a photo taken near the Guadeloupe Mountains.

I have recently heard an open discussion, sometimes friendly and sometimes not - coming from artists who are vociferous in their defense of realism. Some are saying that what is needed is a new movement that has been tagged as "Novo Realism". Several things, I think, are going on here and are worthy of talking about further.

I think that what bugs many realists is the possibility that artists who work in either expressionistic or abstract styles are not well trained. Realists are mostly classically trained, they paint from life, they go out into the field and do plein air studies, etc. They are the ones that are toiling away on reproductions of plaster casts, and going to great trouble to hone their skills so that what emerges on canvas is a fair representation of the real world. Realists know what they have done to train themselves, and they feel that art is being sold short when somebody either abides too loosely to reality, or when they don't abide by it at all. There is a reason why Jackson Pollock, as an abstract expressionist, was on the receiving end of a ton of scorn when he pioneered his "all over" poured paintings. The same process goes on today when realists look at the world of art. You could think of this situation metaphorically by saying that realists are like classical musicians, trained in violin, piano etc. Such musicians may look at a Rock and Roll guitarist and think "How can he fill an arena with screaming fans with just a few barre chords?" Mr Rock and Roll taught himself, and people are going nuts over him. As a guitar player, I sympathize with this thought, when I think about guitarists like Toni Iommi of Black Sabbath, who wrote some of the greatest rock / metal songs with very simple progressions. Complexity does sometimes represent talent, but not always. Sometimes the forms in which one operates are so laden with previously held assumptions that there is little room for the artist themselves to get out. That is why I am an expressionist, and why it suits my temperament much more than realism.

Also, we should be a bit more honest about realism. What do people mean when they are painting realistically? In the most basic sense, they mean to say that they are painting something that is a fair representation of the way the thing they are depicting really looks. But when we see a beautiful woman stretched onto a sofa, with soft light coming thru the window and forms rendered like Sargent or Whistler may have done - I don't exactly subscribe to that being real in the purest sense. We look at the woman on the sofa, we know it's a woman on the sofa - fine. But while one might want to paint those wistful and comforting realism scenes, nobody is making much of an effort to paint an unemployment line. Nobody decides to do a portrait of a devastated family who has just lost their health insurance. Few people, some have done so - but few people have the courage to paint subjects from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I don't see plein air artists lining up to paint large gobs of oil washing up on the shores of Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana. And I sure don't see galleries or collectors wanting to show and buy these things. So what is depicted, and what is most approved of for the viewer, is a style of work that is real in look, but rarely ever real in any situational sense. This is no crime, by the way. But I interpret realism in a pretty unrelenting sense. However, I assert that art is a free engagement process. If a collector wants to buy realistic works, and the artist wants to produce them - I hope all involved go away happy. But realism is only one kind of tree in the forest. There are others, and all make the colors and shades we adore.

Another way to think of a discussion of Expressionism and Realism is something like a filter. A realist uses a dense, heavy filter - for the look of the subject anyway - and the individual touch of the artist is usually minimized in realism. An Expressionist, like myself, prefers a filter that lets only some of the subject through, and the rest is a product of gesture, light, color, and the temperament of the artist. A Realist would say that much of that applies to them as well - but an Expressionist departs sharply from this mold by not worrying too much if the rock in the landscape doesn't look like any rock that one has seen before. The rock, for an Expressionist, is a product of gesture and feeling.

I would share with realists the fact that I too respect training in art - whether that be self training or proper studio or school training. However I don't insist on this as an absolute necessity. The ancient cave paintings as Lascaux, which I adore very much, were painted by people who carried with them nothing more than the wish to express something meaningful about the world around them. And of course there is a long line from those primitive people to the Michelangelos and Raphaels of the world. But all were operating on the same instinct to make art meaningful. I find no battle between them. Neither should there be any battles between realists and expressionists. Like the trees of the forests I had mentioned - you don't hear the Oaks telling the Bristlecones to go straighten their branches if they really want to be a tree. You don't hear the Cedars ask the Paloverdes why on earth their bark is green...all forms independent and meaningful are appreciated. All are trees, no matter what the difference of forms. And bear in mind I do not argue for artistic relativism. The ability to say "that's a bad painting" is crucial if we are ever going to know what a good one is. That why I draw the line at "meaningful" forms, and expressions of art that have communicative ability. That's also why I have struggled endlessly with artists such as Barnett Newman - because despite my clear expressionist sympathies, I smell a cop-out when I see a single stripe down a huge canvas - and I resent the implication that I'm not cultivated enough to get the meaning. I'm not even sure Newman knew what he meant, or even meant to express.

So, as mentioned, I see no conflict here - other than the one we stir up unnecessarily. But if I were to offer one thought, one little tinge of competitive spirit between Expressionists and Realists, this is what I would say; if one were to hold a major exhibit of Vincent Van Gogh, arguably the greatest expressionist and pioneer of the style - if one held a retrospective of Van Gogh's greatest works, I would suggest that it is very likely that Van Gogh would bring in more interest, more media coverage, and more attendance than any realist painter, living or dead. He at least proved the value of deeply held emotion, expression and love of color on canvas. And the crowds that follow his works prove his impact.

As an Expressionist, Van Gogh stands tall - with contemporary artists like Jean-Claude Quilici, to show the power, popularity, and creative energy of art when the painter departs from the path of realism, and plows into the wild forest beyond.

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