"I think the popular concept of an artist is a person who has this great passion and enthusiasm and super emotion. He just throws himself into this great masterpiece and collapses from exhaustion when it's finished. It's really not that way at all. Usually it's a pretty calculated, sustained and slow process by which you develop something. The effect can be one of spontaneity but that's part of the artistry... I think the real test is to plan something and be able to carry it out to the very end. Not that you're always enthusiastic; it's just that you have to get this thing out. It's not done with one's emotions; it's done with the head."
- Richard Estes
One of the wonderful things about the art path is constantly seeing new things as you grow. It's impossible to become stagnant and bored if you are paying attention and keeping an open mind. For instance: I used to hate the impressionists. I found their drawing lazy and their paintings lacked drama for me. (Ironically, some of the same things their contemporaries said about them) Then I started studying color theory and, most importantly, went to the Met to look at the art in person.
|Rouen Cathedral: The Portal (Sunlight), |
Claude Monet 1894
When I saw Monet's "Cathedral" it was like a light switched in on in my brain. The complexity of color that built up forms. The luminosity of the shadows. The soft edges and thick brushstrokes that made everything vibrate with life. It was beautiful. And more importantly- I could use this!
This experience taught me some very important lessons. First: always be ready to observe and change your mind based on what you see. Second: Always be ready to look again, just in case you've
changed. Third: Firsthand experience changes everything. Look in person and Fourth: always look with the eyes of a thief.
Those last two, especially. A good artist should always be incorporating ideas from their observations. (of course the keyword is "incorporating". I'm not talking about blatant copying) But one of the biggest drawbacks to being an artist is there is so much art out there and just one of us. Most of our observation comes with some sort of barrier diluting the experience. Even looking at this very nice reproduction from the Met's own website, it doesn't come close to standing three feet away and letting all the colors vibrate in front of me. If I had never had the chance to see the art in person, i might still think the impressionists were just lazy draftsmen. (ok, probably not...)
So this brings me to the present. A few weeks ago Scott and I visited Portland, ME so of course went to the Portland Museum of Art
. Their big draw at the time was a huge Richard Estes retrospective
. We very nearly ended up not going, both having some prejudices against photorealism. (All technique and no substance) but when peeking in at the huge canvases with their dense compositions, my curiosity was peaked and so we paid the extra $ to check it out.
|The Candy Store - 1969 - 47 3/4 × 68 3/4 in|
The above piece was the first one I saw and, as you might have guessed, this photo doesn't begin to do it justice. Nearly 3 feet long, there is a complexity of technique and composition that you would never guess at from a reproduction. Looking closely, you can see Richard Estes is a master of value, color and efficiency of stroke. Much like Leyendecker or Sargent knew to put just the right shaped stroke in just the right place, there wasn't a corner of these paintings that was thrown away, overpainted or thoughtless. Estes' forte is in reflective surfaces and the distortion/dissection/repetition of space they reveal. And as the show progressed, I saw this mastery revealed more and more.
|Paris Street Scene - 1972|
|Central Savings - 1975|
Even in reproduction, you can see how Estes layers textures and reflections over and over almost to the point of abstraction. These aren't simply copies of photographs, these are a very distinctive point of view that could only be achieved by this technique of art. He uses his eye and the tool of the camera to capture moments and ideas but then turns them into something larger. These are recognizable everyday scenes that we may have got lost in ourselves, maybe even taken photographs of, trying to capture the effect, but they become lost in translation somewhere.
|The L Train - 2009|
He uses reflections to distort space and extend the scope of the composition beyond what can be observed with the limiting tools of cameras or eyes, stretching visual reality almost in a 4 dimensional way. It didn't take much to start making connections with another art movement that had some similar properties:
|Woman Playing Mandolin|
| Violin and Pitcher|
Georges Braque 1910
"In Du Cubisme [...Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger] attempted to explain some of the conceptions underlying the movement. They discussed in clear and rational terms the idea of the new "conceptual" as opposed to the old "visual reality", and how the transformation of natural object into the plastic realm of the painting was affected. " (Herschel Chipp, Theories of Modern Art, pg.197
|Murano Glass - 1976|
From the curator. "[Murano Glass] Improbably merges what is beside, behind and beyond the viewer.""
Now this show wasn't all revelations. Richard Estes' skills are in textures, reflections and compositions. His figures, while clearly competent, often reinforced my previous prejudices against photorealism. When he tried to handle them in a more traditional portrait sense, his figures were stiff and lifeless and drained the magic from his work. There was probably a good reason he removed them from most of his early compositions or relegated them to subtle reflections.
|Water Taxi - 1999|
The moment you add figures as a prominent composition element- that is where your eye will get drawn over and over again. I love figures- but they do nothing for me here. I can't get away from them to enjoy the rest of the painting.
|Vinalhaven, Maine - 1997|
In contrast: Without figures to distract me, I can get lost in the rhythm and negative space in this painting. (And the efficient little scribbles he uses for the churning water. I can steal that!)
It wasn't until he began merging his figures with the environment, repeating them and distorting them, that they made sense in the context of his storytelling.
|43rd and Broadway - 2005|
His few nature scenes also didn't work for me unless there was some introduction of reflection or dramatic composition element. The lack of atmospheric perspective, absence of bold composition and light choices make them much less interesting than his urban landscapes.
So clearly this show was an unexpected gem. It got me looking and thinking. I really tried to analyze what I was responding to in the work and what I could use. It wasn't just the efficiency of his brushwork or his insane layers of reflection (those are skills that will only come in time). It was also his compositional sensibility. The wide angles and extreme foreground to background relationships between elements to exaggerate and connect distances. The negative space broken up by a sweeping structure or reflection. A subtle hint of texture over the surface to remind the viewer of a barrier.
|View of Manhattan from Staten Island - 2008|
Look closely at the window. The distant skyline is represented in perfect crispness but for a few subtle strokes of grime on the window reminding the viewer of the separation... Totally stealing that.
Sadly, this show did reinforce one of the biggest drawbacks to photorealist art. When you see a reproduction, it's very easy to dismiss the work because it just looks like a photo. No big deal. Even looking at the (beautifully done) book after the show, I had no desire to get it because nearly everything I loved about the paintings were lost in the reproductions. This was art that had to be stood in front of, at eye level, so you could feel yourself being transported into the scene and lost in the detail.
This is also not to say I love all photoreal art now. There is still a lot of bad photoreal art out there that doesn't utilize the tools successfully to share a distinct point of view. (it's especially tricky with figures) What I did take away from this show is that technique must be crafted to suit the subject and story you want to tell. Richard Estes' compositions are often created to put the viewer in right into the environment and drawing them in with sweeping compositional elements to create an intimate, first-person perspective. Unlike the camera or the naked eye, everything is rendered crisp with little to no atmospheric perspective. Everything in the environment is of importance and worth observation. After leaving- I found myself seeing his compositions all around me. I was looking more closely at the world, seeing it in a new way.
I can use that.
|Sarasota, Summer 2014|