No More Manifestos.

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Michael Pearce

Wednesday December 31st 2014

 

Manifestos perpetuate the idea of constant, rapid, forward-moving progress as a truthful analysis of the way culture evolves. But culture only moves forward in time – and it isn’t necessarily getting better, although we might hope it would and have a duty to work toward making the world a better place. (This is how goodness works in emergence: despite the consistency of evil, the co-operative nature of goodness is always better at creating emergent qualities, so goodness always comes forward in the end, and while evil may appear as a triumphant, spectacular force, it’s quiet, constant goodness that builds the broad cultural bridges between mind and mind.)

When Lee Siegel complained in the Wall Street Journal about the need for a new art movement, he mourned the loss of authority once felt by leading participants in the New York art scene, making a appeal for “an artistic movement to make sense of what is happening around us and to supply us with the joyful freedom of a transfiguring language”. This was the voice of a person entranced by memory, shaping the language of his nostalgia for the various movements of the twentieth century. It read like the puzzled musings of a person who feels their understanding of the world slipping away, as the new age emerges from the complexity of the present.

There cannot be an avant-garde in the 21st Century. The madly democratic internet has disposed of the circumstances that made possible the exclusivity of the clubbish gatherings of small groups of like-minded people by making access to ideas possible to all people all the time. The intercession of the “exclusive cabals” of professional curators, magazine editors and influential art professors is no longer necessary for the experience of art, which is now mediated instead by the writing and photography of enthusiastic amateurs, gathering the democratic clicks of internet surfers, who are willing and capable of making up their own minds about what they like and dislike.

Siegel describes movements that played out over the course of a few decades, and bemoans that there hasn’t been a substantial movement in the last thirty years. Cultural change in the 20th Century may have seemed fast, but really it was not – the transition from modernity to the emergent culture that will be continues. It’s taking a long time, as it should, and as it will. We won’t have a definitive description of what this emergent culture will be for a hundred years, when some future Vasari looks back upon this renaissance and describes it with a phrase that captures the imagination of his or her readers. The swarm of art movements that we experienced in the 20th century is like a murmuration of starlings – each art movement a single bird within the flock. The emergent character of their swirling momentum is one of a culture searching for solidity – a hunger for certainty in a changing world. The return to representation is the outcome of the murmuration’s deconstructive search – after all the breaking down of techniques, materials, and concepts we arrive among the simple facts that mankind makes marks on surfaces to describe their sensory experience of the world; takes pleasure in harmony; communicates ideas using words. All the clever machines and fancy gadgets that we imagine will guide us toward a new progressive future for humanity are simply tools we may use to express ideas, like charcoal on a cave wall.

The foundations of making art and writing books and composing music haven’t changed. Yes, the methods of distribution have changed, but the necessities of making haven’t changed at all. And although the potential for distributing reproductions of art, writing, performance and music on the web is easily available, the secondary nature of web experiences has made the value of authenticity clear. It’s thanks to this gushing flow of secondary experience that we value the real thing more than ever.  Enjoying live music is a different experience to listening to an mp3 on a website. Beholding a real painting is nothing like the experience of peering at an image file on a computer screen, however detailed the photograph might be. The three dimensional sensual delight of a sculpture will never be duplicated on a flat screen or a hologram. Attending a live performance of a play will always be a sensory experience that a video camera cannot capture. Quietly reading a book will always be a slower, more thoughtful experience than scanning glib bites on social media sites.

It’s because the internet makes possible speedy reactions to the flow of information that many artists are turning to deeper issues that take time and mindfulness. Art is slow, by its nature. Art always reflects the nature of the times – the paintings and sculptures we consider masterpieces are the works that capture the deep, thoughtful questions of what life is about in those times.

In the first decades of the 21st Century there is a large community of people who love representational art. Technology has made the gathering of this community possible, particularly the use of social media, which enables people with similar interests to find each other and to congregate online in large groups regardless of their geographic location. Information can be shared quickly among them, and activism is easily organized. The community is enthusiastic about the revival of representation. Many of its members share similar ideas. For example: some believe that in the last century there was a prolonged attempt to discard representational art, despite its value and necessity to human culture; that representational art needs defense, or revival or nurture; and that a stand against the opposition of people who consider it irrelevant or anti-progressive is required in response. Consequently some members of the community have a revolutionary zeal for a struggle against the forces of nihilism, while some remain comfortable working within the structures of the post-modern art world.

There is clearly a distinction between the ideas of the representational art community and those of postmodern writers. 20th Century postmodern ideas have received a great deal of literary attention, so I don’t want to dwell on them here, but it might be helpful to describe those ideas that can be identified as having currency within the representational art community; those ideas and conversations that give the community its character.

The range of ideas expressed in the works of art admired by members of the community begin with simple, but wholesome offerings sharing the ideas that well-made paintings of simple things like fruit and flowers can capture fleeting moments of natural beauty; that the landscape we live in is worthy of the attention of artists and can be a place of beauty and charm; that the human figure is worthy of attention and continued study. Many 21st century representational painters say that they imitate reality when painting or sculpting. Within this range of works the community seems to appreciate most those works that show the skill of the artist – small but well-made still life paintings of flowers and fruit are applauded, beautifully painted landscape studies are admired, sculptural decorative elements for buildings are enjoyed and celebrated, and sophisticated figurative paintings attract praise for being skillfully made and for capturing likeness. Skill is highly regarded by the community.

Some artists within the community reject using technology as a tool and may be hostile toward artists who use it, while others embrace photography and computers as aids to creating their work. All value the use of the hand in the creation of the finished product.

In addition to skillfully made work depicting simple subjects many artists within the community create imagery of the world as it might be, not as it is. Their works offer an imagined alternate world that is based on the perceived world and might appear to be convincing representations because the technique is familiar to us as that used by traditional landscape, history, portrait and still life painters in the past. Paintings and sculptures that are emotionally appealing are welcomed and praised, especially when they are skillfully executed. Taking a position of disinterested interest is not necessary when enjoying the emotional impact of works of art made by the representational art community. Works that excite sympathy are popular within it. Empathic engagement is welcomed.

Many members of the representational art community also highly value sculptures and paintings that are made to share sophisticated ideas that may be enlightening. There is a tendency within the community to resent negative ideas, and to prefer ideas that are positive, affirming and cheerful, although ideas that passionately express the frustrations and difficulties experienced in the search for spiritual union, or yearning for fulfillment, or describing other aspects of the human condition are enthusiastically supported.

The emergence of the representational art community has happened because we have reached the end of deconstruction – it is the outcome of postmodernity, heard as a quiet sound penetrating the hush after silence descended upon the postmodern conversation. It’s the sound of a beautiful melody that has always persisted but was difficult to hear beneath the clash and discord of post war culture’s struggles to make sense of itself. Having broken everything about art to pieces we have arrived at the foundations of culture – the fundamentals of why we make art.

The reason that there are no new art movements to offer sanctuary to Siegel is that we no longer need them in this internet world. The representational art community isn’t a movement at all – it’s what remains after deconstruction, which was an attempt to dismantle culture and find out if there were new ways to reassemble the pieces. Some of those re-assembled fragments of culture made pretty, if fractured compositions, defended with manifestos describing “a strong sense of contemporary context”, “a powerful sense of artistic history” and “a clear and commanding aesthetic that also possesses elements of a philosophy of life”. And the return to representation compasses all these things, but it doesn’t need a manifesto because this is not a new movement, but a continuation of the oldest, most basic ideas about what art is. Representation is among the fundamentals of human culture. The ancient foundations have been excavated – now it’s time to build upon them. What we need now is philosophy that describes the experience of being a representational artist in a post-contemporary world.

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No more manifestos.

I’m not blogging here any longer, please visit me on Facebook instead.

Thanks!

Michael

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The girls are beginning to feel as if they are in a place instead of floating in a white void.

Not so ghostly, but still Stevie-Nicks-ethereal.

The painting has come a long way since my last post, with the Cerulean blue sky glazed over with a Foundation White, then a sycamore tree referenced from Bouguereau’s painting “A Young Woman Fending Off Eros” painted over it en grisaille using a Raw Umber and white to create a three toned base version. The lighter leaves are on the outside, while the darker two tones work their way towards the centre of the tree. After it was dry I loosely glazed the leaves with a mixture of Sap Green, Raw Umber and Iron Oxide Yellow, then used a rag to soften the glaze and clean all around the edges back to the blue sky. I also used the rag to pull off some of the glaze and create little pockets of light in between leaves. When that all dried I used Ceramic White to crete a cloudscape, dropping in little of the Iron Oxide Yellow for some colour. I’ll go over the entire sky – including the tree – with a unifying glaze of the same Ceramic White, then re-establish the leaves once again.

The girls have colour on their dresses now – a warm Red Ochre on the girl on the left, a Yellow Ochre on the right. I blended the colour into wet Foundation White. The flesh on the left hand twin has been given a second layer of colour which deepened the shadows and brought some colour into her lips, the bottom of the nose and around her eyes. I used a Raw Umber on a OO Script brush to deepen shadows and redraw the darker areas of the faces. The girl in the doorway has had a first layer of flesh colour and plenty of white to bring the lace of her dress to life. I’ve begun to add Raw Umber, redrawing the figure and giving it some depth in the shadows.

Finally, the architecture has been treated to some colour, with a nice Viridian filling the stripes on the ground, while Naples yellow scumbled with Foundation white over the walls behind the girls, except the interior behind the girl in the doorway who’s now flanked by a deep mustard yellow ochre.


Bringing colour to the skin.

The first layer of flesh is appearing over the grey of the girl on the left, but feels quite pale and insubstantial at the moment. I will want to address this in the next layers, introducing pinks, blues and reds into the mix to give the skin more solidity. I’ve also worked on her hair, picking up the light and dark areas – a glaze over this will work nicely.

I love the way a glaze of white over a layer of Cobalt Blue makes a sky look rich yet hazy, but thought I’d try a different hue this time, so I’ve covered the sky in the upper center of the painting in a base layer of Cerulean Blue, which is well known as a sky colour. I don’t recall having ever used it before. I’m looking forward to playing with clouds and layering the glazes over it, although because I plan to put a sycamore tree  behind the wall (taking a leaf out of Bouguereau’s book, so to speak) I probably won’t put a great deal of cloud structure into this one.

Second layer grisaille.

Added shadows and hair.

I’ve had a busy time in the studio over the last week, with my daughter helping me make progress by putting down a base coat onto the walls behind the doorway – I’ll add shadows on the walls and floor behind her soon. I’ve finished almost all of the second layer of grey work on all three girls, who are causing Elizabeth to suffer great jealousy! I’ll have to paint her again soon to reassure her. The white cloth that the seated girl is wearing has been a treat, because of all the opportunities offered by the lacy bits of trim, ribbons and so forth. It’s thoroughly enjoyable.

The twins have gained a full head of hair, a book, and some shadows to put them onto the ground. I’ll take a closer look at the fabric next, checking on some of the folds and shadows in the cloth.

I had a lovely surprise yesterday when the beautiful Celeste Yarnell and her artist husband Nazim dropped in to the studio and shared a cup of tea with me. Celeste was a childhood crush of mine when she appeared in Star Trek as Chekov’s girlfriend Yeoman Landon in the Star Trek episode, “The Apple”. And if that wasn’t enough to make an adolescent’s heart beat faster she was busy kissing Elvis a year later in his movie Live A Little, Love A Little. Star Trek and Elvis!

Here's the rough composition in grey as it stands right now, in its most elementary state. I'll begin marble, foliage and wall treatments once I've finished the first layer of grey on the girls.

The grey work continues to expand across the canvas – it’s beginning to feel like a proper painting now. I’m having a great time working on the piece, which is the most reminiscent of a pre-raphaelite composition that I’ve done so far, although I doubt that anyone would mistake this for a nineteenth century painting. I will push pretty hard to finish the grisaille this week, perhaps even starting on the colour work if I can. I’d like to begin a new piece as soon as possible, perhaps a flying painting of resurrection and angels next.

This girl is listening to her twin.

This one's explaining how to arrange the circle

And this girl wishes she could join in the working.

The grisaille work is moving along quickly, with the three major figures already painted in the first layer of the grisaille. I want to get more of the bodies complete, then I’ll make a second pass at all three, fixing all the bits that aren’t the way I like them.

I’m thoroughly enjoying painting them, the work is moving fast and pleasantly. I particularly enjoyed the greys and whites that are beginning to shape the structure of the third girl’s dress. She’s sitting in a doorway to the left of the twins, wishing she could participate in their secretive reading of the book between them.

I’ve moved the height of the wall behind the twins up so that their faces will be surrounded by one area of colour in the finished piece, pulling focus to them. I’m planning the colour palette more carefully than usual, taking my inspiration from Waterhouse’s lovely Pre-Raphaelite paintings and Stanhope’s fabulous canvas “Love and the Maiden” at the Cult of Beauty exhibit at the Legion of Honour.

Detail of the center of the painting

Detail of the left hand girl

Detail of the right hand girl

It was so satisfying to get to work on drawing the girls in the new painting. We’ve been very focused on preparing the conference, including a trip to San Francisco to visit Sadie Valerie and the wonderful exhibit at the Legion of Honor, the Cult of Beauty show that has traveled from London’s Victoria and Albert museum. It’s a magnificent display of paintings by pre-raphaelites and other aesthetics set within elegant furniture and decor from the Arts and Crafts movement, including some gorgeous William Morris tapestry and paper designs. Aptly named, the show really made me feel like a member of the cult of beauty. In a world so centered on violence and ugliness we need it now more than ever!

I’ve been working in grey pencil to render the first outlines of the girls, which are coming along quite nicely. I’m very happy to be working on this. I’m composing it based on nineteenth century works by Waterhouse, who I admire greatly, but I will be careful to make sure that this is the world of the present. I’m particularly concerned that my paintings are 21st century works that avoid nostalgia.

I’m thoroughly enjoying myself in the studio working out the architecture of the new painting, making shapes for a courtyard beside the ocean somewhere on the coast of California. I want to create a setting for two girls to look at a big old book, under warm sunlight and shady leaves, in the golden sunshine of early evening. They’re sitting in a private world, but among trees and plants, with stucco and marble. I think their lives are comfortable, but they want excitement, so they’re exploring the book to learn how to work magic. Another girl will probably be watching them from the doorway on the right. In order to get some sense of really successful spatial composition I looked through Peter Trippi’s excellent monograph on Waterhouse, one of my favorite Pre-Raphaelite painters. Several of his paintings make use of leafy courtyard spaces in this kind of composition, with pretty girls reading, or listening to music.

The painting looks terrible right now with nothing but structure roughed in. I’ve not worked this way before – usually I start with figures then invent backgrounds around them -this time I created the world first. I like this, but I had to be careful to consider the point of view so that the eyeline in the photo references would match that in the painting.

I shot reference photos of Trew for the painting – she’ll be both of the girls – with Aaron standing in as her friend for reference when she swapped characters. I’m very happy with the way the pictures turned out. Trew’s a natural model.

Adding purple to the shadows, Ceramic White to the highlights.

I’ve used the Carbazole Violet to deepen the shadows of the face, then popped in a bit of Raw Umber to emphasize the darks. The beard got a treatment of whites and Raw Umber to make it feel more bristly, then I used a little Cermaic white to pop in highlights. I’ve re-worked the teeth, which are consequently a touch too bright. I’ll have to glaze over them to drop them beck into the mouth a bit more. The length of the extended arm got a glaze of Ceramic white that unified the flesh, especially after I worked a little Carbazole Violet into it in the small areas of shadow. I’ve coloured the arm and hand purple because the guy has been hanging upside down for a while – the blood would sink downward.

I’m contemplating the next painting, which I will start pretty soon, with so little to do to complete this piece. I’ll miss working on the Hanged Man. He’s been a lot of fun.