This is my response to recent dialog in our illustration group about representational and non-representational landscape painting. There was a call for landscape paintings for a Seattle Hospital. The example of the pieces picked were not traditional landscape paintings, in fact, one appeared to be completely abstracted geometry. We were all suprised because we thought our friends traditional landscape paintings were so beautiful, calming and healing. We wondered why traditional landscape painting wasn't represented in the bunch. Whatever the reason the judges leaned so far from representational landscapes, if I were the judge, I could include both. It all has to do with how I view contemporary art as ideas. Both representational approaches and non-representational art. I like to think of all art as ideas, all shapes and forms of ideas. (recent edits made to this paragraph and a couple others including the last to improve clarity of the message.)
If you spend one year like I did, (plus several more years less focused), trekking from gallery to gallery in NYC, looking at art exhibits and installations, reading artists statements, and trying to understand the motivations and substance of a piece of art, (and studying art history), you begin to make some sense of this crazy and baffling scene. Even with many forces at play other than talent, vision, passion, (like commercialism, politics, favoritism, etc.), I still found it worthwhile to gain an appreciation for the ideas in contemporary art shown in NYC galleries. I learned the following...
1. I could love a piece of art for my own reasons (even if the critiques didn't) and believe that my views are completely valid. (Anyone's views are valid). I might like a technique or texture or amazing skill level or it's inventiveness, or subject, or color, or beauty, or political statement, or how it made me feel. Whatever meaning I got out of it, that is valid. I have my own tastes and my mindscape or emotional side does feel fed by certain types of 20th century art as well as contemporary art, some representational but usually the less representational or abstract. It speaks to me in some way. (Art is very subjective, but it still can be interesting even if I don't like it.)
2. Sometimes what I liked about a piece changed after seeing the technique all over the place, so I was impressed at first but the art lost depth of personal meaning to me after it appeared trendy or something. If well done, then it carried, if more shallow and trendy, it lost it’s appeal.
3. After all this viewing and study, I began to respect artists who had powerful motivations when I could see their work through their intentions. I could appreciate their ideas. If representational, there are ideas. If abstract or in between, there are ideas there. Beauty is an idea. A political statement is an idea. If too intellectual or gimmicky, I never fully liked it, but when the ideas were well represented to me in their art work, in other words, if I "got it" after I read, so that the pictures made sense, I could respect them. I grew to feel that I could approach art I didn't immediately like, I then expected to learn something about their passion and respect them even if I didn’t ever like it. (Some art I did feel was just a commercial promotion by an savvy art dealer trying to be the trend of the day).
4. Some contemporary artists are very much part of the dialog of what is being created and their art even references what is going on. In order to present oneself to the contemporary art scene, I think it is useful to understand contemporary art and keep somewhat abreast of trends and movements, yet I don’t think it is required for the creation of art. I feel that one can create art absent from contemporary dialog. I believe that if anyone applies their skill to express what is in their heart, it is valid. If they stick with their vision rather than conforming, it will often win the day, or stand out. (Sometimes after they die I suppose – Van Gogh, etc.)
The problem is that when you don't know what the contemporary scene has in their visual vocabulary, what prejudices, what omissions, you don't know exactly how they are seeing your work.
An example: I had a some friends in college who were straight from Africa. One young man was from a small tribal town. I asked him if he wanted to go walk and see the sunset over the Missippi river and he educated me that to Kikuyu's (at least rural tribal members), a red sunset symbolized a bloody battle ahead. That negative connotation made it hard to see a colorful sunset for it's beauty. There is no parallel here exactly, but an obvious example of how we all carry certain responses to things, add certain meanings. One who is versed in the dialog of contemporary art will look at canvases with a different context than one who does not. When we remain ignorant to trends, we may not be able to see our work through others eyes as well.
Another example: I spent the summer after my Freshman year at R.I.S.D. and took a drawing/painting survey course. I used my creative mind to paint the still life in little color dots with each color represented as a dot instead of blending the different colors. I thought I was brilliant. I was very embarrassed to admit my lack of art history education in specific, although familiar with the paintings, I knew little about impressionism and neo-impressionism. The teacher wondered why I was bothering to reinvent pointalism!
The paintings selected for the Hospital Landscape Painting call for paintings do qualify as landscape paintings if the artist says so, if it is the artists vision. Look what cubism did to figure painting. Is it still figure painting? How far can it be pushed and still called figure painting? It depends upon the artists development of the ideas, their intensions which aren’t always immediately apparent. But often the abstracted parts represent "figures" or "the subject" in some way. Some feel that the natural world is the source for all art. I think I agree.
Any art created now is contemporary, essentially. But to enter into the dialog of contemporary art, to show in galleries and shows next to what is currently successful contemporary art, I think there are some requirements to the work. I think the work needs to present ideas that interest a contemporary art-gallery going audience. These ideas can be very basic and simple like I said before. The theme could be relationships in figurative painting, beauty, or the preciousness of the natural world in the face of environmental threats in nature based work...etc. (Although with the abundance of Atelier schools and their increasing presence on the scene – realism in oil painting isn't in isolation any more, it’s a movement and makes it easy for the art world to identify - or at least have opinions about, and special galleries that show the work.)
If I am thinking of doing a realistic work, I would find it useful to ask myself this question just as a check, an exercise in growth: What is the representational painting giving us that a photograph can’t. (Maybe that seems obvious, but the answer provides a purpose to the work. The camera is what liberated painting from the necessity of realism in the early 20th century). Perhaps an approach to realism that emphasises the use of the hand-painting by showing brush strokes, or a rendering that limits information but exaggerates color or mood or emphasises special lighting. Perhaps the hospital collection already includes beautiful nature photographs and that’s why they went with less representational choices. I think in this day and age of digital reproduction, hand painted representational scenes of all subject matter, are treasured. If their purpose and ideas are in focus, then they can paricipate more easily in the contemporary dialog in my head as ideas that are as interesting to me and soul filled as the best of any gallery shown non-representational art.