The R word – by David Molesky
Courbet – The Stonebreakers
It is hard to ignore the uneasy feeling I have in regards to the naming of art genres. Most coining of art categories is resultant from 20/20 hindsight long after the movement is over and encapsulated in a bubble of time. It is true, classification systems can be helpful – perhaps even necessary when discussing works of art. I veer cautiously away especially from several new terms in common use today, finding them obscure with contradictory connotations. I think it is worth pausing for a moment to think about the new terminology before we begin using it en mass.
One of the suggested topics of discussion listed for TRAC2019 is “imaginative realism.” Our group’s use of the term “realism” has been synonymous with “realistic.” Realistic as we know is a quality in painting and sculpture that is opposite of abstraction; an accuracy in rendering the depicted subject. Fine. I understand the convenience of this colloquial use of the term. However, Realism is not a “quality,” but rather it is a distinct period in art history. This “capital R” Realism was very much a reaction to the 19th century Salon painters whose Romanticism and fantasized Orientalism drifted away from depicting the familiar. Courbet and painters like Manet and Millet devoted their careers to creating this new movement – Realism – as a rebellion against the dominant paradigm of the French Salon. The idea was to take their subject matter not from the imagination or literature, but from common everyday reality. (In his book, The Judgement of Paris, Ross King perfectly illustrates the rapid change of the guards through the lives of Meissonier and Manet. In the beginning, Meissonier is the most expensive artist in the world and Manet a starving artist. At the end of the book, Meissonier dies, his prices plummet, and Manet takes the world stage.)
The understanding of Realism as a reaction to late 19th-century art movements, and from there as foundational to the advent of Modernism, is a concept that is securely entrenched in the art history books. It is a peculiar irony that the two organizations who today most champion the contemporary scholarship of 19th century Salon Painting and Sculpture have begun to use Realism to describe contemporary work that emulates the 19th century Salon.
It is true that words change connotation over time. We have encountered other art terms at past TRAC events whose connotation is disputed territory. “Kitsch” is a great example (for more information read the proceedings of TRAC 2014 – Kitsch and Beauty). “Realism” now seems in a similar state of question. While Realism is established in art history as a late 19th-century movement, the Art Renewal Center and associated art dealers like Rehs Galleries in NYC have started to plant flags into the R word in a way that is effectively disassociating it from its historical roots. The flag stuck squarely in Realism’s back has an adjective written on it – “Imaginative.”
The irony of the term “Imaginative Realism” is twofold. On one hand, you take a word coined to distinguish something as different and contrary and use it to describe the thing the term had hoped to distinguish itself from. For example, “I’m orange, you are blue.” Blue responds, “Yes, I am blue, but I am also orange.” On the other hand, we simply cannot escape the historical definition of Realism, so when it’s paired with the word “imagination” it becomes not only ironic but oxymoronic.
Before I started to research this issue I was already wary of the scholarship of authors who used the terms Realism or Imaginative Realism. More often than not, they used the terms outside of their historical meaning to describe contemporary work that straddles the fence of illustration and fine art. So where did this phrase come from? I googled “imaginative realism.” It looks like it was first published as the title of a how-to book for illustrators: How to paint what doesn’t exist: Imaginative Realism, published in 2009. The author, James Gurney, is a 60-year-old illustrator best known for Dinotopia, an illustrated book about dinosaurs and 19th-century humans coexisting on an island. He was an early collaborator with Thomas Kinkade, whom I presume he met at Pasadena Art Center. In 2012, he was inducted as a living master of the Art Renewal Center, the same year “Imaginative Realism,” was added as a category of the 9th ARC Salon. The introduction of this category happened largely as a result of ARC working with IX Arts (Illuxcon) as an allied organization. When ARC started working with the group they were called “The Association of Fantastic Arts.”
So there you have it. “Imaginative Realism” is a term that has come out of the illustration communities. Until fairly recently illustrative work was segregated from “gallery art” – illustrations were made to satisfy a client who employed a gun-for-hire to create an image, while fine art objects were made to sell in gallery exhibitions. I am relatively new to the illustration world. My first taste of it was in 2017, when I was asked to do portfolio reviews at the Illustration Master Class (IMC). There were two floors, students were encouraged to choose illustration or gallery. When IMC founder Rebecca Guay gave a slide presentation she spoke about her transition from “illustration” to “gallery” artist – she even changed her pen name as she did, as if to emphasize the difference behind the intention of the work.
Upon further digging, I found two articles that mention Imaginative Realism. One was published by Fine Art Connoisseur online earlier this year. It announced an exhibition at Rehs Galleries called “Imagination.” Here from the press release – “Imaginative Realism is defined as the art of the unseen – things that never existed or might exist in a distant future.” The other article was an Illuxcon review of a Jonathan Levine exhibition: infra:REAL – The art of Imaginative Realism (2015). It seems that “Imaginative Realism” is the illustration world’s name for the same kind of work that has been described broadly as Pop Surrealism by Juxtapoz and Hi-Fructose for decades. Even Larry Gagosian and Jeffrey Deitch are doing it, as with their 2015 co-collaborated exhibition titled “Unrealism?”
So what do we describe painting and sculpture made with a great amount of technical prowess and imagination if not as Realism? We’ve had plenty of discussions at TRAC about other terms and the connotations we assign to them. We’ve spoken about what is art and what is not. We’ve spoken about Kitsch and whether or not its long history of negative connotations is too ingrained for it to now describe sincere depictions of beauty. In my presentation with Greg Escalante at TRAC 2015, we discussed the rise of the art movement that was initially called “Low Brow” and has since become known as “Pop Surrealism.” These well-recognized terms were fueled by the magazine Mr. Escalante founded, Juxtapoz. To throw into the mix we have other new and problematic terms, such as “New Contemporary” and “Post Contemporary.” But what about Realism? When did we unanimously agree to discard its historical definition of depicting the everyday?
Maybe we do recoup Realism away from the Modernists who have evolved this revolutionary cultural synthesis from everyday depictions into a cult for worshipping the banal. Or maybe we let Realism remain as it has been for more than a century and choose a different set of words to describe the work we are making now. I think we can all agree that it fits under the category of representational work. Naming a genre based on its qualities isn’t the most solid approach, especially when the other categories you are trying to differentiate from have the same superficial qualities. This is why art movements are named after the ideas that lie behind them and not by how they appear.
I am not suggesting that we stop using the term “Imaginative Realism,” but I do encourage interest in acquiring information about where some of these new terms come from, who coined them and what ideological camp they represent. This scrutiny and discourse could prove useful, as we will surely see many new terms for art genres in the coming decades, especially as we continued to interface our biology with technology.