After the Zombie Apocalypse – by Michael J. Pearce
Vince Natale – Smiley
Giorgio Vasari was a painter who knew many of the big names of the Italian art world either through anecdotes gathered from friends, or in his personal relationships with them, and he made his name beside them as a successful artist and architect, working for the powerful Medici family in Florence. Although his paintings and buildings are magnificent achievements, he is most famous for the book he wrote based on his knowledge of other artists, with a mouthful of a title that could only be found on the binding of a sixteenth-century book: The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times. This was the first art history book, establishing an area of study that would become a staple to universities throughout the world. It was gossipy, sensational, scandalous and mostly true.
Besides being the first book about art history, Vasari’s “Lives” was remarkable for being the first book that used the term “renaissance” to describe the changes that had taken place in the world of decorative art since the dramatic events of the fifteenth century, which included the earth-shaking collapse of Byzantium, the great capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, and one of the most impressive cultural centers of the Medieval world, leading to a flood of scholars scurrying to the West for sanctuary, bearing bulging trunks full of books that had not been seen for generations. Vasari published his book in 1550. The craftsman who type-set his letters to form the word “r-e-n-a-i-s-s-a-n-c-e” for the first time set them more than a century after it had begun. Of course, people knew that something new and exciting in the arts was going on before Vasari wrote, but they didn’t know what it was to be called. Vasari gave the period its name. After Lives, we could look back with a historical gaze to the mighty culture of the Renaissance.
Now we live at the end of the post-war era, in which the world wars are passing from living memory into history, and recollections of the atrocious events of ’39 – ’45 are retreating from the immediacy of personal experience into the quiet records of old books and articles, and old-fashioned movie reels, where they become strangely impersonal, their horrors tamed by the distance of time. After the wars avant-gardism, their ideological child, spread like a zombie plague. Avant-gardists claimed that sentiment in art was evil, then that representation was dead, then that skill must be eliminated. President Roosevelt announced the US government’s embrace of the avant-garde, and the rejection of tradition in 1939 when he opened the Museum of Modern Art’s new building, saying that American artists worked with “Complete freedom from the strictures of dead artistic traditions…” Sold wholesale as a symbol of Western liberty, avant-gardism was boosted as a political tool of the Western establishment to help fracture confidence in the totalitarian rule of Nazis and Communists. Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the US government’s interest in avant-gardism as an expression of soft power has evaporated and it has removed much of its financial support.
Avant-gardist philosophy has run out of ideas, and has lost political support, and has retreated to the ivory tower. Among aspiring Americans, it is being supplanted by healthy and honest thinking about the craftsmanship of painting and sculpture. In the same way that the Renaissance followed on from the stagnant medieval period, now we have arrived at a new period. Unlike avant-gardist establishment artists, wandering like zombies through a dying, artificial world, representational painters and sculptors who love making images of “stuff that looks like stuff,” are cheerfully comfortable in making work that appeals to a popular marketplace of aspirational Americans. While using the tools of the digital age, these are craftsmen and craftswomen who also deeply respect the traditional techniques of the studio, creating skillfully made work that resembles what we see in the natural, sensual world and making both sensual and intellectual connections with their audience. Their work is closely aligned with the way we experience life, capturing in still imagery the beauty of transient moments.
Many of these painters and sculptors will be at The Representational Art Conference in Ventura, California this April. Among them, Teresa Oaxaca will be there to demonstrate how she paints her wonderful images of theatrical cos-play baroque indulgence and mad tea-parties; Regina Jacobson paints startling images of women and fashion and will talk about imagination and narrative; Roger Dean – the father of imaginative realism – will talk about the importance of imagination in the 21st Century. Alicia Ponzio and Brian Booth Craig will demonstrate their remarkable sculpting skills.
At The Representational Art Conference, we see emergence in action – it is an exciting moment in which people are united by their common cause to heal the world with their work, to make lives better by making paintings and sculptures that are sincerely meant, that deliberately reach out from mind to mind. Unlike the pre-packaged readymade art of the institutionalized avant-garde in the 20th Century, this is a community that longs for emergent, empathic, imaginative art, made by strong individuals who resist the nihilist avant-garde zombie apocalypse that almost overwhelmed the representational world. As the avant-garde wanes, this emergent community is restoring the place of skill, authenticity, and empathy in American culture. As painter Julio Reyes says: “TRAC is where you will find the beating heart of our representational art world.” Donald Kuspit says TRAC is “the most important art conference in the United States and the world.”
Like Vasari’s “renaissance” this emergent art movement doesn’t yet have a name, although like the people who lived during the Italian renaissance we know a new zeitgeist is shaping the way we make things in the twenty-first century. Like the art of the Renaissance, the work produced with this new spirit of the age has a solid foundation in the practices of the past and finds joy in emulating them. It is deeply rooted in skillful technique, imagination, and the search for beauty. Skill-based representational painting and sculpture are an antidote to the zombie plague, with a heartbeat stronger and louder than the insidious whispers of the undead; they are the medicine that returns our culture to life and love.