“The Magic in the Craft, the Rootedness of Meaning, the Courage of a Mentor”
The dearest wish of any artist must surely be to find an appreciative audience. In the 21st century, artists who create works of “imaginative realism” claim some of the largest audiences on record. Yet “imaginative realism” succeeds by faithfully adhering to the grammar of visual reality apparent to small children. Representational artists working in traditional media to reclaim the skills of visual grammar jealously guard the term of realism at some peril. Simply achieving the skills to copy what we see cheats ourselves and our potential viewers. We must needs guard ourselves against the seduction of “the magic in the craft.” As Wendy Steiner points out, some who labor to revive the look of traditional oil painting “may be skilled in rendering human figures in oil, but they have tin ears when it comes to context: the rootedness of meaning in the concrete moment.” (The Real Real Thing, The Model in the Mirror of Art, University of Chicago Press, 2010)
We recognize that artists whose work has been fed by deep springs of thought, belief and feeling have achieved visual masterpieces that earned their place in the Western canon alongside the greatest masters of literature. The notebooks of Michelangelo and the journals of Delacroix reveal engagement with both issues both contemporary and eternal.
The definition of literacy has evolved from “the ability to read and write,” to the more sophisticated concept of “the ability to use information and insights as the basis for informed decisions and creative thought.” (Wikipedia). Representational artists of our times should aim to do more than perfect the visual grammar of “realism” whether imaginative or not. “A painter starts out by speaking to real people in the here and now.” (Steiner)
In our day, Walton Ford (b. 1960-) executes large scale watercolors that call on us to consider in visual terms the effects of human striving for supremacy and dominion over so-called “lesser” species. Painter and muralist Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955-) can disturb our complacency as well. The debt he describes owing his mentor Charles White (1918-1979) calls us to admire that artist’s imagination—the daring to imagine depicting his fellow African Americans and their inner lives. That it was both novel and courageous to do so should give us pause.
Superheroes and their franchises dominate the box office. Here’s hoping that works of our time that spring from deeper thought, feeling and belief find their appreciative audiences. Let us will our paintings’ dialogues with the here and now into eternity.