There are reasons we paint what we paint. In final critiques for my college painting classes I sometimes ask students, “What do you have to believe to paint this painting?” The answer requires personal reflection but also an art historical perspective.
The first time I talked with a Classical Realist, around 2001, he explained some of the beliefs behind Classical Realism. He said the point was to skip backwards over 20th Century art and continue what the 19th Century academy had accomplished, as though abstraction had never happened. It seemed that painting had died in the 20th C. and that the only way to resurrect it was to go back. My response was: Can you DO that? Wouldn’t that be pretending? A step toward artifice?
Not long afterward, I sat next to one of the preeminent atelier teachers in the growing movement, Jacob Collins, at an American Arts Quarterly Luncheon in New York. I questioned him about the premise of going back. He suddenly stood up from the table and loudly declared, “Who says I can’t copy? Who says I can’t imitate?” And slowly over time I realized I had seen that conviction before.
In this paper I plan to challenge the claim that Classical Realism made a fresh start hoping to save painting from its 20th Century failed trajectory. The many movements between Surrealism, whose premise was to deceive, and “undermine reality,” and the visions of today’s painters, who are reaching for the beautiful and the true, follow a logical line, both aesthetically and philosophically, from one to the next.
A year ago, Pop Artist Jasper Johns, of 1960’s flags and targets fame, mounted a show titled “Something Resembling The Truth.” As private as he is known to be about the meaning of his work, his title gave it away. Most artists want some version of the truth. Even the long wave of ironic figure painting and portraiture has died down. I saw Kehinde Wiley show slides in 2006 on stage at the National Portrait Gallery. He said he felt shut out from the real and true: “I wish I could do a painting that isn’t ironic, but I can’t,” he lamented. But he wasn’t kidding when he delivered a huge portrait of Barak Obama to the same museum. It is as politically sincere as any spiritual intentions Mark Rothko ever had.
And surely modern technology threatened artistic imagination. The camera almost killed the need for painted images because people believed a machine can only record facts. But Frederick Douglass made the most of this. When he was freed from slavery he had 160 studio portraits made to record what he believed marked the salient difference between a man and an animal, imagination. He imagined images of himself that proved the truth: that he was not a monkey, or a slave, but a full human being,
I will show that 21st Century painters stand on the shoulders of the modernists and cannot be understood without them.
Catherine Prescott grew up in Wisconsin. She twice exhibited in the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, National Portrait Gallery. In 2018 she was commissioned to paint Governor Tom Corbett’s official portrait. 2017 shows include “Women Painting Women: In Earnest”, “Sight Unseen,” Abend Gallery, “Honoring the Legacy of David Park,” Santa Clara University. Principle Gallery invited nine artists to exhibit portraits of “The Charleston Nine” for their families. Catherine painted Reverend Pinckney.
Prizes awarded include the Portrait Society of America, the State Museum of Pennsylvania, The Salmagundi Club and ten firsts in juried exhibits. Museum shows include the Butler Institute of American Art, an invitational, the Brauer Museum of Art, two-person, the Susquehanna Museum of Art, solo, and the Phillips Museum of Art solo. Recent one-person gallery shows are North Park University and Long Island Academy of Fine art. She was featured in The Huffington Post, Image Journal, CIVA Seen, American Arts Quarterly, Art of The Portrait, and American Art Collector.
Selected teaching credits are Messiah College, 20 years, and Gordon College’s Orvieto, Italy, program since 1998. Selected collections: Pennsylvania State Capitol, State Museum of Pennsylvania, Messiah College, Fulton Bank. Catherine and her husband live in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.