Tuesday, December 1, 2015

TRAC2014: An Observational Painter goes Undercover…Or Not

March 8, 2014 by  
Filed under Art Politics, contemporary realism

By Elana Hagler

photo credit: Brittany McGinley

I just came back from four days spent at the Representational Art Conference in Ventura, California. When I told several painter friends that I was planning on attending this event, they expressed dismay that I would be wading into a sea of classical painters. The general tone of our conversations held the question, “But why would you want to do that?”

Let me back up a minute. Like a good number of painters who are featured on Painting Perceptions, and are in our general painting tribe, I consider myself an observational (or perceptual) painter. For me, when I paint, the act of looking and responding takes primacy.  I was also weaned at the teat of Charles Hawthorne and Edwin Dickinson, and first learned to paint at the age of twenty by watching Lennart Anderson rub his thumb across my canvas and somehow magically create believable space. At the conference, I was presenting my paper “Apollo and Dionysus in the Representational Family Feud” where I examined the nature of the (very fluid) divisions between three different types of contemporary representational paintings: classical, observational, and constructed.  What prompted me to write this paper was the attempt to understand why there seems to be such squabbling and turning up of noses between different types of representational painters, when most other contemporary artists working today would lump us all together as obsolete and stodgy “realists” and dismiss the lot of us as utterly irrelevant. In the paper, I discuss Nietzsche’s dichotomy of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, and explore how these forces interact in contemporary representational painting. Nietzsche shows how the Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies are responses to the chaotic nature of existence. When we see that aesthetic form is an embodied response which is related to our deepest hopes and insecurities, it becomes a little more fathomable how such a fuss can be raised over issues of painting style and subject matter. I argue that where a painting falls on the Apollonian/Dionysian spectrum should not in itself determine a painting’s worth or validity, and that we should recognize our kneejerk reactions for what they are.

The thing is, that while I identified with my peers and classmates who were also heavily involved in painting from perception, I was shocked when I was told (quite unmistakably!) by several of them that I was not, in fact, one of them.  It took me a while to understand why that could be.  You see, while some of my work was loose and “painterly” my most recent series of still-lifes was fairly hard-edged and very detailed.  I sometimes painted “high class” objects which made some painters nervous.  My paintings smacked too much of conventional beauty.  I had also dabbled in working from old family photographs in grad school, and even though my still-lifes are painted from life, I guess the “stain” of working from visual aids still followed me.  And possibly even worse, I seem to be perversely interested in issues of narrative.  I freely admit that while my still-life objects function primarily as formal devices, I still see them as vessels of memory, and stand-ins for those who have made the most indelible marks upon my life.  “You’re not a perceptual painter,” I was told, “You’re just a confused classicist.”  In case you haven’t already figured it out, “classicist” was, in this context, a dirty, dirty word.

As I walked into the Crowne Plaza on Ventura Beach where TRAC was starting up last Sunday, I wasn’t sure if I was an undercover agent or a prodigal daughter finally coming home. There were a good amount of academic papers being presented, but many other activities, as well. There were keynote speeches by Roger Scruton, Odd Nerdrum (that’s right, everyone’s favorite whipping boy), and Juliette Aristides. There were panel discussions with topics such as “The Aesthetics of 21st Century Representational Art.” There were also several shows of paintings, both on and off site, and a number of demonstrations being performed in the evenings.

I was concerned that I would find rabid anti-modernism and anti-intellectualism, and to be fair, there was some of that. Let’s just say that there were things said about Willem de Kooning and Art Historians as an undifferentiated group that made me squirm a bit in my seat. But it’s easy to empathize with painters who might have spent the majority of their careers working in relative obscurity and poverty who might have found a receptive audience if representational painting had not been so marginalized over the decades.  What I found was that such overt bitterness was very much the minority point of view. There was a general dissatisfaction with the state of the art world as it currently is, with exorbitant prices being commanded by the work of a very few artists at the pinnacle of the art world.  And there was a real sense that there is much good work being done today that is overlooked because it simply isn’t considered “cool” by contemporary standards—much more an issue of fashion than of quality.  The anti-modernism was more than balanced out by wonderful talks, such as one by USC professor and painter Ruth Weisberg that accompanied a show titled “Women by Women” and a featured paper presentation on “The Legacy of Bay Area Figuration” by Huffington Post blogger John Seed, who was a student of Nathan Oliveira.

Rather than trying to bring down the art establishment as it is, TRAC seemed to be offering an alternative that could exist side-by-side. This is not to say that everyone was gung ho about appropriating the label “kitsch,” as Odd Nerdrum and his followers have done. It was more about the realization that there is no monolithic art world, although art criticism has a way of making it seem like there is. Having been to the College Art Association (CAA) conference a number of times, I find that TRAC is a very attractive alternative. It is obviously not as big at this point (although it has already grown tremendously since its first manifestation two years ago) with fewer academic papers and considerably fewer venders of art supplies and such, but I found the general feel of the conference to be quite refreshing.  It didn’t have the sort of stuffiness and impersonality that I’ve come to associate with the CAA. People were generally passionate and eager to interact and learn more about each other’s art and ideas. Above all, the conference buzzed with optimistic energy and a real excitement about the recent resurgence of representational painting.

photo credit: Brittany McGinley

So was I an undercover agent or a member of this tribe? Well, what I found was that the population of the conference was incredibly diverse. Sure, various people had their own ideologies. I know that I naturally have a kumbaya attitude of we should all get along and relish each other’s differences, but I started thinking about the role of polemicists in painting today. It seems like people either hate or love Roger Scruton and Odd Nerdrum.  It’s hard to find someone who feels lukewarm or just generally, faintly positive about either of them.  But let us not forget that observational painting, abstract painting, conceptual art, and all forms of art-making have their loud and divisive figures.  And I think I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s a good thing.  I’m glad that these strong characters are out there, making waves, and pushing us to question and analyze where we all stand. I think that the real danger lies in acolytes. Anytime that a strong figure emerges, you will have those who worship the ground that he or she walks on and who will do everything in their power to try to become a carbon copy. But remember, all you sneerers, that this is not just an ailment of classical painting!  This applies to all types of painting and indeed, all fields of study.  It’s similar to people looking at a great holy man, and rather than distilling those features of faith and intellect which are the shining manifestations of his brilliance, acolytes will start to mimic the way that he dressed, his mannerisms, and his turns of phrase. Well, this happens in painting.  These strong figures catch our collective attention because there is truly something to them. Now whether we accept or reject their messages is up to us, but the main thing is to be discerning individuals ourselves. We should be able to take the influences, draw up the essence that resonates most deeply with our own sense of self, and discard the rest. And it’s important to have many influences, so that we can broaden our perspectives and avoid the dangers of outright mimicry.

Ultimately, I would have liked to have seen a greater observational painting presence at TRAC, but maybe that will happen in coming years. At the end of the conference, the organizers handed out a form to us which asked for any suggestions on how to improve future conferences, and my recommendation was to invite more painters from outside of the atelier movement, such as Vincent Desiderio, Susan Lichtman, Scott Noel, Israel Hershberg, and Susan Walp. I feel that it would help make the Representational Art Conference more fully live up to its name. If I go to the next conference, perhaps I’ll give a talk on the tradition of observational painting. And no, I’m not an undercover agent, secretly sneering at the heartfelt confessions of classical painters, but neither do I see myself as a classical painter. And yes, I had a strong feeling of belonging at TRAC. Like Peter Trippi, editor of Fine Art Connoisseur, said on the final panel discussion, if we started going into all of our differences, the room would dissolve into a bunch of cat fighting. But we can choose to acknowledge and savor our differences, and support each other to greater and greater heights. Sure, there are legitimate criticisms of both classical and observational painting that can and should be made, but hopefully in the context of a positive discussion of aesthetics, rather than the wholesale dismissal of one category or another. And let us not forget the many of us painters who might straddle the line. As painter Richard T. Scott said in his presentation, positive competition would strengthen us all. He would rather get a silver medal with everyone else painting at the top of their game, than a gold with a beaten-down opposition. I come away from TRAC grateful for the large number of interesting people and wonderful painters whom I met. I also cherish the fact that they are not all like me, and that I’m not walking around in some terrifying episode of The Twilight Zone, with my own face reflected back at me for eternity. I feel very hopeful for the future of representational art.

 << Previous Post -       - Next Post >>


20 Responses to “TRAC2014: An Observational Painter goes Undercover…Or Not”
  1. Great post Elana, and I have been having many similar talks about this schism, even one just like this last night at an opening in Lancaster. Being in the Masters program at PAFA I really experience a lot of the emotions and brick-bats you talk about every day and see the cat fighting amongst the various camps, cliques, tribes, and worshippers.I also see it across the various groups and things I am part of on Facebook and my own personal groups and friends, etc. I plan on attending this event if I can next year. I agree, bringing in Scott and Vince would be great, just don’t cross the streams 😉

  2. Your review of this conference seems very even and compelling. It does make me wish I had been able to go. Thank you for sharing your reactions.

  3. Haley GM Luttrell says:

    Wonderful! I really wanted to go but wondered about the actual atmosphere. I’m all up for discussions but have no desire to walk in amongst divisions between schools of thought. I am determined to go next year. It sounds wonderful. I would love to meet some of these people in person that I admire through their work online and comments or conversations on Facebook.

  4. cynthia says:

    Thank you for this review. I am glad to see your impressions as someone from the outside. I wanted to go to the conference but was afraid that there would be too much, as you said, rabid-anti-modernism. Although I remain a firmly representational/realist painter, I enjoy modernism and take inspiration from it too.

  5. Joe Pastor says:

    How might I find your essay on Apollo & Dionysus in order to read it?

  6. Elana Hagler says:

    I appreciate all the comments. As for my actual essay, the conference coordinators are still putting together the book of the proceedings, so it might take some time. But as soon as there is a link, I will paste it here.

  7. Carol Goehausen says:

    Interesting article but I wonder how to define the three types of representational painters, classical, observational, and constructed? Is the atelier movement in the classical tradition?

    • jeff says:

      Most ateliers are based on the French academic tradition from the 19th century. They start with George Brague/Gerome studies. Then move onto cast drawing and from there to long pose figure drawing. Then after about two years or less one moves onto painting the figure and still life.

      There are ateliers that are based on the Russian school of painting, which has classical elements but is more influenced by impressionism when it comes to painting. Look up the Repin Schools in St. Petersburg.

      • Anne says:

        Studio Incamminati’s curriculum is probably closest to what observational painters would like, as it involves intense color study loosely based on the Monet/Chase/Hawthorne/Hensche lineage. And drawing is based more on developing a painterly vision than on copying 19th century drawings.

        • jeff says:

          I agree and I forgot to mention them. I go to a drawing session that is run by someone who studied with Nelson.
          This is a subject that comes up, quite often. He also went to The Florence Academy. So it’s interesting to get his point of view on the whole thing.

  8. Very nice summation, Elana!
    Sorry to have missed your talk- I think i was presenting at the same time, or attending another talk. My biggest complaint was the frustration of not being able to see everything there (by a longshot!) I look forward to reading what you had to say. I also felt a bit of an interloper, having never totally settled on one particular style of art, but being intrigued (still) by many, an attitude I consider not entirely unhealthy. I never felt actively shunned, but i’ll admit i hesitated a few times to direct some people to my website, which mostly features the mural work that has been my bread and butter for many years. Mostly paranoia probably, as it felt great to see the enthusiasm and open-mindedness of the majority of attendees. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  9. Larry says:

    I was one of the people who cautioned Elana and wondered why you would want to go. I’m pleased that overall it was a good experience for her and that her talk was received well. For myself, I couldn’t wrap my head around why I would want to go to a conference for representational painters any more than going to a conference of jazz musicians, lyric poets, or ballet dancers. I get very worked up and don’t know if I have the cardiac and neurological stamina to sit still and listen to someone drone on and on about some rubbish – (see the link for Odd Nerdrums speech in Elana’s article)

    Representational painting is a huge tent to herd everyone into, especially the diverse range of painting approaches and philosophies that bitterly contest opposing camps beliefs. I don’t enjoy arguing and confrontation as a rule so there is another reason why I wouldn’t want to go – even though I do live within driving distance.

    However, if I went for the networking, hearing new ideas and the latest scuttlebutt and the many issues that affect our livelihood; I would want to see a greater representation of painters who show in leading NYC galleries and have a national recognition – painters like those who are often interviewed on this site. This TRAC conference centered around conservative academic-type painters who have limited recognition outside of the atelier, plein-air, and other organizations and institutions that promote a return to “tradition and beauty”. Groups like ARC, CAC, OPA and many others may have a wide following of hobbyist painters, through art technique magazines but don’t tend to get much attention from the greater professional art world of art schools and museums. A representational conference should represent the true diversity of our community. So standing at the podium next to Odd Nerdrum should be painters such as Israel Hershberg, Janet Fish, Catherine Murphy, George Nick, Wayne Theibaud, Lois Dodd and the many other painters lessor and greater who actually know something about what makes a painting great and worthy to be a part of the grand tradition of painting.

    Protesting, whining and crying about how “traditional, beauty-based” representational painting has been shafted and excluded by the contemporary art world is a loosing strategy. An analogy in music could be something like musicians into early music revivals and period reenactments, they love perfecting their craft and deeply care about preserving this tradition. They really hate how gangsta rap is all the rage and can’t understand why they never get gigs in the mainstream venues.

    I’d be the first person to say that so much of current post-post-modern art scene is corrupt, nihilistic and generally boring. I hate the prevailing worhal/duchamp/hirst ethos of our art culture and that has become the new ruling academy and has actively tried to suppress and discriminate against representational painting in the schools and galleries for many years.
    But despite all this, I’d rather focus less on being a victim and instead put the energy into showing the many great examples of profoundly wondrous creations made by the hundreds of amazing representational painters working today. You can’t force someone to love you but you do things to make yourself more desirable. Dressing up in frilly Bouguereauesque garb isn’t going to cut it and if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Nerdrum -You ain’t gonna make it with anyone, anyhow.

    There is change in the making. But we can’t just bury our heads in our paintings and not see what is going on around us. So a conference of painters to address our many common problems; the economic downturns that forced many galleries closing, programs being defunded, school department cut-backs, painters being priced out of their studios and art being marginalized even further by our culture in politics and education. Fighting over our stylistic, artistic, political and philosophical differences in the long run won’t help solve these problems.

    I agree with Elana that there is room for optimism, that the many great representational painters working today make it a very exciting time to be living it. I like being right here, right now. The time for living in the past is long gone…

    • Anne says:

      Ah, Larry, did you have to go and call one of the speakers’ talk rubbish? Surely your observations and perception can rise above taunts.

    • Larry, I sincerely feel that you miss the point, or one of the points, of TRAC. It is not a mainsteam kind of deal, so your dissing of artists not in leading New York galleries, and of atelier-types preaching a return to beauty is just plain rude. As Bob Dylan sang, your old world is rapidly changing, please get out of the new one if you can’t lend a hand.

      • Larry says:

        Craig, I’m sure you are very sincere in your belief that I was rude in my previous comment about Elana’s generally positive TRAC article from over a year ago. Her article, of course, I approved to be published painting perceptions even though I had many doubts. I don’t want to get into an arguement with you or anyone about this but I did want to state my feeling in the comments here about my misgivings about what I saw as problematic with some aspects of that conference. I’ll repeat here again what I wrote previously – (with a minor correction)

        There is change in the making. But we can’t just bury our heads in our paintings and not see what is going on around us. So a perhaps it would be better to have a conference of painters to address the many common societal problems of painters; the economic downturns that forced many galleries closing, programs being defunded, school department cut-backs, painters being priced out of their studios and art being marginalized even further by our culture in politics and education. Fighting over our stylistic, artistic, political and philosophical differences in the long run won’t help solve these problems.

        I agree with Elana that there is room for optimism, that the many great representational painters working today make it a very exciting time to be living it. I like being right here, right now. The time for living in the past is long gone…

  10. I think that artists, by their very nature, are breaking through boundaries that our upbringing places upon us. Why not be open to any kind of art? At least in the sense that we respect the effort and the spirit. Being part of a community of people who bother to make marks on a surface is a nice place to be. Jazz musicians used to scratch their heads when they’d see Charlie Parker playing country and western music on juke boxes. He found something there that contributed to his musical genius. I think I’m correct in saying that de Kooning and Norman Rockwell swapped paintings and really liked each other, as people and painters.
    Painting is like a big ecosystem with many niches of specialization that beg, borrow and steal from each other over time.

    • Richard Dean says:

      That’s true about deKooning and Rockwell. And deKooning was Fairfield Porter’s favorite contemporary artist for good reasons. Amazing that in this day and age there are apparently still people around who are so visually and culturally retarded they don’t get why deK is relevant to every painter’s practice, whatever form your work takes.

  11. Jason says:

    Why would any artist want to be part of group? To me, part of being an artist means giving the middle finger to convention. They should invite a gallery owner or 2 for the next convention.

  12. Elena Peteva says:

    Elana, this is marvelous and such a pleasure to read. There is so much I wholeheartedly agree with. So many of us working in representation do not fit in an exact category nor should we have to, instead we work in the grey areas in between, having created our own animal, being informed and inspired by so many different art and artists, transforming certain aspects of them and making parts of them our own. I cannot help but think of Desiderio’s painting “Cockaigne” as a good visual metaphor. Thank you for this.

  13. Dustin says:

    Can anybody tell me if the TRAC publication, The Real Snake, is a good value?

Please share your thoughts

comment here...
if want to show your picture with your comment, go get a gravatar!