Reality doesn’t “bite,” as they say, nor is the “bitter truth” a reality one might axiomatically ascribe to for those capable of formally appreciating the visual world. By “reality” I mean that which we see and perceive, and more specifically, retinal-based seeing, as in the phenomenological joy of color, light and space which is all that we’ve come to realize as potential fodder for the creation of works of art. The splendor of the visual world is valued by some painters who have a certain connection to their medium which allows them to manipulate their own perception of this visual world. They decide how much they want to represent what they represent and how much they want to deface, erode and destroy it. This idea is nothing new or exciting, and the Impressionists did this well; they created impressions of reality that were gestural, idiosyncratic, emotional and in doing so, called into question the nature of objectivity.
The background on which I lay a formulation of unconventional seeing is based on the history of art and how the objects we think we objectively see have been manipulated by painters through their determined organization of color, light and space on the canvas. Each art movement appears to push the all-encompassing art historical envelope on what art can and should be. Of course, we no longer believe in art history really or the suspect, supercilious narrative on which it rests. Some art historians even postulate a notion of art history as elliptical, rather, with art history working to circumvent itself by slowly bringing into the limelight, those artists and thinkers who were previously considered peripheral (women and people of color).
The question now in pluralistic discourse is whether or not you can “insist” on your own view point (as mentioned by conceptual artist, Jeffrey Stuker) as a positive phenomenon for the production of meaning. This viewpoint might be information based even, and considering we live in an information-based age, I find it apropos. Nevertheless, phenomenological aspects of painting are better felt as “experiential” than simply informative, or at least it seems this way, which brings to the forefront the overlooked insinuation that painting cannot be conceptual. Painting might be pure experience. You decide. I decide. We all decide how to experience painting today in whatever way we see fit. This point can be contentious for painters. I will offer my perception of what might be considered “innovative” painting, despite our questions over what can and cannot be considered innovative, and whether or not we can assume innovation when we can’t decide what we are innovating on. Perhaps this is the chicken or the egg problem. Maybe history is a mobius strip or simply hermeneutic. Whichever and whatever.
Erik Schmidt, Weibliche Verformungen, 2009, oil on canvas,
Erik Schmidt, Eine Frage des Glaubens, oil on canvas, 2006
The works above were created by Germany-based figurative oil painter, Erik Schmidt in 2009 and 2010. Schmidt’s paintings, and in particular the above landscapes which are a part of his series “Bunches and Branches,” are an example of some of Impressionism’s posterity. His works differ though: they do not romanticize mark-making and he paints with cold, whitish blues that sterilize his landscapes of otherwise frenetic sanguine colors. His works can be innervating, because the marks are so dense in how they describe and articulate his subject, and also in how they seek to tear it apart. In other words, his paint marks can deconstruct reality as much as they reconstruct it. Paintings that exhibit both equally are the most complex in their building off and innovating on Impressionism (and hence that which came before Impressionism), regardless of whether or not this was the artist’s intention.
“Falling Boy,” Oil on canvas, 2014 (produced by author)
Deconstructive and subversive marks are contumacious enough to be contemporary, and to paraphrase Mallarmé: they destroy as much as they create—in that they create new meaning. These works also signal the long lineage of patricidal artists (“death to father”) who’ve outdone their artistic predecessors. Convivial one upping marks new artistic movements. Schmidt is participating in whatever today can be considered neo-figurative painting qua Dana Schutz, Doron Langberg and Jennifer Packer. This form of neo-figuration is also inherent to certain post-internet artists such as Avery Singer.
Sure, Schmidt’s works might be considered “studies” of the visual world: they are paintings based off photography he has taken of landscapes and urban cityscapes that resonate with him, and he paints them in a way that highlights the paint medium itself, without losing face with mimetic representation. In other words, his work records the world, faithfully enough. He doesn’t involve internet critique which is a faddish, but compelling contemporary art movement. Nor does Schmidt employ the Airbrush effects of an Avery Singer painting either, and like most artists, his work doesn’t take on intellectual premises for making art that cause the work to rationally self-immolate. I think of Pierre Huyghe’s open-ended performance events. In Schmidt’s paintings’ determination to present objects and environments of the natural world faithfully enough, but in ways they have never quite been presented, his work as a whole might be more relevant than we give it credit. I herein solicit a comprehensive rebuttal that might prove otherwise.
Another artist, Chris Pfister, who recently had a solo show at Jonathan Novak Gallery in Los Angeles (October 19th – November 20th), seems to make work from a similar viewpoint. To paraphrase the Russian Formalists of the early 20th century,the uncanny lies in making reality strange. Something similar happens when Pfister translates historical photography into paintings. This artist doesn’t just mimetically represent the photos, but the gestural and alla prima moments of his work become shorthand for a conversation the painter might have with the history of art and his particular subject matter. Moreover, the works’ gestural moments—notice how the foliage and trees in the image below dissolve into blotches— become a mere semblance of what they represent and retain their semi-abstract quality of painted brushstrokes on canvas. The effect can be a powerful tool for representing the world as a deviation from what the viewer may or may not be familiar with.
Chris Pfister, The Young Astronomer, oil on canvas, 2014
A mastery over seeing and constructing objects in the 2-D is a pre-requisite for this capability. The most effective painters of this method show their viewers versions of reality that feel more accurate than what they thought reality could be. Such artists like Monet come to mind: his aqueous blossoms are practically Jackson Pollock paintings up close, and yet from a far, transform into verisimilitudinous representations.
Another example: in the painting shown below, Erik Schmidt captures the movement of trees blowing in the wind as frenetic paint marks. Because of the exactitude of each mark, his painting might articulate the feeling of movement better than moving images can.
Erik Schmidt, Dem Herrn Zugewandt, Oil on canvas, 2007.
However, in contrast, Chris Pfister’s black-and-white work is more a deviation from realism, rather than a “truer” version of it. The question of why Pfister hasn’t gone beyond a foundational exploration of the relationship of photo to painting is the ugly elephant in the room. He might have at some point in his career, but that work isn’t accessible online. Pfister’s works have much to contend with in the realm of black-and-white, monochromatic paintings considering the work of Gerhard Richter or that of Giorgio Morandi, for obvious reasons. The paintings might still be “good” in the sense that they accomplish exactly what they set out to do: for Pfister, the image does exist somewhere between paint as material and paint as a tool for articulation of illusionistic space. His work is noteworthy primarily because not a lot of people know how to do this.
Contrary to how many view conceptual art, painting is still a skill and what you do with the “skill aspect” of painting determines your relationship to the practice. Do you disavow it or go along with it to try and innovate on how to describe form?