here's a picture of the set up upon completion of the painting. Just picked up stretcher bars for the next one. It's gonna be big.
Saturday, November 24, 2012
Monday, November 5, 2012
MFA Semester 1
4 October 2012
The Parallel Worlds of Richard Estes and Rackstraw Downes
Richard Estes “Fairway”, oil on canvas, 36”x46, 1995
Rackstraw Downes “Demolition and Excavation on the Site of the Equitable Life Assurances Society’s New Tower at 7th Avenue and 52cnd Street”, oil on canvas, 32”x36”, 1983
Both giants in the contemporary art scene, Richard Estes and Rackstraw Downes each take the modern landscape as their subject. While on the face of things their works seem to share much in common, they contain some telling differences which hint at a deeper philosophical divide.
One is immediately struck by the sheer profusion of visual information offered by both of these paintings. As evidenced by the works shown above, both painters demonstrate a prodigious work ethic and an insatiable appetite for raw visual data. Both paintings feature relatively commonplace, almost mundane, views of the modern world. They gain their power and a sense of monumentality not through sensational subject matter or painterly histrionics, but sheerly through the amount of effort and force of will required in their making. Both Downes and Estes paint with a cool detachment reminiscent of a documentary photograph’s impassivity- no slashing brushstrokes, no theatrical lighting, no other devices which might give more or less energy or importance to one part of the painting over an other. Nothing hints at any particular emotional attachment on the part of the artist. Compositionally, too, there is an ‘artless’ quality that speaks to a kind of visual journalism.
There are subtle differences which exist between these two works, of course. Estes’ edges are extremely crisp and refined, almost machined. Downes’ edges are also clearly defined, but at times become softer, allowing one form to merge with its neighbor. Their palettes also differ. Estes is heavily reliant upon local color. This is especially evident in the shirts of the baggers seen through the window; although painted solidly enough in four flat shades of red, there are no temperature shifts, no forays into subjectivity. Downes’ painting, on the other hand, teams with variation. One gets the feeling of an overall color complexion, with an interplay of temperature that extends even to the myriad window drapes. So too, with the buildings, rendered in hues of creamy pink. ‘Balderdash!’, one can imagine Estes thinking, ‘concrete is gray!’. Perspective, too, is treated differently. Estes utilizes a more conventional two point system while Downes’ work employs a three point system that also incorporates the curvature of the earth. Nevertheless, one gets the sense that like Estes, Downes is faithfully and dutifully reporting and recording what is laid out before him. Indeed, for all their subtle differences, one might be forced to conclude that, in the larger scope of art history, these artists are practically birds of a feather. Seen through the eyes of the nascent connoisseur, there would seem to be little to suggest the deeper philosophical rift which does, in fact, divide them.
The three hundred pound gorilla lurking behind the scenes of these paintings can only faintly be seen in the curved lines of Downses’ perspective, or the rigid exactitude of Estes’ forms. Nevertheless, this idea does exert undeniable force in how the educated viewer digests these works. What I’m referring to, of course, is their working process. Estes paints in a studio, using photographs as his reference. Downes paints on site, in direct confrontation with his subject matter. This is hardly inside knowledge. Richard Estes could fairly be called the posterboy of Photorealism. He was there at the movement’s inception and remains at its forefront. Rackstraw Downes has been the subject of PBS documentaries and has also met with no small amount of success. These painters and their working methods are inexorably bound with their works. It is only reasonable to assume that the educated viewer’s reckoning of their efforts would be informed and inflected by this knowledge.
The savvy viewer knows that these painters aren’t just fashioning illusions- they are making monuments to the human spirit and to the process of perception. We are looking at hours upon hours of human effort heaped one upon the other to create, paradoxically, one unified statement. These works represent not just what is depicted, but the hours of toil that went into it. Seen in this light, even somewhat kitschy artistic endeavors like, say, an Eiffel tower made of toothpicks, or The Last Supper painted on the head of a pin, gain a peculiar kind of fascination. Thus, the working process carries weight in how a work is viewed.
One might take the stance that all of this is irrelevant, that the image is the image is the image, and that work should be evaluated in purely formal terms. These aren’t natural rock formations that we are admiring from an abstract point of view, however. These works were done by humans- who did them and how they came to be will inevitably be of interest to the other humans viewing them. Our appreciation for Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling is deepened by our knowledge of his stalwart five-year struggle. It represents at once not only a sweeping panorama of Biblical storytelling, but an epic dedication of time and effort. This romantic notion colors our perceptions of all sorts of work. Take Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ for another example. Would it retain its stark power if viewers were ignorant of the history surrounding its creation? Would any of Picasso’s works, for that matter, have the same inimitable, rakish charm were his sexual exploits not the stuff of infamy?
More to the point, though, does the introduction of photography into the working process necessarily lessen a painting’s value? Certainly not. In many genres of painting, the image (and the emotions it evokes) is the prime objective. Any aid that gets one to that goal faster or more effectively should certainly be considered. The works of Downes and Estes do not fit this category, though. Their paintings are athletic- not just aesthetic- feats. Their subject matter and very flatfootedness ensures that we investigate their methodology. Again, its not just the image, but what the production of that image represents. Would the works of Ingres lose some of their grandeur were David Hockney’s theories regarding his use of the camera lucida proven true? Unequivocally, yes. If part of a work’s impact derives from the seemingly spectacular difficulty that it represents, then it loses some power if we find that the artist behind it had an unknown advantage.
Estes, of course, makes no secret of his use of photos. He has embraced this technology and used it to his advantage. Photographs are, after all, a part of the modern world he portrays. Estes does not merely document contemporary urban life and its proliferation of visual data, he fetishisizes it, and through the ritual of Painting, elevates it to high art. His work is at once an homage to its source reference (the photos he painted from), the objects depicted therein, and to an almost obsessive compulsion to not leave anything out. The incidental, multiplied ad infinitum, becomes monumental, the banal, heroic. This imposition of intense human scrutiny has resulted in an almost invisible layer of human effort which clearly lifts this final image above its source material. The overlapping latticework of the shopping carts and the intersecting reflections on the market’s window are delightfully maddening in a way that looking at a large scale photograph could not hope to compete with. In committing the image to paint Estes has given intent to circumstance, and in painting them has attached importance to all of the photo’s details. The finished painting has clearly outstripped its predecessor, and become more than the sum of its parts. Although partly a product of technology, Estes’ paintings are not ready-mades; they do not happen of their own accord. He can clearly claim authorship of them, down to the last stroke of paint. His accomplishment is impossible to dismiss.
But has Rackstraw Downes accomplished something more? In the role of documenter, I would argue, yes. Downses’ painting, by dint of its here-and-now process, carries more authenticity as a document of contemporary life and perception. While Estes receives his news through a second hand source, Downes draws from a primary source, reality. To literally ‘draw from thin air’ while one is in physical contact with the subject certainly paints a different picture of the artistic process than someone dutifully schlepping away in a studio- though that has certainly been a part of artistic production for centuries. Marked by a bent horizon and other peculiarly human distortions, Downes’ work implies the movement of the eyes and head as they scan an entire scene. His paintings are a product of his experience within the scene and the binocular vision which reports the data to his brain. Taking months to complete, his paintings are an amalgamation of many visual moments in time. Downses’ painting process is analogous to the ways in which humans stitch together their realities from many different moments and viewpoints, as opposed to a mechanical reproduction of a fixed, monocular view at one particular point in time. Surely that is more adventurous than undertaking the re-rendering of an image presupposed by a photograph.
For my part, I might also argue that one process is more romantic, more ‘magic’ in its creation than the other. Downes is literally ‘drawing from thin air’, with all the chance-taking that entails. When an artist such as Downes makes it clear that they are working from life, they announce to the world that they are competing on a level playing field with their predecessors. We are custodians of an august heritage, anachronistic heroes whose work and continued presence in the modern world serves as a reminder of who we are and from whence we come. The time-honoured methods and materials used to this day by observational painters stand as a bulwark against the rising tide of mass-produced kitsch. It is these ties that painters maintain between the art and artists of the past that keep our medium alive.
The simple fact remains, however, that photography has irreversibly shaped the modern eye. It would be foolish to imply that Downses’ own perception has remained uninfluenced by the cool impartiality of the camera’s lens. To suggest that Estes and his work has not been not affected by the natural world around him, which, of course, he perceives in binocular vision, would be equally naïve. Photography’s role in modern perception and its place in the practice of painting will continue to evolve. Only time will tell whether history counts Richard Estes a trailblazer or Rackstraw Downes a torchbearer… or if their differences will be dismissed altogether, swept under the rug of the public’s indifference.