Unreal Nature

May 3, 2016

An Unrelenting, Even Cruel, Expositon of Fact

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:40 am

… “I’m dealing with what you see, how you see, and how you depict what you see.”

This is from Contemporary American Realism since 1960 by Frank H. Goodyear, Jr. (1981):

… Many of the best realists who paint the figure are working in a postmodern manner while others are doggedly antimodern. The look of contemporary realist figure painting is anything but homogeneous and the issues it raises are very diverse. One problem, however, that confronts all realist figure painters today (and always has) is the verification of the subject, an issue of weightier consequence to the figure painter than, for instance, to a landscapist.

[line break added] We know (and care) much more about how the body looks than a tree. The figure painter’s dilemma is to include enough specific information about the figure to make the image recognizable, but not so much as to destroy the painting’s challenge as a work of art. Clearly, when a figure study or portrait does not transcend literal description, it fulfills only the purposes of illustration.

… The autobiographical function of self-portraiture, in place of description or the use of symbolic equivalents, was achieved by the Abstract Expressionists through the implications of a personal gesturalism. The rationale was that this very gesturalism expressed more about the person making the work than a factual likeness would.

[line break added] For an artist like Willem de Kooning, the painted surface (spontaneous, original, aggressive, and visually domineering) and the ordering of forms (chaotic, dislocated, and arbitrary) synopsized the artist’s perception of the real world, affording the perceiver a deeper understanding of the artist/subject than would a conventional portrait. In this sense, all of de Kooning’s paintings function as self-portraits.

… Pop artists used the self-image principally to affirm an aesthetic ideology which coincidentally also affirmed their own existence. Among contemporary realists, the role of the self-portrait is reversed; it first fulfills the role of self-verification and then by implication stands as a validation of a personal aesthetic posture.

[ … ]

Close has said that he wants to paint something that other people care about and prefers the discipline that is imposed by the portraits; nonetheless, he ultimately picks the photograph that he will work from on the basis of what kind of painting experience it will provide. … He has never chosen to paint a portrait because of a person’s physical attributes (the “you’d be great to paint” response), but rather, he scans contact sheets of photographs that he has taken, looking for images that contain visually stimulating information. The fact that the final paintings are many times life-size allows Close to disassociate the face from reality — as he has said, “to rip it loose from the context in which we normally confront a person’s face.”

… [for Philip Pearlstein] sitters arrive as individuals and leave as Pearlsteins. He has said, “I’m not painting people. I’m dealing with what you see, how you see, and how you depict what you see. … I’m concerned with the human figure as a found object.”

Pearlstein_Male_and_Female_Nudes_with_Red_and_Purple_Drape
Philip Pearlstein, Male and Female Nudes with Red and Purple Drape, 1968

… [On the other hand, Alice Neel] has called herself “a collector of souls,” attempting through her portraits to penetrate the social mask to reveal the sitter’s vulnerability.” … In her portrait of Andy Warhol she reveals these essentials — his soft, fleshy body, his pallid skin, the well-publicized scar from a near-fatal assault, a hauteur and vanity suggested by his stylish shoes — with an unrelenting, even cruel, exposition of fact. If Philip Pearlstein’s portraits are revealing as a result of his scrutinizing method of work, Neel’s are revealing because of her acute sensitivity to humanity.

neel_Warhol1970
Alice Neel, Andy Warhol, 1970

My previous post from this book is here.

-Julie

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